Truth (My Truth) About Sex, Power and Unwelcome Encounters

I hear truth in recent allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Just as I had in those against Bill Cosby. This sort of truth we know from experience. Were I broaching this subject in my law school classroom, I would talk burden of proof, reasonable doubt, and preponderance of evidence. At home, among friends, I know another sort of truth, that embedded in the stories women tell.

That truth is also my own.

I was working my way through college when Mr. Morris (not his real name) offered me a Saturday job preparing invoices and keeping books. He headed a small print shop, a mom-and-pop outfit, the success of which outpaced his ability to keep up. Weekends, the staff of some twenty machine operators were off. The place reeked of ink and paper but the shop floor was quiet, leaving Mr. Morris to catch up on back-logged orders and me to clear a spot in his crowded office and make sense of the numbers.

I was grateful for a gig that didn’t compete with classes. And Mr. Morris was someone I knew — he printed newsletters for a social service agency where I volunteered. He was probably a dozen or so years senior to my father: Grey-haired, with a slightly bent back, and a gentle, southern-inflected voice. Peering at you over wire-rimmed spectacles, he always had a warm grin at the ready. He was much beloved, it seemed, by employees and clients alike. Never too busy to inquire about my studies or my family, when Mr. Morris wished you well, you believed him.

So, when he crossed the line, I was surprised. In an awkward blur of motion, Mr. Morris reached for me across the clutter of a shop table, pulling me against his chest. Before I could react, his tongue was in my mouth. I pushed back, my arms outstretched. Perhaps I said “Stop.” In any case, he reassumed a mild demeanor, bowing while backing away in what I suppose was a gesture of truce. I can’t recall any longer how the day finished out. Still trembling, likely I completed my work, collected my pay, and headed home.

I did manage to tell. I went back to the women who had introduced me to Mr. Morris. Embarassed, I haltingly explained what he’d done and how uncomfortable I felt about the prospect of going back to my job the next weekend. “Oh, that’s nothing,” they reassured me. “He’s harmless,” they agreed. I burned inside, hurt by their easy dismissal of what was for me an unsettling encounter.

I understand now. They were women of my mother’s generation who had always worked — in offices, factories, warehouses, and hotels — and often for men. For them, the dynamics of gender and power in the workplace frequently led to unwelcome encounters. They expected gropes, hugs, and foul kisses. Theirs was the school of “Fend ‘em off and get back to business.” As best you can. They were coaching me, just starting to make my way, to do the same.

And I did.

Stomach turning, nerves on end, I went back to Mr. Morris’s shop that next Saturday. And the next, armed with a new demeanor, broadcasting “all business.” No smiles or small talk. A safe distance as I moved about the office. Why had I gone back? I needed the money. By late fall my financial aid was running out; I was already walking the 40-plus blocks between school and my dorm to save subway tokens. That changed only when, as Christmas approached, Mr. Morris gave me a brightly wrapped package: A Walkman (the 1980s equivalent of an iPod.) It was a luxury I could not afford. Still, I felt unclean, and left his shop only to stuff the gift in an East 23rd Street trash bin and never return.

It would be years before I understood that I was not alone. I learned from other women’s stories how many of us survive men like Mr. Morris, and worse. Between us there is a shared truth. When gender and status mix in the workplace, the door opens onto a spectrum of experience that runs from flirtation to rape. What links us to one another is being vulnerable — by way of structure, circumstance, status, and ambition — to those who control the terms of our work. And then, take their best advantage of it.