Quiet Forms of Sexual Harassment and Their Very Loud Repercussions
There are loud ways to sexually harass someone, ways like thunder and fingerprints, though those on the receiving end, for a multitude of reasons, may never be loud about it. Telling someone, “You are a beautiful piece of ass,” is loud. Putting your hands on someone’s body, laying claim to skin and soul not your own: loud. A former boss told me, as he locked the door to the empty language school that we were in, in order to prevent “thieves” from entering while the secretary was on his lunch break and we were upstairs getting books, “Nobody else is here. Now I can rape you. Just joking.” I’d say: that’s loud.
And then, there are the quiet ways. Never sent emails that leave no trace of intentions and untexted messages that will always hide the truth find their expression in other forms: softly spoken words twisted into so many different directions that if you ever called out the person who said them, they could reply, with the most bewildered or offended look upon their face: “That’s not what I meant. You completely misunderstood me. How could you think that? What’s your problem?”
He is a former vice president of two different companies and is a member of several organizations that assist established as well as fledgling businesses. I met him at a networking event and he offered to advise me as I start my own teaching business. We traded business cards. The day after that first meeting, he texted me his wife’s phone number so I could call her and, per his suggestion, set up a time to meet. She is a Brazilian business owner. He said she could give me business advice as well as put me in contact with Brazilians looking for an English teacher. When we met, she could not have been kinder or more accommodating. She also told me her husband was such a nice guy, who had helped so many people without ever wanting anything in return.
Every tangible, seeable, audible aspect of this man said, “Trust me.”
My intangible, unseeable, inaudible gut said, “DON’T.”
I didn’t listen.
I received a call from him one afternoon while I was in class asking me to call him back, just to touch base. I was quite busy at the time and didn’t return his call, though we “touched base” that very evening at another networking event that neither of us knew the other one would be attending.
We exchanged networking pleasantries. In response to my inquiry after his wife, he told me that she had left for Brazil that morning and would be gone for the next three months as she had business to attend to there.
I nodded. “Well, I got your message. Do you have time to talk now?”
“Sure,” he said. We walked into a quiet room adjacent to where everyone else was gathered where we could set down our food and drinks, sit down comfortably instead of stand, and talk business. The walls in that room were glass. The door was open. He did not take the seat next to mine, but one over. There was a huge chair between us. All tangible, seeable, audible evidence said everything about this situation was fine, everything was right.
But it didn’t feel right.
The truth is, it didn’t feel right the first time I met him, even though he was kind, and helpful, and went on and on about his beautiful, wonderful wife, who hadn’t accompanied him because she hated networking events, because she hated being hit on. She had told me the same thing when we met. That repetition of sentiments hadn’t changed my gut feeling that something wasn’t right. And yet it didn’t feel rational saying something was wrong.
Rationality, most certainly, does not rule the world, yet it is the yardstick by which we are taught to measure and then ignore our instincts. Instincts. They are much more than primal energy and all-powerful feelings. They are a deity living inside us, one that we repeatedly forsake as we search for gods and gurus outside of us. Instincts are a pathmaker that knows every single step we should take before we take it. Instincts are a holy divinity that will guide us, but only if we let it.
In that glass-walled, open-door room, he rambled on and on about things that made no sense.
My mind said, “This is bullshit. Go.”
Then he asked about other connections I’d made.
My mind said, “What business is it of his? Leave.”
But I answered his questions and stayed.
Then he said, “So, some people are going to help you just because they’re nice, and other people are going to help you because they want something from you.”
“What the hell is he talking about?” my mind asked. But my skin answered, “I know.” My blood said, “I remember this.” My heart said, “You are not who you were — that is, who you long thought you were — powerless. Get up and go.”
But still I stayed and reasoned the reasons I had so often been given. “That’s not what he means. You completely misunderstand him. How could you think that? What’s your problem?” My mind replayed his wife’s voice. “He’s such a nice guy. He’s helped so many people without ever wanting anything in return.”
He spoke again. “The question is, what are you going to give to those people who want something in return, so that they will help you?” He looked me dead in the eye. And I got it. I got that my instincts had been right the moment that I’d met him at that first networking event, because my instincts have always been right. I got why he had called me that afternoon to talk: because his wife had left that morning. I got that quiet sexual harassment didn’t mean nonexistent sexual harassment. I got that the power that had been taken from me so often could be taken back. I got that I could go. And I did.
I also got why it had taken me so long to get up and leave. I got why I actually had to tell myself, why I had to remind myself repeatedly, before I even moved a muscle: “You can get up and go. You don’t have to be polite. You don’t have to give excuses. And you sure as hell don’t have to remain as you are, your skin starting to prickle, your heart starting to pound, as you remember so many other situations like this that you’ve been in. Forget them and go.”
But certain things are not so easy to forget. That sense of powerlessness, the one that froze your limbs and silenced your voice the very first time someone you knew broke his pact with the woman who bore him to live worthy of the very precious life that she had given him, is not so easy to forget. And it’s not so easy to forget all of those times after that first time, when you lived on the receiving end of someone’s ignorance and cowardice. It’s not so easy to forget teachings of politeness that are teachings of powerlessness cloaked in the fine garment of invisibility. It’s not so easy to forget teachings of madness, of a world turned upside-down, where what has happened to you has been labeled “misinterpretation” or “imagination” or “delusion” instead of the assault upon your soul that it actually was. It’s not so easy to forget days and months and years of your voice, gut, of you, being called worthless by hundreds of thousands of millions in the society into which you were born: a society that elected a president who not only sexually harasses and sexually assaults women, but brags about it.
In fact, these things cannot be forgotten. But they do not have to rule.
I had to remind myself I could go. Almost as much as his words, almost as much as his intent, almost as much as the power he dared to claim over me, this is what bothered me so much: that I had to remind myself I could go. I had to remind myself that I was stronger than all of the paralyzing teachings I have ever been taught.
I don’t want to have to remind myself ever again.
In case you, reading this, ever find yourself in a similar situation, in case you, too, need a reminder, let me give it to you now: You can go. You can get another job. You can get another apartment. You can get another friend. You can get another and better husband. You can also make a fabulous life for yourself without one. You can get back the power that was taken from you. You can raise your instincts to the throne upon which they deserve and need to sit, from which they deserve and need to rule. You are not beholden to anyone or anything but your own soul. Not your past. Not fear. Not politeness. Not excuses. Not rationalizations. Not doubts.
You can trust yourself. You can go.
Even more: you never have to spend a single second staying.