When Things Get Physical
Work should be a safe space. But for many women, it isn’t.
We, at LadyBits, created the open Power of Harassment collection in the hope that “by providing people with a better understanding of the nuances surrounding this issue, we will all be better equipped to avoid sexual harassment in the future. And at the very least, we hope that those of us who have had the unfortunate experience of enduring sexual harassment (it’s a lot of us) will find some peace in knowing that they are not alone.”
However, not all of us are in a position to come out. Not all of us can speak publicly and freely about the offenses we’ve experienced without the hammer coming down. And so LadyBits has offered a safe space for you to submit your story anonymously.
As we gather these stories, we are publishing them in collections along a common thread or theme that we see. (If you have submitted previously, take heart that you are acknowledged, even if your story hasn’t been published yet.)
Here, we’ve gathered selection of submissions in which physical and sexual advances (or the suggestion of them) occur, and which generate fear, demean, or otherwise assert power over a woman in her workplace. ♦
✏ I currently work in ad sales, and I got my start as an advertising coordinator for a newspaper in Tennessee. You know those little books of used cars for sale you can often find at the gas station? It was my job to help put those together by meeting with dealerships, taking pictures, and writing up the details about available cars. Even though I had less experience, my boss exclusively assigned me the higher-end dealerships (Mercedes, Lexus, BMW, etc.), fairly obviously because I was a pretty white girl. (My peers in the department were all people of color whom he clearly favored less than me.)
After about a year, I landed a job at a major national paper in New York, and put in my notice of resignation. On my very last day of work, at the very last dealership I visited, I was sitting shotgun with the dealership manager as we did a test drive. Then he drove to the back of the lot — away from where most anyone could see us — to “take a few more pictures of the car.” While we sat there (doors locked, not taking photos) he began telling me about how his wife just had a baby, about how his needs were no longer being met. About how great it would be if he and I could just have sex right there (“haha”) and how it wouldn’t have to be a big deal. I laughed it off and told him I was late for my next appointment. Luckily, he got the hint and drove me back to my own car.
When I got back to work, I casually told a coworker about the nerve of this creep, but didn’t really want to make it a big deal. I figured, I’d be out of there in a few hours, why bother with the drama? But someone else in the department had overheard and told my manager, who responded by getting angry at me. He was annoyed that he’d have to take me to HR and formally report the incident, not just because of the paperwork, but because it involved a large client and would damage his relationship with that dealer. As a woman just starting out professionally, I had been so well-trained to not create waves. It’s only recently, about five years later, that I’m actually realizing how serious the incident was.
✏ During high school and a couple of years after graduation, I was working as a hostess/waitress at a chain restaurant. It was a small town in the Midwest with all of the mentalities that come along with it. The bartender would regularly make comments about my appearance, and once grabbed me by the waist and shook me, telling me, “You have the cutest body!” One of the cooks would also grab all of the female staff on their inner thighs. He tried to pass it off as a joke, as though he was goosing us. When I finally asked him not to touch me that way, word got around and from then on I was treated like a wet blanket with no sense of humor by all of the other girls I worked with.
✏ When I was in college, I had a part-time job at a food stand on campus. My manager was a guy in his late twenties who liked the same loud, screamy music that I did, which was awesome because he’d let me play it when it was just the two of us working. We became friendly over time, and occasionally, he would give me a ride to my apartment building after work if it was snowing really hard or whatever. One night, instead of driving to my apartment, he drove to a neighboring town, pulled out a bottle of vodka and insisted I start drinking. After a lot of badgering, I took a sip, during which he pushed the bottle up to force me to drink more, more quickly. I was uncomfortable and became increasingly scared. Finally after making several excuses for why I had to get home, he drove me back. I had my male roommate meet me when work ended for the next few shifts.
✏ A female coworker once slapped me on my butt. While was I made uncomfortable by the interaction, I was also embarrassed that I wasn’t inclined to report her to HR. I knew that if a male coworker had done this to me, I would have run to that office to file a report. But because she was a female, I did nothing. My own sexist ideas were preventing me from reporting her behavior.
Days later, as we were walking together, I noticed her eyes fixated on my rear end. In the same moment that I began speaking the words, “DON’T hit me on my butt,” her arm was in full swing. Her reply? “Hahaha, I just did.”
Weeks later, four of us female coworkers, including the butt-slapper, went dress-shopping for a formal work event. I put on a dress and walked from the small changing room into the mirrored area. Slappy complimented the dress and my figure, and then reached out a hand and jiggled my left breast. I was so shocked (though perhaps I shouldn’t have been) and blurted out loudly, “HEY! No no no no no! I am NOT a person who likes to be touched like that!” She turned red with embarrassment and never violated me again, but it still irks me knowing that I let it get that far by not reporting her first inappropriate touch simply because she’s a fellow woman.
✏ I came into work one day with a black eye from playing racquetball without protective eyewear the previous day. When I told my boss about it, he asked if I finally made my boyfriend the sandwich.
✏ I’m a war correspondent, and my newspaper pays for my colleagues and I to stay at a house in Kabul with a handful of other male expats. Multiple times, men in the house have laughed and said I was going to get gang-raped by Afghan men, including shortly after an expat woman in another house was gang-raped by a group of robbers. When I told my (female) editor, she at first expressed concern, but when I asked to move to a different house, she just said there was no money in the budget for it, and that was the end of the conversation.
✏ I’m a professional chef, and in my 15-year career, I’ve only had the opportunity to work in one woman-run kitchen. It’s clear even when you start out that restaurants are run by men, and you have to play nice. My former boss would actually commend me on “working nice.” Literally patted me on the head for being “a tough enough girl to handle working in the kitchen and not making a fuss.”
At my last job, the harassment and off-color comments were so common that it became commonplace for me. It was at a large chain restaurant I was very proud to work for, and so I put up with everything because I loved the culinary work.
There was an “Alpha” among the other cooks and chefs at the restaurant. He wasn’t the head chef, but a guy who I perceived as the most aggressive harasser, who was constantly inserting himself into conversations. Once, one of the prep cooks had cornered me about going out for drinks later that night. While I poured on the humorous onslaught of reasons it was never going to happen, Alpha joined the conversation. Physically positioned between the two men, they began arguing over my head about who had more “right to get her drunk.” Who had known me longer? Who had more seniority at the restaurant? Who made more money? Who thought they could “take me” if I got feisty? It escalated quickly. I stopped at my cutting board and turned to leave when Alpha stopped me with his arm, and asked the other guy if he’d like to “XXXX” me. I wasn’t familiar with the term, but it was clearly inappropriate, because even the other guy blanched.
I eventually found out that “XXXX” is a act between two men and a woman, performed in a way that totally demeans the woman, with the highlight being “getting a friend to take a pic as proof” otherwise no one would believe the story.
When I told my husband about it, and he got angry and threatened to show up at my restaurant, I found myself defending the situation, and pleaded with him not to go because I was afraid to be outcast from the other chefs because I “couldn’t take a joke.”
Eventually, I had to quit. Alpha’s sexual harassment gradually and steadily increased to physical assault. My boss told me, “You shouldn’t have led him on.” I no longer enjoy being a chef, and I’m scared to work around so many men now.
This project is ongoing and stories will continue to be published serially. My deepest thanks to all the contributors so far. If you have a story, whether personal or witnessed in an environment such as a workplace or classroom, please consider sharing it.