Victims and Survivors: A Conversation About Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is kind of an ugly term, isn’t it?  We don’t like to use it.  We don’t like to talk about it.  Like the UN and their reluctance to label anything a genocide, we know that once we recognize it for what it is we would have to DO something, and no one really wants to.

People like to portray sexual harassment as really blatant acts-~-a boss grabbing his secretary’s butt, the crap Professor Callahan pulls in Legally Blonde.  But sexual harassment a) doesn’t always happen at work and b) isn’t always as overt as that.  It may not be physical harassment…but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable.  And no one wants to complain about it because the reality is that people may not take those complaints seriously; potential employers may not like to hire people who have publicly complained about sexual harassment; and people (especially women, the bulk of the victims of sexual harassment) may not want to make these details of their lives public.

The truth is, sexual harassment IS still happening.  As someone who has been made to feel uncomfortable at school, at work, or among friends by guys who thought they could get away with treating myself or my friends like objects, it hurts to realize that people don’t give enough legitimacy to this issue.  I almost never give personal testimony on this blog, but this issue is personal-~-there are few things MORE personal than someone messing with your head, and this, right here, is my story:

My freshman year of college, I got into a mess with a guy I had been seeing but was no longer interested in.  Somehow I found myself the recipient of dozens of (mostly drunken) calls and texts, some of which were extraordinarily uncomfortable.  He made comments to me in person and his looks made me feel uneasy in my own skin.  But when I talked to friends, some of them told me I was overreacting.  My parents told me it’s not sexual harassment.  In all honesty, it probably WAS-~-and between the problems I was having at school and the discomfort I felt outside of classes because of this and another problem I was working through,  I got to a place where I nearly quit school.  To top it off, it wasn’t the first time I’d gone through something like that: I had dealt with a different sexual harassment issue my senior year of high school, a situation which made me incredibly uncomfortable in class and made me try to avoid the person outside of class.  And it happens all the time in Kenya-~-we’re told to ignore it but sometimes it’s hard to forget that it’s happening.  That it happens almost every day.

Sexual harassment is not a joke.  My own story aside, let’s face the facts: odds are, it has happened to someone you know.  It has happened to someone you care about.  Someone in your life has wanted to skip a class, has worried about going to work, has lost her job, has been made to feel uncomfortable…and sexual harassment is at the root of the problem.

The following is an excerpt from My Life After Sexual Harassment, a piece by Ana Hope that was originally published here.  I’m only excerpting it, instead of reblogging the entire article (I don’t have permission to republish the whole thing anyway) but I encourage everyone to read the original piece.  Here is the advice that she has for women living in a world where sexual harassment still happens but isn’t discussed:

What I realized that I needed during this entire process was a “How To” on handling and responding to sexual harassment and gender bias for the post Mad Men gals.

In thinking about how I could have been guided to help myself more during the crisis, I narrowed it down to six things: Save Money. Make sure you have enough money saved so that you can walk away from any abusive work situation even if you can’t name the type of harassment. Confidence. You never ever deserve to be harassed or bullied. Do not be afraid of him attacking your character or your performance. Even if you are the world’s worst employee performance-wise, you never deserve to be mistreated. Accept Help. Because I lacked confidence in myself, I refused to let people help me, and I didn’t ask the right questions when I did reach out. Trust me, you have a team of people ready to help you as soon as you ask. Keep Detailed Notes. Names of people in meetings. Dates of meetings. Exact comments. Build your own war chest of evidence to back you up in meetings with senior officials and to help you track patterns and accept that you are being mistreated. Don’t Be Ashamed. The person sexually harassing you should feel ashamed, not you. No matter how you react or don’t react, it’s OK. There just isn’t a perfect map to guide you from pain to healing. It’s messy. It’s ugly. Know The Signs. Your boss should never comment on if you can pick up guys, your attitude on your period, or tell you not to wear skirts. Your boss shouldn’t use the word “creative” as a pejorative to lessen your intelligence or strategic thinking. Your boss shouldn’t call you “hot” when you do dress up. You boss shouldn’t talk about others not liking you. Your boss shouldn’t cancel projects you are working on without telling you. Your boss shouldn’t create a hostile environment between all the women on the team. And your boss shouldn’t only mentor or promote men.

When we can’t even talk about sexual harassment for fear of backlash, it becomes indicative of a systemic problem-~-one that NEEDS to be addressed.  So start talking about it.  I managed to put an end to my situation by confronting the guy and letting him know I had all those texts saved and was prepared to report him if he didn’t stop immediately.  Especially if it’s happening in your personal life, stand up to the people who are making you uncomfortable…and if it’s at work, take Ana Hope’s advice, take your evidence, and report it.  You shouldn’t have to be uncomfortable or scared…and like Hope says, it’s not you who should feel ashamed: it’s them.

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~ by Randi Saunders on February 4, 2012.

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