Me Too, I Think? When Sexual Harassment Feels All Too Normal

All women have stories. We're just not sure what to do with them.

UPDATE, Feb. 28, 2020: Former HuffPost reporter Laura Bassett, writing in an article for GQ, identified the broadcast journalist in this article as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

NEW YORK ― The first time it happened, we were sitting side by side in makeup chairs, getting ready to go on his show on a major cable news network. I was new to television news and nervous about the segment. He was ― is ― a famous broadcast journalist.

“Who are you?” he asked me, as the makeup artists powdered our faces.

I reminded him of my name. “We’ve met before,” I said.

He turned and looked at me. “And I haven’t fallen in love with you yet?”

I froze. He was older, married, far more powerful than I was in media. He could decide whether or not I got booked on the network again. I’d been warned by more than one person that he sometimes tried to humiliate his female guests on the air.

So I laughed uncomfortably and said nothing.

“Keep putting makeup on her,” he said to my stylist as he walked out of the room. “I’ll fall in love with her.”

My stomach lurched. The makeup lady apologized for him after he left. “Don’t let him bother you,” she said. “That’s just how he is.”

Five minutes later, I was sitting next to him on the set, under bright lights, with a microphone clipped to my shirt and three cameras pointed at me. He asked me questions about sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump, and I had to look him in the eyes as I responded. I stumbled over my answers and forgot basic vocabulary words, the uncomfortable moment in the makeup room crowding my mind.

His show booked me again a few weeks later. This time, he was a bit bolder. As I sat in the makeup chair, he walked over and stood between me and the mirror.

“That’s a nice red dress,” he said, hovering over me. “You going out tonight?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Why?”

He turned to the woman applying my makeup. “Make sure you wipe this off her face after the show,” he said. “We don’t make her up so some guy at a bar can look at her like this.”

Compared to what Harvey Weinstein is accused of doing ― and Bill Cosby, and Bill O’Reilly, and the president, and all the men making headlines ― this is the kind of story that barely feels worth telling. This man didn’t sexually assault me, or masturbate in front of me, or text an unsolicited dick pic. He didn’t ask me to be his girlfriend or threaten to ruin my career if I didn’t sleep with him. He’s not my boss or manager. I’d have to consult a lawyer to figure out whether his remarks can even be considered sexual harassment, legally speaking. Maybe he’s just an asshole.

But his behavior affected me; it undermined my ability to do my job well. He treated me like a sex object. He made me feel like less of a journalist, that I was a nobody, that my thoughts mattered less than my body. He took advantage of my anxieties and amplified them at a vulnerable moment in my career.

“This man didn’t sexually assault me, or masturbate in front of me, or text an unsolicited dick pic. But his behavior affected me; it undermined my ability to do my job well.”

This is the kind of harassment women face regularly ― the kind we’re unsure how to name. The kind that doesn’t rise to the level of something we would report, because it would just make the workplace more uncomfortable for us and put our own careers at risk, not theirs.

As women flooded my Facebook feed with their #metoo revelations last week, I posted a question: Has anyone been harassed by a man they’re not willing to name or report, because the behavior feels like it’s in some kind of gray area between a harmless flirtation and flat-out sexual assault? Because you fear retaliation, or because men like Weinstein have set the bar so high for what counts as sexual misconduct that milder kinds of harassment or even assault are just seen as a frustrating reality of being a woman in a workplace?

Dozens of women vented to me in direct messages. A journalist recalled her boss, a prominent editor at a major D.C. news publication, telling so many rape and sex jokes in the office that she stopped pitching stories that had anything to do with sexual assault because his responses made her so uncomfortable. Another journalist said she was once in a car with a male photographer twice her age, on assignment, when he started rubbing his neck and leg and suggesting that she give him a massage.

A third woman said a married U.S. congressman, who is now a senator, plied her with drinks at a happy hour event when she was a 20-year-old intern on the Hill and then offered to drive her home. When they reached a stoplight, he leaned over and kissed her. She didn’t stop him, despite feeling uncomfortable.

“I remember in the moment thinking this was gross, weird, wrong,” she said. “I remember saying to him, ‘I don’t think this is a good idea ― you’re a congressman,’ but not really being like, ‘Get off me,’ because I was confused about how I felt about it.”

He kissed her again before dropping her off. The next day, he sent her an email from his official account ― which she provided to HuffPost ― asking her whether he should “feel bad” about having kissed her and suggesting they see each other again. She told him not to feel bad, but that she didn’t want to see him again.

Now she’s confused about whether she should have reported him to someone or reacted differently against his advances. “It wasnt rapey,” she said. “He came on to me, but it was more just the abuse of the power dynamic ― getting me drunk, getting me in his car, making a move on me, going back to my house. I just felt like it could have gone so much further if I hadn’t stopped and checked him every step of the way.”

“But you start to blame yourself,” she added, “because in that moment, it’s almost like you forgo your right to raise an issue by letting it pass.”

She still won’t come forward publicly or identify him by name, even though she no longer works in politics, because she knows her own name will be forever enshrined in Google searches as the woman who kissed a married congressman, tainting her hireability even as he keeps getting re-elected.

“While men can dismiss a whole range of behavior, women rearrange our lives to avoid it.”

Trump was elected president after having bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy,” so it’s safe to assume that our own stories of powerful men coming on to us in the workplace are probably not going to ruin their careers.

The reality for most women is that reporting behavior that’s anything less than an egregious, clear-cut case of sexual assault ― in other words, something that isn’t going to result in him being fired ― often only means that we lose a work reference, or possibly even our jobs. And the bar for firing powerful men is pretty high.

So women are conditioned to tolerate and even expect a whole range of behaviors ― from lewd comments on the street to unwanted advances from our bosses.

Matt Damon made this assumption perfectly clear when he acknowledged Monday that he had long known the story of Weinstein bringing Gwyneth Paltrow into a hotel room for a “meeting” when she was 22, putting his hands on her and inviting her into the bedroom for massages.

“When people say, ‘Everybody knew,’ like, yeah, I knew,” Damon said on ABC News. “I knew he was an asshole, he was proud of that. That’s how he carried himself. I knew he was a womanizer. I wouldn’t want to be married to the guy. But the criminal sexual predation is not something that I ever thought was going on. Absolutely not.”

So pressuring a 22-year-old woman, whose nascent career you basically own, to give you a massage in a hotel room ― that’s just being an asshole. But Damon draws the line at the point where Weinstein allegedly unbuckled his robe and raped someone. That’s when it became the kind of “sexual predation” that he would try to stop.

While men like Damon can dismiss a whole range of behavior, women rearrange our lives to avoid it. We try to wear less attractive clothes, work from home more often, change what we talk or write about. We build “whisper networks” to quietly warn each other about the bad men, rather than sticking our necks out to report them. We circulate private Google spreadsheets of men to avoid.

We become the makeup lady, who subtly sent me the message that plenty of women before me have accepted this man’s behavior, and that I should too.

Meanwhile, men like Weinstein and Cosby ― the glimmering tip of the iceberg ― allow the millions of lesser sexual harassers to feel good about themselves, to sleep better at night, thinking they aren’t that bad.

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