“Think of all the other girls he might do this to after you.”
My co-worker leaned toward me against the plastic backing of her bus seat. She was sitting in front of me on the way to a work excursion and had just promised for the umpteenth time that she would not tell anyone about the story of sexual harassment I had just relayed to her.
The subtext of her statement: Just report it. It’s not all about you.
Apparently, the well-being of all women who might someday encounter this man depended on whether I filled out a form. The idea felt wildly self-important.
I am only 24, but this is far from my first experience with sexual harassment. I used to work for a small-business owner, for instance, who regularly let his hands linger on the juncture where my lower back becomes my butt. Once, he came up behind me while I was standing at the register and ran two fingers up the back of my leg, stopping just past the hem of my shorts.
“You have a nice shape,” he said.
I didn’t quit the job for months. I was just a few hundred dollars away from being able to afford my first study abroad experience — something I’d always yearned for — and I wasn’t willing to create a setback.
When I finally found myself on a dinner cruise down the Danube River, marveling at the immensity of the Hungarian Parliament building, that sacrifice seemed worth it. But years later, though I still understand the logic of my former self, it disturbs me that I stayed quiet.
After all, the year I let my former boss touch my thigh is the same year I lectured a friend for letting a stranger grab her breast at a bar.
“People can’t just walk by and grope you,” I said. “You need to tell someone.”
Imagine if we all took our own advice.
“The year I let my former boss touch my thigh is the same year I lectured a friend for letting a stranger grab her breast at a bar.'People can’t just walk by and grope you,' I said. 'You need to tell someone.'Imagine if we all took our own advice.”
But in this particular instance, my co-worker on the bus was reacting to an incident in which an employee from one of our partner institutions came to a bar that he knew I was going to be at. I was there with a female colleague.
He was in his 50s or 60s and had a daughter my age. He turned up alone. Drunk.
“How many drinks will it take to get you two to dance with me?” he asked, his vodka-cranberry breath pouring onto my face. His hand was on my waist and he was standing at the end of the booth I was sitting in, physically trapping me in with his body.
I thought about one of the first times I felt this way — when I was in kindergarten and one of my male classmates made a habit of crawling under the table so he could sit under the long skirts of the dresses that my grandmother made me.
One day, the boy rested his head against my thigh, his chin grazing the small undeveloped patch between my legs that my mother always told me people weren’t allowed to touch. The boy wouldn’t move. He held onto my thighs and when I came close to tears he began to laugh.
So I pulled him out by his neck.
“She choked me,” he cried, and my mother was called in to address my alleged proclivity for violence. To my understanding, she was the only one who pointed out that I wouldn’t have touched the boy if he hadn’t put his face between my legs.
Soon after, the same boy pushed me against a wall and tried to kiss me. I put my hand out and said, “Stop,” like my mother had told me to, and he stared at my hand, startled.
Then he laughed again.
Nearly 20 years later, my inappropriate colleague at the bar laughed too.
I said, “Can you move back? I’m not a close talker.” And he laughed.
I said, “I don’t like it when people touch my back.” And he laughed.
“What happens in the city stays in the city, eh?” he said with a wink.
A Latin song came on and he began gyrating, his hips grinding against the table.
“You’re Latina, right? You like this? Musica Latina, eh? You want to dance?”
“I don’t want to dance.”
“Ah, that means I need to buy you more drinks,” he said. He ordered two more drinks for my female co-worker and I — even though we hadn’t finished the ones we’d bought ourselves and already told him that we didn’t want more.
“Have another drink and you’ll loosen up,” he said. “Whatever happens tonight can be our little secret.”
I ordered a water. While I sipped on that and texted my co-worker across the table — “What do we do?? How do we leave without it being awkward on Monday???” — I could feel his eyes on me, unrelenting. He was smirking and my rage began to boil over.
“What?” I asked him. “You’re looking at me.” My voice was growing increasingly sharp with irritation.
“Tu es très jolie,” he said. You are very pretty.
My co-worker texted, “What is he saying to you??”
He’d hit on me in French because he knew she couldn’t understand it.
I said things like, “Are you not meeting up with your own friends tonight?” and “We’re trying to have a girls’ night,” but he chose not to take the hint.
“My colleague grinned silently at me, his chin resting on his hand. He was leaning across the table, his stomach spilling out from under his shirt. I thought of him like a cartoon fox or some other predatory animal, foaming at the mouth just before pouncing on his prey.”
That night, I thought about a comment that had been made by an anonymous man online after my New York Times article was published in 2018. In the article, I was frank about having had casual sex, and a commenter wrote that if I was ever sexually harassed in the workplace, I would have “had it coming.” In saying this, he implied that my willingness to give consent to some implied a willingness to consent to all. A cognitive leap, to say the least.
My colleague grinned silently at me, his chin resting on his hand. He was leaning across the table, his stomach spilling out from under his shirt. I thought of him like a cartoon fox or some other predatory animal, foaming at the mouth just before pouncing on his prey.
Is this what the commenter meant? Was this the treatment that I supposedly had coming?
Eventually, I excused myself to make a phone call and asked the bartender to watch after my friend while I was gone. Before I could finish explaining the situation to her, the bartender said she had the feeling that something strange was going on, and she and the rest of the waitstaff had been eyeing our table for some time.
“It’s normally a cash bar, but he insisted that we take his credit card because he said he was planning on buying you ladies lots of drinks tonight,” she said. “I’m going to close his tab right now.”
When I stepped out to call my supervisor, I watched groups of friends in their 20s climbing out of taxis, laughing and holding onto each other. I envied them and their seemingly complication-free night.
Per my supervisor’s advice, when I returned to our table, I pulled my female colleague out of the booth and told our harasser that it was inappropriate for us to be drinking with business partners. He immediately became irate, his face darkening as he spat, “It could have been our secret. We can still have some fun. No one has to know.”
We left him at the table.
“I don’t think it’ll affect anything at work,” my co-worker consoled me, but on Monday morning I received an email saying that the room I had booked with my harasser the week before was no longer available.
“He says he made no such arrangement with you,” said his manager.
Later, we all met up — my supervisor, myself, my harasser and his manager — and he wouldn’t stop looking at me. It felt like he was daring me to bring up what had happened. Regarding the work-professional interaction in which I’d booked a workspace, he said coldly, “You must have misunderstood.”
It wasn’t until he left that I brought up the incident, to which his manager said, “I am personally offended. He’s my friend.” She didn’t deny the facts, but explained, “He’s a Frenchman: What do you expect? It was harmless.”
When I called his behavior sexual harassment, she said, “It’s no such thing. You’re beautiful and he’s a flirt. You’re young. If you had more experience with men, you would know how these things work.”
I was growing angrier by the minute. When I took a deep breath and began to say, “I’m not sure you understand…” she cut me off and said, “Gabrielle, I am a woman.”
That didn’t mean anything. The conversation felt like a nightmare materializing.
A man once told me, shortly after college, that because of my curves, I would always be regarded as “sexual” both in and out of the workplace. He sat back, folded his arms, and said, “That’s just the way it is.”
I’d quipped, “I can’t exactly leave my breasts at home before I go to work.”
And even if I could, there should be no reason to.
“A man once told me, shortly after college, that because of my curves, I would always be regarded as 'sexual' both in and out of the workplace. He sat back, folded his arms, and said, 'That’s just the way it is.'I’d quipped, 'I can’t exactly leave my breasts at home before I go to work.'And even if I could, there should be no reason to.”
“I’m tired of being leered at,” I told my mother on the phone. I described how even though I make a point of using professional language, speaking as though I were crafting an email, some men still condescended to me as though I were a doll or a precocious toddler. I said, “Do they think I’m too stupid to see through the way they’re treating me?”
“When I was student-teaching years ago,” she said, “the principal grabbed my butt when he walked past me. I said, ’Excuse me,’ and he turned around and said, ‘You’re a Puerto Rican girl in your 20s. Who do you think they’re going to believe?’ He was a married white guy with tenure.”
She added that one of her childhood friends got a breast reduction around the same time because she felt her curves precluded her from being taken seriously in the workplace. Some part of me attributed their experiences to the times, but when I called one of my best friends to complain about the incident I’d endured, she told me that she’d recently stopped wearing makeup to work and started donning shapeless clothing because too many of her colleagues were hitting on her.
All these stories made me feel trapped — like I was born into a narrative I had no say in. I am caught between my love of being a woman and my fury that this womanhood makes others believe they can abuse me.
“Feminists always seem so angry,” a member of my master’s cohort once commented.
And I am angry. I am angry that I have had to deal with these situations over and over. I am angry that I need to be so afraid, that I must twist myself in knots to avoid harassment, and that if I have a daughter someday, I will fear I am handing her a life riddled with trauma.
And now I am standing on the precipice of filing a sexual harassment report — the one process intended to empower me in situations like this. And yet in many ways, I feel more disempowered than I did before.
“Damn. Talk about retraumatizing the victim,” my supervisor said after I’d spent over an hour each day for a week talking on the phone to my institution’s sexual harassment prevention office.
“There’s no action we can take against him directly,” the representative from the office said. “You have to contact his institution’s office.”
I was exhausted, and I still am. Talking about this incident reminds me of every other instance of harassment or assault that I’ve experienced, and those are memories I would rather not dwell on.
“I was exhausted, and I still am. Talking about this incident reminds me of every other instance of harassment or assault that I’ve experienced, and those are memories I would rather not dwell on.”
Just a few months before this, a middle-aged, married man I worked with got drunk at a work function and pulled me against his chest. He kissed the top of my head and ran his hand down my waist before I could pull away.
“It was paternal,” said someone who’d witnessed it.
“But it wasn’t paternal,” I told a guy I used to date. “He didn’t touch my waist in a dad way. I don’t think any dads touch their daughters like that.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“He rubbed my waist the way you would rub my waist,” I said. “There’s a difference. There’s a whole different vibe.”
His jaw clenched. He understood.
So many descriptions of sexual harassment and unfair touching are taken as an overreaction because it is hard to describe the nature of an action: A hand on my waist can either be protective or sexual, and a smile can be friendly or lascivious. But when put in terms like that — he touched me the way you touch me — blurred lines come sharply into focus.
“That’s messed up,” he said. “You’re going to report it, right?”
“That’ll make work awkward,” I argued. “Just imagine.”
“They have policies against retaliation.”
“He’ll just find other ways to screw me over,” I said. “What if I apply for a job at another department? He has friends everywhere. He can talk shit about me that will make me not get hired at the other office, and they’ll make up some other official reason for why they passed me over. There’s no real way to enforce a non-retaliation policy, you know?”
I would feel the same way in that bar when my colleague was grinding against my table, though that happened much later and in a different context. Besides being re-traumatized, I cannot imagine my day-to-day work being hindered at every turn because of my harasser’s frustration with me. After all, I already got a sense of his vengefulness only a little more than 48 hours after I rejected him.
“He’s been my friend for many years,” his manager had said. “He has many, many friends here.”
It sounded like a threat.
In college, during an argument with a man who claimed that the Me Too movement “makes sexual assault seem more common than it really is,” I pointed out that I could tell the story of my life via a timeline of sexual assault and harassment.
Of course, I can define it in terms of more positive landmarks — like friends and places I’ve lived — but describing every time I’ve ever been assaulted or harassed or groped is just as effective a way of telling that story.
“That’s how often it happens,” I said.
And I know I’m not alone. After Donald Trump won the 2016 election and people started talking more about misogyny and sexual misconduct, many of my friends told me about their experiences with harassment and assault.
“Oh yeah, I’ve been raped,” one said. We were walking to an art gallery and she said it casually, lightly, as though discussing her coffee order. “I feel like everyone has.”
When I was getting my master’s, I had a conversation with a man who felt that “all this talk” of sexual harassment, rape, #MeToo and #Time’sUp was blown out of proportion.
“I feel like it’s saying that all men are rapists,” he complained.
“No one’s saying that,” I said.
“Then why do women bring it up so often? It can’t possibly be this common.”
I thought for a moment. I didn’t know how to make someone empathize with a world that they had never been exposed to, but I’d invited him to coffee because I knew we both wanted to have this conversation. He was startled by contemporary feminism and wanted answers, while I saw an opportunity to set the record straight.
“Just because most women have been raped, doesn’t mean most men are rapists,” I said. “Most of my interactions with men are good. It’s just the good interactions don’t make the bad ones OK.”
I thought of the positive men in my life — of the empathy and concern they show when the women they care for speak out. It’s heartwarming to know that many men are allied with women, but the love of some good men still cannot undo the sadism of others.
“We have found ourselves in a system where victims are often more afraid of the repercussions of reporting than the harassers are afraid of being found guilty. The system is therefore more of an ineffective Band-Aid than a solution.”
Having left jobs and burnt professional bridges because I reported or stood up to former harassers, I have also begun to theorize that sexual harassment contributes to the wage gap. After all, women cannot remain working for a company long enough to climb up the corporate ladder if they are constantly fleeing their colleagues’ wandering hands. And while Title IX and other efforts to penalize inappropriate behavior are well-intended, there are still too many barriers to reporting and too few methods of ensuring accountability. We have found ourselves in a system where victims are often more afraid of the repercussions of reporting than the harassers are afraid of being found guilty. The system is therefore more of an ineffective Band-Aid than a solution.
Now, I am still deciding whether I should report that colleague for his behavior at the bar that night. Luckily there is no statute of limitations on these things, so I can file the report whenever I want to.
And while what happened to me wasn’t right, and I know I would encourage anyone else in my position to report the behavior, I’m tired. Tired of dealing with the situation and tired of answering the same redundant questions about the same infuriating memory. After all, I’ve moved onto a new job ― at a startup where behavior like that I’ve experienced would be inconceivable. I am caught between the unfinished business of my past and the desire to move on, to immerse myself in my current workplace and let myself be happy.
Which is more valuable in this instance: to stay silent or to speak? To be anxious about my well-being or about that of other women I will never know? This is the position that my colleague has put me in while he remains unconcerned, resting on his blemish-free reputation and the support of his “many, many” friends.
I will, in all likelihood, report it, but I have not made my final decision. I am only certain that whatever decision I make, it will come at a cost.
Gabrielle Ulubay is a writer and filmmaker who has lived in four countries and counting, but is currently based in Boston. Her work often addresses topics such as film, the arts, gender, sexuality, race and politics. So far, her work has appeared in The New York Times Modern Love column, Bustle, Muskrat Magazine, Hey Alma Magazine, Film Ireland, NUFEC.com, O’Bheal and #DirectedbyWomen Initiative. She can be found on Twitter at @GabrielleUlubay.
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