Sexual harassment

This post by Jim Hines about sexual harassment at cons has gotten a lot of comments.

Yes, people, stuff like this still happens. And while I’ve had no trouble at cons personally, I’ve been sexually harassed on the job twice. I thought I’d post my stories in case they help someone.

*

I was 15 and working my first job–which was grocery store inventory. We traveled to small-town stores and counted everything on their shelves. Kinda fun actually. So a lot of the employees were teenagers; the adults got the “serious” work like meats and cigarettes, while we ended up in long rows of cereal boxes and Kool-Aid packets. As you might guess, a pack of teens will make the job fun. So we cracked endless jokes about cheez balls, and whether neutering hurt the cheez, and so on.

I was paired with two guys one day. Like teen guys tend to do, they were egging each other on, getting wilder. They started making sexual comments about the grocery food, which actually I didn’t mind. I just kept working and ignored them. Then one guy started talking to me: “Hey. You’re so quiet. Talk to us.” I kept mostly ignoring him and doing my job. By now we were in the aisle with the cleaning products. He grabbed a broom and stuck it between his legs like an erection. “Hey. Do you like it like this?” Pelvic thrusts, grunts, moans, etc. He kept trying to get me to respond, and I wouldn’t. I was terrified. I was sure that it was my fault because I’d participated in the cheez ball jokes. I thought, “I must have been flirting with him, which is why he’s doing this.”

At break, I approached a friend. I started crying (remember I’m 15 here). I told her what happened and she urged me to tell our boss. She said it wasn’t right and the boss needed to know. I decided to trust her because she’d been at this job a lot longer and she knew the boss.

So I went to the boss (still crying) and told him the story, out in the parking lot. He put an arm around my shoulders (in a very fatherly way, and it felt 100% okay) and said, “Thank you for telling me. This is NOT your fault. That is completely inappropriate behavior. I’ll handle this and make sure he never bothers you again.”

And he did. I heard he reamed the guy out. The boss paired him with adults after that, and the guy quit the next week.

It was that boss’s strong, confident, 100% support of me that gave me courage in the next incident.

*

I was 19. I was working as a nude model for the college art department. I enjoyed the work, and it was neat to see sketches and paintings of myself. Almost all the students were totally professional and never mentioned anything outside of class. Occasionally, one would thank me for modeling, but that’s about it.

One day, I was in a dorm room with about 15 friends having a small party. I was sitting on the bed at the far end of the room, and everyone was squished in along the walls and on the bed and wherever.

A guy from the art class popped his head in the door and said hi to me, across the room. And then he asked, “So I gotta know. What do you models do when you have your period? I mean, you don’t want a string hanging out.” I blushed, but decided to handle it with grace and maturity. I explained that there were different options, but personally I just tucked the string away and it was fine.

He went away and I turned back to my friends. 30 seconds later, he ran by yelling “YAAAH!” and flung a handful of tampons at me, all the way across the room. I was dumbfounded. I didn’t even have a response. I just sat there, wanting to sink into the ground and disappear.

Note that part, for all of you people who think women should just speak up and say something. Anyone who’s met me–you know I’m rarely at a loss for words. Sexual harassment catches you off guard. I felt like a deer in headlights. I _couldn’t_ say anything on the spot. No way. Mostly I couldn’t believe what was happening. And my brain tried to make excuses: it was my fault for nude modeling, what did I expect, I must have provoked him…

These thoughts are insidious and persistent. They come from the culture around us, which trains women to think that harassment is probably something they brought on themselves.

Luckily my friends were great. They were just as stunned as I was. Then one friend (a guy) spoke up first and said, “What an asshole.” Everyone immediately agreed, and a few gave me hugs or support of some sort. I changed the topic quickly because I was still feeling stressed about it. The incident ruined my night.

The next day, I tried to figure out what to do. I remembered the first incident, and I was much less bothered by this one–possibly because I was older and had my friends as witnesses. I decided if I told the art professor, he might kick the guy out of class or fail him, and I really didn’t want it to go that far.

I decided to handle it myself. I planned out what I was going to say. I approached the guy and told him how I felt. I talked about how he’d embarrassed me about my body and my job, and it was a really horrible feeling. He was very contrite, offering multiple sincere apologies and saying, “I was really drunk, I’m so sorry, I was such a jerk.” I believed him. And I was glad I hadn’t told the professor, because I think he got the point without that.

After the semester ended and grades were out, I sent the professor a note saying that maybe the art department should tell all the students how to treat the models. He pressed to find out why I was asking, so I told him. He was furious that I hadn’t told him when it happened, but I still think I made the right choice (in that case) and assured the prof that I handled it fine. The prof believed me, was angry on my behalf, and promised to make sure all future students got a lecture on treating the models with respect.

*

The takeaways, if that was too much to read:

1) It is REALLY hard to react fast and speak up on the spot. I’d say it’s nearly impossible.
2) A supportive authority figure and positive prior experiences do wonders for giving a person confidence to speak up.
3) These were both peer harassment. I have never dealt with boss harassment, but oh my god, that would be 100 times more awful to me. I keep thinking of my friend who filed suit against her employer, and they retaliated–and got away with it. She had to leave the job.

And to bring this back to Jim’s post… In the world of writing, there’s no protection or recourse. At least nothing easy or obvious. For me, I could approach a local authority figure who knew us both and would believe me. How do you handle a situation where an editor with potential power over your career harasses you? Where if you speak up, you worry what kind of rumors and reputation will follow you? It’s so hard, people. Really. Before you say, “Just speak up and deal with it,” try to get in that person’s shoes.

It was hard enough to speak up to people I knew and trusted.

I’m open to questions and talking.

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