The first time I was sexually harassed was in a pizza place…
It was my first job — other than babysitting and shoveling snowy driveways — and I was 14 years old. Wearing my uniform of a white tee, khakis and a giant baseball cap, I was standing at a back counter, filling plastic cups with salad dressing. The owner, Bill, had stopped by the restaurant. Although we’d never met before, he walked up behind me and put his hands on my hips. “Don’t spill anything,” he said, peering over my shoulder. Then he slowly kissed my neck.
That night, when I told my mom, she said, “If that ever happens again, kick him where it counts and run home!” But it was disorienting. He was my boss. I wanted that job. It happened and was over in five seconds. I was filling the dressings the whole time.
Earlier this week, reading the horrifying allegations against Harvey Weinstein, I found myself thinking, I’m so fortunate, nothing at all has ever happened to me. But as I read the accounts, I remembered the pizzeria owner’s hot breath. And then countless other times came flooding back, when I’ve felt uncomfortable or violated. Nothing big, nothing major, but countless times for decades: Men at parties forcing kisses. A guy who stuck my hand down his pants when I was asleep. A boss who poked me in the stomach every time I walked by. A stranger exposing himself as I jogged by him in a park. The list goes on and on.
Last night, I was wondering, how have all these experiences always added up in my mind to nothing? That I’ve chalked them up to just part of life, part of being female? That I’ve brushed things off again and again and just tried not to think about them? Have you done the same?
“One of the cruelest things about these acts is the way that they entangle, and attempt to contaminate, all of the best things about you,” wrote Jia Tolentino in the New Yorker. “If you’re sweet and friendly, you’ll think that it’s your fault for accommodating the situation. If you’re tough, well, you might as well decide that it’s no big deal. If you’re a gentle person, then he knew you were weak. If you’re talented, he thought of you as an equal. If you’re ambitious, you wanted it. If you’re savvy, you knew it was coming. If you’re affectionate, you seemed like you were asking for it all along. If you make dirty jokes or have a good time at parties, then why get moralistic? If you’re smart, there’s got to be some way to rationalize this.”
Plus, you might feel like you’re powerless or have no real solutions, especially at work. “What can I do about it? Who do I tell?” wrote screenwriter Liz Meriwether, who was sexually harassed in her twenties by a powerful man but stayed quiet. “Was it that big of a deal? Did I make it up?… It was just a weird thing that happened, and now it’s over, and I’m fine.”
When I’ve told tales to male friends or partners, they’ve often been outraged. “Men who hear these stories, I’ve found, tend to interrogate you to get to the truth of what happened, then, if they believe you, they want retaliation or revenge. Men want rules to be enforced and authorities called,” writes Meriwether in New York Magazine. But of course it’s not that simple. “Women want those things, too, but we understand the complicated mental calculations that are forced on us. If a man reaches under your skirt on an airplane, does that mean you should put your career, your ambitions, your livelihood in jeopardy just to watch him get some kind of slap on the wrist? Isn’t that ultimately giving this stranger more power over your life? Women don’t have to explain these things to other women, because we’ve all had to ask these questions ourselves.”
If you say something, you’re often called uptight. You’re overreacting. You have no sense of humor. You’re hard to work with. (Remember this parody article?) After the Weinstein scandal broke, a top talent agent’s response echoed what the world often thinks: “He asked for a few massages? Waaah! Welcome to Hollywood!” Basically: Get over it, ladies.
And it’s not just Hollywood, of course. “Abuse, threats and coercion have been the norm for so many women trying to do business or make art,” writes Lena Dunham in the New York Times. “[Harvey Weinstein’s] behavior, silently co-signed for decades by employees and collaborators, is a microcosm of what has been happening in Hollywood since always and of what workplace harassment looks like for women everywhere.”
What happens now? Honestly, I’m not sure what the best steps are. Is it to share loudly? “When we share, we unlock other women’s stories, and suddenly secrets don’t seem so necessary,” says Jenni Konner in “Our Voices Are Our Superpower.” Is it for men to speak up? Is it to raise good children? What else? There must be something else.
(Photo by Saul Leiter.)