The topic of sexual assault has been making serious headlines for the past month as a result of the appalling ruling on the Brock Turner case. In case you missed it, he raped a woman who was unconscious behind a dumpster and he only received a six-month jail sentence. A stark injustice indeed and seemingly another indication that not only does rape culture continue to exist, sexism is far from being abolished. Often a precursor to sexual assault is sexual harassment. According to the Association of Women for Action and Research, 54 percent of women surveyed had experienced sexual harassment in the work place. 54 percent. Let that resonate for a second.
I worked in Higher Education at a prestigious liberal arts university where social justice dominated every conversation and safe-spaces were part of the everyday vernacular. I had just graduated from a women’s college three months prior where I threw myself into fighting for gender equality and educating myself on feminist issues as a Women’s Studies major. I couldn’t picture an instance where I would ever experience sexual harassment.
But then it happened, day number three of my first real adult job and I experienced sexual harassment. What started as friendly conversations via text message quickly turned into flirtatious advances and creepy innuendos. I chose to simply ignore the messages and quit responding. This only seemed to make things worse. One Sunday, after ignoring his messages all weekend, I glanced down at my phone to see that I had seven unread messages from him wondering where I was, what I was doing, why I wasn’t responding, and when I would be back on campus. This is when I started to panic.
On Monday morning, he acted normal and I continued to maintain a certain level of professionalism. I kept all of my feelings bottled up and remained guarded. Out of five staff members, I was the only woman, therefore having my guard up was necessary out of sheer protection of myself. As I started to get to know my other co-workers, I started to open up myself a little bit, talk about my life in college and back home and develop working relationships with them. In the back of my mind, however, I always had to be careful what I said, in the event that something was misinterpreted.
I went through each day feeling embarrassed and thought that no one would take me seriously because I was the crazy feminist from a women’s college and of course I would think a man being nice to me was sexual harassment. Looking back, I cannot believe I convinced myself that this was true. I dreaded going to work everyday until finally I had enough. Within a week, I had three students confide in me how they felt uncomfortable being around him and how he was sending them messages in the middle of the night. It took every ounce of willpower to not melt down in front of these students. A part of me felt like it was again my fault because had I shared my experience with someone earlier, maybe he wouldn’t have harassed the students. Nothing or no one could convince me that this wasn’t my fault.
One day, I did finally talk to him. I told him how the never ending text messages in the wee hours of the night made me feel, in addition to the time he asked me if I was wearing any underwear while we were at the President’s Welcome, and the numerous students that confided in me. What came of this conversation was more anger towards him. As I became vulnerable and told him how his actions made me feel, he looked at me with rage with just a touch of fake sympathy. I left that conversation unfulfilled and no satisfaction knowing that he understood what he did to me was wrong. I was later told, he broke down and cried about how sorry he was. That didn’t make me feel better or in the mood to forgive, because another student came to me that next week and said it was continuing. I just became angrier and angrier.
These feelings went on for months. I did not feel comfortable at work, I did not feel comfortable at home, and I wanted to be anywhere other than where I was. I listened to this guy speak at a Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault dinner and it took every ounce of will power and strength to not run up to the stage and rip the microphone out of his hand and scream to the audience how big of a hypocrite he was. I watched in agony as he appeared on my Snapchat story at events in the community as an advocate against sexual harassment and assault. His face is plastered on a poster for a community organization talking about how he would never hurt a woman. I want him to know that I notice these things.
I want him to know that he stripped me of my confidence. I came into my brand new job feeling empowered, motivated, and excited, only to have that shattered less than a week of being there. I blamed my three other co-workers and assumed they would be just like him, simply because they were men. After I let my guard down a bit, the three of them genuinely showed me that men never need to try hard to not objectify women and treat them with respect. They reminded me that treating women as humans is never a chore; it’s normal. I have immense amounts of respect for them because they never once tried to convince me that my feelings were invalid and that I wasn’t just “misinterpreting” what my harasser was doing.
I want him to know that because of him, I had to stare at my closet every single morning and immediately pass over clothes that may show off too much of my chest. If a skirt or dress was more than an inch above my knee I wouldn’t even dare consider wearing it to work. Fashion is such a huge part of my life and personality, but for a while he took that part away from me.
I want him to know that one Monday night I punched my concrete wall twenty-eight times in a row after I led myself to believe that I would never be taken seriously at my job because the only thing I would ever be seen as is a sexual object. I still have scar-tissue built up in my hand as a painful reminder that I let him take control over me.
I want him to know that I worked twice as hard as everybody else because I thought that’s what it would take for people to take me seriously. I’ll never forget the day that I finally convinced myself that my worth wasn’t his to determine because it was the best night sleep of my life.
I want him to know that all the signs that I gave him that I wasn’t interested should have been an indication to stop. Flirting is great and I highly encourage it. But the second you figure out it is not reciprocated you move on. Trying to show that you are interested in someone can be a wonderful thing. But when the other person’s body language shows uncomfortability and fear, it may be time to rethink your actions. What I want him to know is, there is a beautiful, vulnerable, respectful way to pursue a potential partner. And I’ve got to say, inserting your “fragile” masculinity into the dialogue because you felt rejected by me and making me feel like the bad guy is hardly the way to woo a woman. Stalking, shaming, embarrassing, and threatening my safe work environment made for the longest year of my life.
I don’t want to carry this around with me forever. Yes, it does take me a longer time to trust men now and I still worry about showing “too much,” but that’s a reality I have accepted. This piece, however, is me letting go. As I move on to a new job, I want to leave some things behind and the biggest part is him. All of the pain, reservations, and agony he caused me I plan on leaving where it all began.