Interesting thing you might not know about me: I often think in colors. In my head, for example, Jane Austen’s Emma is saffron-red (while Pride and Prejudice is yolk-yellow). English literature as a subject is a foggy blue. My first year of middle school in France evokes orange tones. My Future Wife makes me think of purples and browns.
And sexual harassment is bright lime-green and noodle-yellow.
Okay, I get that was a bit of a random tangent. Everyone’s very confused. Everyone’s all “Uh, C.D., why is sexual harassment lime-green and noodle-yellow in the bizarre color-lexicon of your brain?”
Faithful reader, I will tell you. You see, a year ago, I got a summer job as a waitress/cashier/garnisher/busser/whatever at a local Noodles and Company.
You will note the presence of green! There are a lot of green decorations and signs and things at Noodle and Company. Also a lot of yellow, what with the omnipresence of noodles.
So when I think of Noodles and Company, I think of green and yellow.
… I see you using that deductive reasoning, dear reader! You are thinking “C.D. says sexual harassment makes her think of yellow and green, and Noodles and Company was yellow and green, so she must have been sexually harassed at Noodles and Company! LOGIC.”
And hey, if that was your thought process, you’d be right! I was sexually harassed at Noodles and Company, and that is why I associate yellow and green with sexual harassment!
The summer-before-last, your faithful blogger (me) got a job at Noodles and Company, where she pulled long hell-shifts of doom (eight hours behind a cash register… one fifteen minute break… blaaaargh) and got paid a ridiculously small amount of money.
But hey, I have to admit, I enjoyed the work. If the pay hadn’t been so terrible, I would go so far as to say I enjoyed the experience.
Well, okay. That’s not strictly accurate. I would have enjoyed the job if:
a) the pay had been better and
b) I had not been confronted with The Gentlemen Groper
I didn’t particularly like the Gentleman Groper. In fact, I rather loathed him. He didn’t do his job; he avoided managers; he was rude to customers; he made inappropriate jokes; he made life more difficult for everyone on his shift.
I was not a fan.
But whatever. I gritted my teeth and indulged in fantasies of chopping him up into noodle-garnish, meanwhile reminding myself that he was only seventeen, and that he might – MIGHT – eventually get over it.
And then he started poking me.
Sadly, I’m not talking a casual, one-time, “Hey, look at the giant Elephant eating the kangaroo over there!” poke.
The Gentlemen Groper (who should really be called The Gentlemen Poker, but that would ruin the alliteration) usually targeted my waist, my torso or my arms. His charming technique was to poke me until I yelped, and then giggle.
And he would not stop.
I’m not kidding, he would do this like, five or six times an hour. It was ridiculous (it also meant he wasn’t doing his job, which meant *I* was doing his job… all while getting poked).
Because all terrible things must get worst, the poking evolved.
After a few days, any time there was an excuse to touch me, the Gentlemen Groper took it. Dish to garnish? He grabbed my wrist to correct my sprinkling technique. Customer to talk to? He’d steer me towards them by grabbing my waist, even when I pushed him away. A break in the customer madness? Then it was time for spontaneous hugs! Eventually, he started pinching my arms and “accidentally” brushing against my breasts and ass.
And the poking continued.
Now, in “real life,” – in situations where I can’t get fired for punching people – things might have ended rather painfully for the Gentlemen Groper.
Because I am the Feminist Batwoman, and All Shall Fear My Wrath.
But I was at work, where stepping on The Gentlemen Groper’s foot or pinching the nerves in his forearms would not go over well. [hey, I knew a lot about self-defense. Where do you think I got these mad batwoman skillz from?)
So I tried a different technique:
“Please stop touching me.”
“Gentlemen Groper, stop poking me.”
“Listen to what I am saying to you. You need to stop touching me.”
“I don’t want you to hug me. Don’t hug me.”
“Don’t grab my arm, Gentlemen Groper.”
“Stop. Touching. Me.”
“You do not have my permission to touch me.”
“Gentlemen Groper, I’m not kidding. Stop touching me.”
“Don’t poke me.”
I kept my voice low and serious. I refused to laugh. I did everything the textbooks on harassment say to do: I was clear, concise and forceful. And I’m pretty sure I used every variation on “stop” in the book.
None of them worked. The Gentlemen Groper would just laugh, and accuse me of being oversensitive. A few minutes later, he’d touch me again, and I’d suppress the urge to scream.
I told my friends and parents about the harassment. They were all supportive, especially my mother (who offered to come to the store and threaten the Gentlemen Groper with the force of her awesomeness), but at some point in our conversation, she said what I’d dreaded hearing ever since the harassment started:
“You know, maybe he’s just really bad at flirting.”
There is a difference between harassment and flirting. I don’t care how terrible you are at flirting, the words “no” and”stop” always, always, ALWAYS mean STOP. And if you refuse to stop, then it’s not flirting anymore.
But even if I knew my mother was wrong, there was a reason I’d been dreading the flirting line. I was afraid. I was afraid that my supervisors wouldn’t see the Gentlemen Groper’s behavior as harassment. Or that my harassment wasn’t bad enough to “count” as real. That it would just be interpreted as harmless flirtation. That I would be accused of making waves for no reason.
So I didn’t ask to file a harassment form.
Instead, I started having minor panic attacks every time anyone came near me at my job. I was tense for entire shifts, waiting for the pokes and gropes and hugs that (inevitably) came. When work was done, I noticed that my muscles were actually sore with pain because I’d been holding them tight for so long. I approached shifts with the Gentlemen Groper by putting on tunnel-vision glasses so I couldn’t concentrate on anything but my job and the words I would (inevitably) need: “Stop.” “Don’t touch me.”
I used to love closing the restaurant; now, I hated working late at night. Closing shifts meant there was no one in the store except me, the Gentlemen Groper, and a manager. No witnesses. Worse was all the space between me and my bike, out in a dark parking lot with no one around. If the Gentlemen Groper wouldn’t stop touching me in public, what would he do in private, at night, where no one could see? How far would he go?
Once I got on the bike, though, I felt safe – finally. I’m a fairly fast rider at the best of times, but fear of the Gentlemen Groper made me exponentially faster.
I was safe.
Until the next shift.
There was a point when I actually started timing how long it took for me to get from the restaurant door to my bike.
That’s when I knew I was terrified.
That’s when I knew something had to be done. This was not okay. I couldn’t go through more shifts of constantly being touched. I couldn’t go through more shifts of wondering if things would get worse. I needed to do something.
Unfortunately, I was still too scared to file an official harassment report. So I did the next best thing. I started making a point of saying “No,” in front of managers. That way, I thought, they’d see what was happening, and they would back me up.
Oooh boy, was I wrong.
My new strategy worked about as well as my old one. I made sure to stick around the managers, so they wouldn’t be able to miss the Gentlemen Groper’s actions. Then Gentlemen Groper would poke me, or grab me, and I’d say “Gentlemen Groper, I’ve said this a hundred times. You need to stop touching me.”
I’d steal a glance at the managers to make sure they’d heard me. They had.
But they didn’t back me up.
Most of the managers said nothing, either to me or to the Gentlemen Groper. Worse, some of them encouraged him.
Once, when I told the Gentlemen Groper I didn’t like being touched, a manager started laughing, telling the Gentlemen Groper I was playing “hard to get.”
After another poking incident, the Gentlemen Groper said: “I just poke you because I like you!”
To which a manager near us said: “Bet you don’t have any good replies for that one, C.D. He’s got a good point!”
Good point? GOOD POINT? I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware that the Gentlemen Groper’s good disposition towards me gave him unrestricted access to my body. I thought *I* was the only one who could grant that access.
From those interactions, it was pretty clear to me that management just did not care. Correctly or not, I assumed that if I filed a formal complaint, the reaction would be the same – indifference or worse.
Discouraged, but not yet defeated, I continued my campaign of snapping at the Gentlemen Groper every time he touched me. I might not be able to stop him, but damn it, if I was going to deal with panic attacks, I was at least going to get the satisfaction of telling him off.
And it turned out I’d been wrong. One member of the management did care.
The restaurant’s single female manager had been on vacation leave for the past few weeks. The day she came back, the Gentlemen Caller and I had another one of our lovely interactions.
“Stop touching me.”
“Because I asked you not to, that’s why.”
“That’s not a good enough reason!”
Suddenly, the Managing Savior stepped in: “Yeah, but Gentlemen Groper, you need to stop touching C.D. If she says she doesn’t want you to touch her, then you don’t touch her.”
And then he stopped.
I am not even joking. He didn’t touch me again for another two weeks (and then he started again, but that’s another story).
Talk about the power of management! I’d been telling the Gentlemen Groper to stop for weeks; the manager says one sentence, and BOOM.
Here’s the thing. My story isn’t interesting because it’s rare. My story is interesting because of how fucking banal it is.
After the Gentlemen Groper stopped touching me, I found out that he’d done the same thing to every single woman on staff who was in my age range.
Every. Single. One.
He wasn’t just a Gentlemen Groper. He was a Serial Gentlemen Groper.
[Sidenote: you know how all the other women got him to stop? By telling the Gentlemen Groper that they had boyfriends. Because we live in a fucking patriarchy, where an invisible boyfriend has more authority over a woman’s body than she does.]
Like I said, my harassment story is ridiculously banal. Even within my workplace, I was the rule, not the exception.
And out of my workplace?
31% of women report that they’ve been sexually harassed at work
7% of men report that they’ve been sexually harassed at work
62% of the targets took no action.
Sexual harassment isn’t some kind of rare crime that happens to people you don’t know. It happens everywhere. It happens to everyone. A third of the working women you know have been sexually harassed.
And close to one-tenth of all the working men you know have also been sexually harassed.
Yeeaaaahhh…. I’m not sure “awkward” is the word I’d use.
Rage-inducing might be more like it.
WHY IS THIS EVEN A FUCKING PROBLEM?
I mean, I realize I’m reinventing the feminism wheel over here, but seriously. This is a problem that should never even be a problem, because people should know that “no” means “no.” They should know that people’s bodies are their own, and you don’t touch people without their consent. And managers should ENFORCE THOSE RULES, and pay attention when their employees are all “NO TOUCHING.”
Didn’t we learn this in kindergarten?
Here’s the end of the story:
My summer ended. I left to go back to school. And the Gentlemen Groper? He’s still there.
Other women will come and work at that store, and I don’t doubt he’ll do the same things to them that he did to me.
I know there are people reading this who will think I didn’t do enough. That I should have reported him, formally. That I must have been inviting the attention, somehow. I fear I’ll get a bunch of comments in the vein of “well, if you’d told him to stop in this very particular way, he would have stopped!”
Heck, there’s a part of me that believes that I could have done something differently. That I was inviting the attention, or that I’m responsible for the Gentlemen Groper’s future actions.
But let’s dissect that for a minute, my fair readers.
I was harassed. I was poked and prodded and groped. I lived in a near-constant state of panic attacks. And because all these shitty things happened to me, I’ve also been endowed with some magic responsibility to control The Gentlemen Groper’s actions for all of eternity?
With Great Victimhood comes Great Responsibility?
What is this Reverse Spiderman crap?
I mean, seriously. Not only do I get sexually harassed (hurrah), but on top of everything else, my being sexually harassed gives me EXTRA responsibilities? The fact that I was harassed means I need to be subjected to even more more scrutiny and humiliation? I have to put my job and my safety even more in danger in order to report the harassment to supervisors who, let’s face it, didn’t look particularly interested in stopping it?
I told the Gentlemen Groper to stop in no uncertain terms. I did it repeatedly. I did it fifteen times a shift, occasionally.
And he did nothing.
My managers saw the Gentlemen Groper harassing me; they saw me tell him to stop; they saw him keep doing it.
And they did nothing.
So you know what? If you’ve read this post and your first reaction is “well, you could have done THIS differently” or “why didn’t YOU file a harassment report”?
Then I could give a fuck about what you think.
The person responsible for my sexual harassment?
The Gentlemen Groper.
The people who should have helped, but didn’t? [and who, in some cases, actively encouraged the Gentlemen Groper]
Their behavior should be the issue, not mine. I know the extent of my responsibility in the incident of the Gentlemen Groper.
I know what I can do. I know what I “should” do.
Quick tangent: You know what the most annoying thing about this whole situation is?
I still feel guilty, two years out. There are parts of me that still feel like I should have been able to “handle it.” I should have been able to have that legendary sense of humor. I should not have “overreacted.” I shouldn’t have bothered everyone with this. It wasn’t that bad.
Hell, why am I even writing this blog post? It’s not that big a deal! I should stop bothering all of you with my silly stories. There are people out there experiencing real sexual harassment, as opposed to… whatever happened to me.
Those feelings? Those are the most annoying part.
And that’s why I didn’t report the harassment.
That’s also why, I suspect, most people don’t report sexual harassment. Because we as a culture teach people – and especially women – that they just need to put up with this crap. We as a culture refuse to stand behind harassment victims. We teach people that they should be “flattered” by the attention. That they shouldn’t make a big deal. We remind people that their harassers have lives too: “Do you want to ruin the Gentlemen Groper’s life, C.D.? Do you want to ruin your manager’s lives by bothering them?”
Sexual harassment happens because our culture encourages harassers and silences victims.
I’ve gotten (somewhat) over blaming myself for the harassment. I’ve moved to a place where I can be proud of myself for recognizing what was happening, and for standing up for myself.
I’ve gotten over telling myself I could have done something different.
I’ve gotten over the whole idea that victims have a special responsibility to confront their harassers and magically end sexual harassment through the power of gumption and bootstraps.
But I wanted to do something.
My story is banal. There are millions others like it. But sexual harassment thrives in a culture of silence. We just don’t talk about it. *I* didn’t talk about it.
But I wanted to do something.
So I wrote about it.
Because the first thing we can do – the first thing I can do – is talk about the harassment. Stop pretending it doesn’t happen. Tell people what it looks like. Make it clear that it’s not okay.
Sexual harassment thrives in silence. And no matter how guilty I feel for speaking up, I will not be silent anymore.
Resources: If you or someone you know is being sexually harassed, remember: the harasser’s behavior is not your fault or your responsibility.
Some people want help and advice. Hell, I could have used help and advice while I was being harassed. If you’re one of those people (and you don’t have to be) here’s a good listing of sexual harassment hotlines and resources.
Another, less formal resource is Captain Awkward’s post on the Creepy Dude. It’s brilliant, funny and the advice therein (and in the comments section) is remarkably not-victim-blamey and useful.
Comments policy: any victim-blaming bullshit will either be deleted or mocked. If you write an entire screed about what I “should” have done, you are warned, I will mock you, and I will not be nice about it.
General advice for sexual harassment victims is okay, within limits. Tread carefully. Do not use the word “should.” Remember that people experiencing harassment have enough to deal with without being made to feel inadequate for not behaving “correctly.” Also, if your comment is anything like “well, you can magically control your reactions to being constantly groped,” I will mock you.
And if your comment is ANYWHERE near “but will all flirting be banned then?” or “it’s so hard for men; they constantly have to watch themselves to make sure they’re not making people uncomfortable” (wait, this is a bad thing?) I will mock you SO HARD.
Finally any comments diagnosing the Gentlemen Groper with some kind of mental illness or disability will similarly be deleted or mocked. Excusing the Groper’s behavior because of a disability/illness is insulting to other people with mental illnesses (like me) or mental disabilities, because it assumes that people with mental illnesses/disabilities are a) all assholes and b) are incapable of understanding the word “no.” The topic has been well covered elsewhere, but I’ll say it again: people with mental and social disabilities are still perfectly capable of understanding the words “stop” and “no.”