It happened to me in my very first real job I ever had out of graduate school. I wasn’t sexually assaulted, like 1 in 3 women in this country, but I was sexually harassed, like 99.999999% of women in the world.
It was graduation. I was hot and sweating, because as faculty, during the graduation ceremony we had to wear our academic regalia over our dress clothes, and in South Carolina in May, it was usually in the 90s, and humid. I let myself into the dimly lit library, walked to my office in the middle of the main floor, and peeled off my robe. Underneath I was wearing a knee length floral dress with red and cream flowers and a black background that I loved, from Ann Taylor. It was V-neck, but not a plungy, cleavagy v-neck, with wide straps that went all the way to the edges of my shoulders. Still, I worked at a conservative university – so I had added a cardigan that day. I had worked part of the day already wearing those clothes before I had to line up for the processional. But I was hot, and I was alone in the library, so I shrugged off the cardigan too. I gathered up my things and prepared to head to my car. As I headed through the lobby, I saw a library colleague to my right who I hadn’t known was in the building. He looked me up and down, slowly, and said “Oh, I see you’re wanting to show a little more skin today, huh?” I stopped, turned to him and said “Excuse me, but that was an extremely inappropriate thing to say to me.” He looked surprised. I left him stuttering some response and went to my car, not wanting to be alone with him.
I spent the weekend angry and fuming. I talked to my husband about it, and we agreed I should say something to him. The following Monday, heart pounding, I went to his office, shut the door behind me (it was a window door, so I was comfortable with that) and said “Don’t EVER, EVER say anything to me about what I am wearing, EVER again. You are not to say I look nice. You are not to say ANYTHING. Am I clear?” I think he replied yes – I don’t remember. I walked out.
After that, he didn’t comment on my clothes, but he would come to my office door to “talk”. He would have some insignificant thing to ask me about. What I remember the most is that his eyes would always, always flick down to my chest, linger, and then go back to my face, before he left. Myself and a couple others in the library – not this person — had a tradition of making coffee around 2pm, and I was usually the one who made it. The coffee station was right next to this person’s office. He began coming out of his office when I would be making the coffee, standing closer than necessary – brushing my arm; again, staring at my chest.
I talked to another female colleague, who agreed that he also made her feel uncomfortable in a similar way, with the random chatting and the staring.
I saw him side hug a female work study student. After that, I talked again to the same female colleague, who agreed that we should talk to our boss.
So I did. I told him – my white, male, middle-aged boss — everything I just wrote. I watched him grow more and more uncomfortable as I talked. At the end, I asked what he would do.
He said, “But, ______ is such a nice, Christian man. I just don’t believe he would do those things.”
I stared at him, then said “But, he did. Christian has nothing to do with it. He did and said them to me, and to <my female colleague>, and to our female work study student. Even if the first two aren’t enough, isn’t this matter of the student worth addressing?
In the end, he did nothing. This person made me uncomfortable every day until he finally retired a year before I left. I didn’t take it any further than my boss. I should have. My mid-thirties self would definitely have, but I was my mid-twenties self then, and less aware of my rights, worth, and power.
Let’s say that something more serious had happened. Let’s say that years later, I reported that something, because __________ was being considered for a really important job with lots of power and influence. Here are some of the things that might make people not believe MY story.
- I do not know which year it was. I recall that it was graduation with certainty.
- I don’t remember the year of the work study student, but I think she was an upperclassman at the time, which could possibly pin-point it to one of two years. I don’t remember how long after the incident with me that I saw him side hug her.
- I don’t remember whether I talked to my boss alone, or whether my colleague came with me.
- I think it was the following Monday that I had the follow up conversation with the person who harassed me, but it could have been later.
- I don’t remember whether it was the Thursday afternoon, Saturday morning, or the Saturday afternoon graduation.
- There were no witnesses during any of the incidents, though the coffee station was right outside my boss’s office so he must have seen him near me. I talked to my colleague, and my boss. They may or may not remember. I surely wouldn’t count on my boss to remember anything.
Here’s what I am clear on: who it was, what he did, and what he said.
The thing that I hear, over and over from women whose stories I have heard, is the concept that because a man is clean cut, clean shaven, white (usually), nice, a good worker, a good husband, a good father, a good citizen and above all, a GOOD, CHRISTIAN, MAN —- that they could not POSSIBLY have committed sexual harassment. I heard it just last week from two young women who were not believed.
It’s bullshit. They can, they do, and they did.
I was riveted by the Ford/Kavanaugh hearings like so many others. If there was ever a GRAY ISSUE, it’s this, even though most would have us believe that it’s incredibly black and white.
The Democrats, most of the media, and most women – believe Dr. Ford.
The Republicans and the fundamentalist Christians and 80% of the evangelical Christians, including the women (!) believe Judge Kavanaugh.
Let’s not be naïve, people. That hearing was about power, not about truth. It was DRIPPING with political garbage on both sides of the aisle. Dems wasting Dr. Ford’s time using their platform to talk about how sorry they are and what great allies they are to women, etc. etc. etc. Repubs like my senator from SC popping off at the mouth, yelling, and talking, YET AGAIN, about how NICE, HONEST, AND GOOD Judge Kavanaugh is.
Power. The balance of the Supreme Court at stake. OF COURSE the democrats want to delay and push this decision past midterms in the hopes that they take back the senate. OF COURSE the Republicans want to rush this nomination through so that they can have a court balanced toward their side. This life time appointment matters far, far more than any presidential election.
I don’t care about their power struggle – at least not in this context. I voted for Bush in 2004, Obama in 2008 and 2012, and for Hillary Clinton in 2016. I don’t mind admitting to any of those decisions. I loved Obama as a president, but let me tell you. If a woman comes out with a credible claim of sexual harassment, abuse, or assault – I’m believing her. Because I know how hard it is to report. Because I know how hard it is to feel like you would be the one “destroying someone’s reputation”. Because I know how certain you have to be to put yourself in Dr. Ford’s position.
Is Judge Kavanaugh innocent? Maybe. I saw lots of people praying for the Judge’s family and Dr. Ford’s family. I did too, actually. You know who I prayed for the most on Friday morning though? Jeff Flake. As were many other women I know. (Looks like we got something done, incidentally!) I hope that the FBI investigation this week can tell us something conclusive. Having an FBI investigation is the decent thing to do. It is the human thing to do. I don’t give a damn whether the Dems delayed (they did) or not. The fact is, we should do everything in our power TO CHECK whether one of the people sitting on the highest, most powerful court in the country has sexually assaulted somebody.
And to the Christians, especially my conservative friends, and especially the WOMEN who are SO eager to give Judge Kavanaugh their approval. I’d like to ask you to decide what you love more – power or truth. The answer to that has no political allegiance or party. Or at least it shouldn’t. Your daughters AND sons will ask what you cared about. And they should.
Thanks for reading.