Harassed

This week Donald Trump made a comment to USA Today that if his daughter Ivanka were sexually harassed in the workplace, he hoped she would find a different company or career. The problem with this, as victim advocates quickly asserted, is many workers can’t just quit their jobs if they are harassed at work. They don’t have the financial resources to be without work, and it takes time to find a new position. Having a gap between jobs or a history of changing jobs can penalize job seekers. In addition, finding a new career can be expensive if you have to get more training or certifications. Most of us don’t have a wealthy father who can simply carve out a position for us in the family business, should we decide to leave our current positions.

And here’s the other thing: why should a victim of sexual harassment have to leave their job? Companies have a responsibility to protect workers and take action when employees encounter a hostile workplace.

Trump’s son, Eric, came to his father’s defense, stating that his sister is a “strong, powerful woman” who wouldn’t allow herself to be subjected to harassment. This is a disservice to anyone who has experienced harassment because it places blame on victims, suggesting they “allowed” themselves to be harassed. Sexual harassment is not the victim’s fault. It’s about a predator feeling entitled to another person’s time, space, and body. Harassment can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re strong or not. It doesn’t matter what you wear to work. It doesn’t even matter what gender you are, because yes, males can also be victims of sexual harassment. Because men are “supposed” to be physically stronger than the person who harassed them, they may be more hesitant to come forward.

I know both men and women who have been harassed, and it has not been easy for any of them to speak about their experiences. There’s a great deal of shame. Victims tend to blame themselves, wondering what they could have done differently. They worry that reporting will get them fired, and sometimes it does. It’s not legal to fire somebody for reporting harassment, but it happens. You could take your employer to court over it…if you had the money for legal fees.

Even if you do everything you’re “supposed” to do—even if you dress professionally and set boundaries—you can still receive unwanted comments or touching, and employers don’t always do what they’re required to do to help you. Unfortunately, I know this all too well. Here’s my story.

The summer after my first year of college, I took a retail job in a shoe store. I was nineteen.

I knew not to hitchhike or get in a car with a stranger, and I knew the best way to deal with catcalling was to ignore it and keep walking. I knew to check my backseat before driving at night, to make sure nobody was hiding there. I knew not to stay out too late, and to lock the door to my apartment when I got home. I knew that if I followed all these rules, I’d be okay.

I was utterly unequipped to deal with harassment at work.

Work is supposed to be safe. You do your job and you get paid. You dress modestly. You don’t cause waves with your co-workers and you show your boss respect. You are polite to everyone, especially customers. Because the customer is always right.

Except sometimes the customer is wrong.

My duties in the store were to unpack shipments of new shoes, place them on shelves and in displays, assist customers, ring up purchases, and, at closing time, straighten shelves and then mop and vacuum the store. The store was located at the end of a strip mall, with windows across the front and one of the sides of the store. As a joke, I called it the fishbowl, because it felt like anyone in the parking lot could see everything going on in the store.

I felt safe there at first, even when we experienced a series of shoplifting incidents. Nobody was threatened or hurt—the thieves would simply grab a pair of shoes and take off. The boss instructed us not to run after shoplifters, but to report the incident to her.

Then a man started coming to the store. He wasn’t much older than me. The first time he came, he asked for my assistance as he chose a pair of shoes from the shelf. As I helped him, he asked me out. Flustered, I told him, “No thanks, I have a boyfriend.”

He started coming in more frequently. He would buy shoes and come in the next day to return them. After a while, he didn’t even buy shoes in his size. Once he bought a pair of children’s shoes. I knew he wasn’t going to wear those, and I seriously doubted he bought them for someone else. He returned that pair as well.

Each time he came in, he asked me out. Even though I told him no repeatedly, he persisted. He would follow me around the store, trying to touch my arms, my shoulders, whatever he could get away with. I stopped being polite. When I saw him coming, I would immediately make myself busy, talking with other customers, surrounding myself with people so he couldn’t corner me at the back of the store. He’d try talking to me and I’d walk away, quick to engage with the next customer. Sometimes I couldn’t walk away, because I was working the register. He’d stand there staring as I rang up other people’s purchases.

I told my boyfriend about the man harassing me, and I told my parents. But what could they do? They suggested I quit, but I needed the money for college, and there wasn’t time to get another job before school started. They told me to report the guy to my boss. I did. It didn’t help.

When I told my boss about the man, she brushed off my concerns. She said, “Well, I guess you can work in the back when he comes in.” That was it. So, the next time the man came to the store, I identified him to my boss and went to work in the back, unpacking a shipment. As I stood there, taking shoes out of boxes, I realized I couldn’t hide in the back of the store each time the guy came in. If I did, I’d lose my job. More than that, I felt shame for hiding. I felt like a coward.

Truth is, I was frightened. Each night I closed up shop, I had a co-worker watch as I got into my car. I’d quickly run across the parking lot, check the back seat, jump inside, and lock my doors. Then, as I’d drove home, I’d watch to make sure no one was following me. I’d hurry into my studio apartment where I lived alone, lock my door, and set up an electric alarm my boyfriend bought for the door. Anybody who tried to come in while it was armed would be treated to a blaring earful. I slept with a can of pepper spray on my nightstand, a baseball bat beside my bed, and a carving knife between the mattress and box springs—all within reach if I woke to find him breaking in and didn’t have time to call the police. I didn’t sleep much, but I was ready to defend myself. Terrified and paranoid, but ready.

The harassment finally stopped, but not because anything I did made it stop. It didn’t stop because my company stepped up to protect me, because they didn’t. I don’t know why I never called the cops. The person I am now would have, but at the time I was just a scared kid. I guess I was afraid of going over my boss’s head. Since she hadn’t helped me, maybe the police wouldn’t either.

The last night I saw this man at the store, he came in to ask me out once again, and as always, I told him no and walked away to help other customers. He left, only to return after we’d closed down the register and locked the doors.

I was mopping the front of the store when he walked up to the glass in front of me. He knocked on the window, trying to get my attention. I saw him and immediately looked away, pretending I didn’t see him. I mopped the floor, refusing to look at him even though I could feel him staring at me.

He stayed there the entire time I mopped. I finished the job and took the mop and bucket to the back of the store to empty it. When I came back out to vacuum, he was gone.

I was frightened he’d come back when I tried to leave the store, that maybe he was waiting for me in his car. With the lights on in the store, I couldn’t see much of the dark parking lot. I felt more vulnerable than ever in the fishbowl, knowing he could see me, but I couldn’t see him.

Thankfully, I only saw him one other time. He was hanging out with a group of guys in front of the student union at my college. School had started and I quit my job at the shoe store to focus on academics. When I spotted him, I walked away as quickly as I could so he didn’t see me. The realization that he attended the same university filled me with dread, but our paths never crossed again. The next summer, I took a different job.

It’s not easy for me to share this with you. I still wonder what I should have done differently. But I think it’s important that we talk about these things, because the more we share about our experiences, the more empowered other people will feel to speak up. And I do want people to feel empowered. I never want anyone to feel as scared, vulnerable, and helpless as I felt. I never want anyone to feel like they weren’t “strong enough” or they “allowed” themselves to be harmed. Maybe if we keep speaking about these experiences, we can change perceptions about what it means to be victimized and how we can hold employers and aggressors accountable.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016

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