I had coffee yesterday with a student of mine who just graduated—she’s off to college upstate in a few days. (Does this make her my student emeritus?) She’s a lovely, poised, sincere girl named Olivia. I had planned to give her the “Lady Goes to College” talk: Don’t let anyone hand you a drink, don’t drink to get drunk, always walk home with your girls, if a boy says it’s too cold to walk back to his dorm from yours, don’t buy it, etc. Olivia turned out to be—as I suspected—quite level-headed and informed about all of it, and she claims she doesn’t even like to drink. (!)
Then we started talking about sexual harassment. This, it seemed, wasn’t something she would be able to avoid, like getting falling-down drunk and waking up under a coffee table. It’s already happened; it’s been happening for years. And not just the garden-variety street harassment anyone with two X-chromosomes walking down Fulton Street is familiar with; we’re talking sexual harassment at her job. Not only from her co-workers, but from her boss. Ugh.
And I had been so full of advice up to that point, sharing every granule of wisdom I could dig up about college and adulthood, talking a mile minute, but when she told me what her boss had said to her, I was just like, Damn. Thinking to myself: I know exactly what you mean. I have experienced that so many times. I’ve even gotten it from colleagues at school, people she knows.
Suddenly I didn’t feel so wise.
I mean, what did I do about it when I got harassed at work? Let’s see: at the Post Office, it was easy, I told my supervisor, and the offending weirdo stopped wandering into my work station. But at a fine-dining restaurant where I waited tables in Philly, the kitchen was always abuzz with hostile, disgusting commentary about women and sex, and I did nothing. What could I do? They were cooks; that’s what they did. (Or this was my impression, based on the culture of the restaurant: the kitchen had the power.) And at the old east-midtown steakhouse where I worked before I started teaching, forget it. Like Olivia, I got gross, intimidating comments from my manager. Which meant that when I received unwanted attention from customers—bankers, mostly, puffing their chests and drinking themselves stupid as they gnawed on steak—I ignored it. And the guy at our school who told me, with a leer in his voice, how good I looked every time I wore a particular dress—well, he happens to be one of my favorite colleagues. This seemed to be how he talked sometimes; he wasn’t trying to be an asshole.
“My boss is a good guy,” Olivia insisted. “It was really nice of him to give me the job. And he goes to church every Sunday. And he’s strict about how we conduct ourselves, he doesn’t let us come in with short shorts or sagging pants.” (She works at a daycare staffed mainly by teenagers.) “And he has two teenage daughters,” she added. This is a man with values, she seemed to be saying. How could he make her so uncomfortable? She was having a hard time reconciling it. She seemed ashamed.
“Honey, just because the man goes to church doesn’t mean he’s incapable of making an inappropriate comment to his female employee. He probably has no idea he did anything wrong. What he said is in step with the culture we live in,” I told her. “It doesn’t mean it’s not sexual harassment. It doesn’t mean it’s okay.” Doesn’t mean it won’t happen again, and again, and again, I thought.
Feminism may have come a long way since office games of Scuttle, but I challenge you, female readers, to think hard for a minute. How are your daily interactions colored by a little bit (or a lot) of sexism? At work, on the street, in the subway, across the counter at the cash register, in line at the DMV, staring at a billboard…? Did you feel like there was anything you could do about it? If so, did you do it?
If you’re asking me, no, I didn’t, not every time. I told Olivia about the time—a month or two ago—when I stepped off the C train at Utica because the conductor announced it was going express. Sharing what I thought was a moment of collective humanity with a few exasperated passengers, I announced, “I’m gonna walk.” One of them, a man in his forties, said, “I’ll walk with you,” and fell into step beside me. Did I want his company? No. Did I think there was anything I could so or say to stop him? No. Isn’t that ridiculous? Why was I so terrified? Terrified of what? Confrontation? Why did I say nothing, gritting my teeth, walking with him the entire way to school? He yammered on about himself and flirted shamelessly with me, asked for my number, didn’t care that I was married (“Naw, we can just be friends”), and told me to look him up on MySpace. (MySpace?) Not once did I find the guts to leave his company or be anything less than polite. I didn’t give him my number, or look him up on MySpace. (MySpace?) But I did, by virtue of not asserting myself, allow this complete stranger to see where I worked, and to monopolize 15 minutes of my time.
Olivia, I still think you should write your boss a letter after your last day and tell him he made you uncomfortable. I still think his reaction, ultimately, is unlikely to be of much consequence to you, and you might open his eyes a little. He’s in the business of teaching and stewarding young people, both the children in his care and the teenagers in his employ. He should know how he made you feel.
Also, it’s illegal. Civil rights activists fought long and hard to make sexual harassment in the workplace against the law—let’s honor the legacy. Let’s do better.