What it takes to address sexual harassment without a platform

A letter to the man I overheard criticizing the women coming forward about sexual harassment,

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It takes much more than a statement to address sexual harassment in the workplace.

To the man I overheard criticizing the women coming forward about sexual harassment,

I wasn’t intentionally trying to eavesdrop on your conversation. Well, not at first. I was standing in line to get my afternoon coffee when I heard,

“If a woman was sexually harassed 20 years ago and never said anything, she must not have had a problem with it at the time.” How could that not catch my attention…

“These famous women can’t use sexual harassment to climb the ladder at work and then decide all these years later they weren’t OK with it.” It was my turn to order but I lingered for another moment…

“Yeah, I mean, these women can’t have it both ways”.

I got my drink, walked back up to my office and sat at my desk, seething over what I just heard. Instead of stewing in my anger, I decided to write you this letter in the hopes that you, or someone who shares your mindset, might read it and reconsider your views.  Or, to put it simply, I want to tell you why you’re wrong (and that’s putting it nicely).

I was sexually harassed by my former boss many years ago. I didn’t say anything and did my best to ignore it while I concentrated on my job. Does that mean I didn’t have a problem with it?

During my time at his company I got a promotion, a raise and achieved several professional accomplishments I proudly put on my resume. Are you saying I used the harassment to climb the corporate ladder?

I decided to eventually come forward about his actions and sued him. Do you think I got it both ways?

Before you make your judgement, you may need more details about what happened so I’ll answer some recurring questions I’ve heard regarding sexual harassment claims. First, the ever so popular, why didn’t I report him to HR? (I really hate this question, as if it’s that simple even with a formal department). This wasn’t an option because there was no human resources department, which can be quite common with small companies. In my case, the woman who came into work twice a week to handle his finances also served as “human resources”. Not to mention she was an old friend of my boss, so I think you can understand my predicament.

Next, why didn’t I get another job?  I certainly looked, but couldn’t find anything feasible. Why didn’t I just quit? I was a 27-year-old woman living alone and supporting myself. I had rent and bills due every month and relied on my income alone to pay them. I also prided myself on the effort I put into my job and I didn’t want to let his repulsive behavior deter me from achieving my professional goals.

Why didn’t I say anything to him?  I was afraid of what his reaction would be and I didn’t want to risk getting fired without another job opportunity. I did come very close to confronting him one time.  I can vividly remember anxiously waiting for our company meeting to end so I could speak to him. I planned exactly what I would say and convinced myself he would appreciate my openness and honesty and we would move forward from it. Why didn’t I do it? He started drinking whiskey about halfway through the meeting to celebrate the end of the quarter. I sometimes still wonder what would’ve happened had I gone through with it.

So, what did I do? Well, I called my doctor to get an anti-anxiety prescription to help me deal with the heart palpitations and panic attacks that coincidentally started just after his first sexual comment. I saved a screen shot of every disgusting text he sent me to keep record of his harassment and protect myself should he ever try to say that the nature of his comments was reciprocated. I kept a detailed log of all the work trips and meetings that hosted every inappropriate interaction so I would have documented proof of his conduct. I knew that even though I felt powerless at the time, I could at least prepare for the day that I might be able to stand up for myself and hold him accountable for his actions.

I have a sneaking suspicion you still don’t understand what it took to address his relentless harassment, so let me spell it out.  One day I was laid off with no reason. It wasn’t a surprise, he had stopped giving me projects to work on and became more difficult to get ahold of when I needed his approval for presentations I had created.  I guess he got tired of my repeated rejections and noticed my naturally bubbly personality had become withdrawn whenever I was around him. After I was told my employment was terminated I remember feeling oddly at ease, but now it makes sense. An impossible decision was finally made for me. I no longer had a job but I finally had control. I had the power to choose what I wanted to do about his harassment, without jeopardizing my career. Did I want to forget and move on or use the opportunity to finally hold him accountable. To be honest, I didn’t give myself much of a choice because I blamed myself for putting up with it for so long. I knew I wasn’t responsible for his behavior, but I struggled with the belief that I was partially at fault for never speaking up against it. I thought if I finally stood up to him it would vindicate my inactions for the past year. I decided to do one of the most challenging things in my life and I sued him.

I didn’t have a platform or money to help my case, so I spent an entire summer putting together a 3-inch stack of papers that supported my allegations. Preparing my case was a full-time job, and I don’t know how I would’ve had the time or emotional stability to do it had I immediately gotten hired somewhere else. The entire process took almost one year, lots of sleepless nights and a dramatic weight loss. What turned out to be the most difficult and isolating months of my life also proved to be one of my proudest accomplishments. I not only stood up for myself, but I stood up for any female that he may have harassed after me.

Although I wonder if reading this would have changed your mind about sexual harassment, I also don’t care. The main purpose of my story is to make sure other women who may have overheard or read similar comments are not discouraged from coming forward. It doesn’t matter if a woman waits 15 days or 15 years to come forward, what matters is that she does. All these famous women speaking out about sexual harassment aren’t having it both ways.  They’re using their platform to expose inappropriate behavior and are making it easier for someone like me to do the same. Had my situation happened today instead of 5 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have been terrified of losing my job. I probably wouldn’t have been worried that every job I applied to after would somehow find out about how I sued my old boss for sexual harassment and not want to hire me because of it. Everyone who comes forward about sexual harassment helps change the stigma of how a woman is perceived if she exposes toxic behavior, and we need to encourage it. Next time you want to criticize how a woman addresses sexual harassment and accuse her of “having it both ways”, remember that she didn’t choose to have it the first way when she was harassed.

And to the woman who has found herself in the same situation I was once in, please know there is no perfect way to handle sexual harassment. The only hope is to make the best out of a debilitating situation, and I have no doubt that is whatever you are doing now. I cannot say what the best course of action is for you because it’s different for everyone, but some day you will have the opportunity to speak out about what happened. It doesn’t matter when, but the important thing is that you do.

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