How a woman reacts or feels when she is harassed does not change the fact that she should not have to work in a place where such behavior is not only tolerated, but openly permitted.
The other day, my boss commented on my boobs.
What’s surprising is how unsurprising it was. The comment wasn’t particularly original or rude. It wasn’t even flirtatious, just a casual observation about my “ample” chest. My boss, Mr. L, apparently felt so comfortable, so sure that I wouldn’t be offended, that he said it in the presence of my co-worker, Jay, and then walked away.
Jay chimed in to diffuse the uncomfortable situation: “Some girls get annoyed when Mr. L. says stuff like that. But he’s harmless; he doesn’t mean anything by it.” Before I could respond, Jay continued: “I mean, there are women who will try to get their bosses to flirt with them just so they can sue them. I knew this girl once who tried to get her boss to come on to her and then when he finally did, she sued him for sexual harassment.”
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present the latest (straw)boogeywoman: The Girl Who Uses Her Attractiveness to Trick Her Male Boss Into Sexually Harassing Her.
Nowadays, sexual harassment is somewhat of a cultural punchline, conjuring up memories of Anita Hill being questioned by smirking white male Senators about pubic hairs on Coke cans (Onion headline from October ’91: “Supreme Court Nominee Clarence Thomas: ‘The Ass-Slapping Was Never Done In An Inappropriate Manner'”) and unintentionally hilarious PSAs that are still being parodied on Saturday Night Live.
I was 10 when the Hill/Thomas scandal broke—I’d never had a job and was a decade away from my first Women’s Studies course. Now I’m in my 30’s and have held many jobs under many different bosses, male and female. I have worked in offices, schools, theaters, restaurants, museums, and even a used car dealership. Sadly, Mr. L is not the first boss who has felt entitled to comment on my body to my face.
Many women consider a small amount of harassment at their jobs par for the course, like a tax for being allowed to work alongside men in the first place. It’s an annoyance, yes, but usually not worth the aggravation of lodging a formal complaint and dealing with the repercussions (everyone at work thinks you’re overly sensitive, unable to take a joke or compliment). Chauvinism is even considered cute in an old-fashioned kind of way—men like Mr. L. aren’t misogynists, they’re just “old school” in their views on women. They probably also insist on picking up the check and opening car doors, which are chivalrous, inoffensive byproducts of sexism, right?
After Mr. L’s “harmless” comment, I reached out to some female friends who work in a variety of fields, from music to medicine, to see if they had similar stories. My friend Amy told me she was recently humiliated when her colleague announced at a staff gathering that he had crossed the room specifically to get a better look at her cleavage. When she reported the incident to her boss, he responded in an e-mail, “I am sorry; he is who and what he is. It poses a challenge for many of us who work with him. I continue to think of Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’”
I’m pretty sure this is not what the former First Lady had in mind, that women who are sexually harassed at work are “consenting” to feel inferior. How a woman reacts or feels when she is harassed does not change the fact that she should not have to work in a place where such behavior is not only tolerated, but openly permitted. The fact that Mr. L’s comment about my breasts didn’t reduce me to tears or make me slink away red-faced with shame doesn’t make it OK.
The virtual workplace is no better. A friend who contributes regularly to well-known online publications said she is astonished by how many of the negative comments focus on her gender and appearance rather than her writing. Moderators who are supposed to take down derogatory, offensive comments often tell her their hands are tied, which makes her feel “doubly harassed.”
In 2014, you can be sexually harassed at work even if your workplace is your living room. Or, in the case of Iowa dental assistant Melissa Nelson, you can be fired as a preventative measure if your “irresistible” good looks are deemed a threat to the marriage of your employer.
The myth of women using their attractiveness to entrap their bosses is reminiscent of two other female archetypes: The Girl Who Cries Rape and The Welfare Queen. All three depict women nefariously using sex/reproductive abilities to triumph over men (in the case of welfare queens, The Man, i.e. society). Rape accusations that are proven false are rare (somewhere between 2% and 8% of reported rapes, according to most studies) and Reagan’s Cadillac-driving welfare queen from the south side of Chicago most likely never existed. And yet these tales persist—every election cycle, the Welfare Queen is resurrected to scare voters about people (well, black women) abusing the system, and the public continues to believe in the frequency of erroneous rape allegations.
I’ll concede that maybe somewhere, in some workplace, a woman did intentionally set out to coerce her boss into sexually harassing her for financial gain, but even as I type that sentence, I’m struck by how problematic it is. In this hypothetical scenario, couldn’t the boss have just ignored the woman’s advances and reprimanded her? If she’s making sexual overtures to him/other employees and dressing unprofessionally (notice I didn’t say provocatively), it would be his responsibility to address the situation. It’s patently silly to suggest that he would be powerless, unable to resist the woman’s flirtations. Men should give themselves a little more credit—the myth does them a disservice as well, casting them all as helpless horndogs.
It’s not difficult to ignore unwanted flirtation—just ask any woman who’s ever ridden the subway alone, walked past a construction site, or tried to read a book at a bar. Or worked alongside “old-fashioned” men like Mr. L, who probably think as long as they keep their hands to themselves, they’re in the clear.
The next time Mr. L suggests I take off my cardigan so I look “less like a grandma” or expresses his preference for me to wear heels instead of flats, I’d like to look him in the eye and tell him how his pecs look in his shirt or ask him whether he prefers boxers or briefs. But most likely I’ll say nothing. Make no mistake: My silence does not constitute my consent to feeling inferior. I simply refuse to participate in the harassment culture I’m condemning. My hope is that by shifting the conversation away from satire, we can begin to make men think twice before commenting on a colleague’s appearance rather than her work performance.
*all names have been changed
Katie Vagnino is a writer, educator and poet currently based in Eau Claire, WI. She holds an MFA from Emerson College and has taught composition and creative writing at a number of schools/institutions including Roosevelt University, the Newberry Library and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit katievagnino.com.