There were many things in place to protect the harasser, but very little in place to protect me.
It’s telling that when I started writing this essay I caught myself trying to write “well, my experience of sexual harassment wasn’t that bad.” Because everything is relative, and because I think many women have a tendency to downplay the sexist experiences that have become so normalized in our day-to-day lives, I basically caught myself trying to start an essay on sexual harassment by ensuring the reader knows that I’m not overblowing the severity of my experience, and consider it to be “mild” on the scale of annoying to intolerable.
It’s telling that as a woman who has attempted to report sexual harassment in the past, I consider myself “lucky” it wasn’t worse rather than being enraged that anything resembling harassment happened at all. As if escaping worse treatment is a privilege rather than just a basic human right.
A few years ago I abandoned following through on a sexual harassment complaint. Most bureaucracies, at least the ones I’ve experienced, put all the pressure on the victim and are not designed to be conducive for reporting. They are designed so the institution or organization can say they don’t tolerate sexual harassment without (often) having to actually follow through on the tangly and difficult process of reprimanding the perpetrators.
This is why I gave up on a sexual harassment complaint.
Sexual harassment is not limited to sexual advances in the workplace, inappropriate sexualized comments or jokes, or otherwise feeling that another person is treating you in a non-consensual sexualized manner. There are many forms of behavior, which should be prevented by sexual harassment policies, but often go overlooked. This might more appropriately be called gender harassment.
Gender harassment is when the mere reality of your gender, whatever that gender may be, causes you to be subject to being treated a certain way—singled out, belittled, or undermined. Whether or not there is a specifically sexual element to this, it is harassment.
My experience of what I would now call gender harassment occurred as a perfect storm of sexism and ageism. The mention of ageism is important here, as while this individual may have made me uncomfortable for being a woman regardless, it was undoubtedly exacerbated by the audacity of my being a young woman in this work environment.
Through work meetings, I met a much older man who worked in another but related department to my own in a university setting. We were not co-workers, and certainly not friends, but our brief and limited contact as tangentially connected employees gave him, in his mind, permission to barge into my office unannounced and unexpected, to interrupt my consultations with students, and on one occasion, to put his hand on my back while I was seated at my desk. He had no real understanding or appreciation for what my job actually was, but because we both had work ties to some of the same people, including his director whose office was physically located near mine, he would repeatedly approach me as a secretary or receptionist for his boss, coming into my office to try to leave messages or mail for him.
I might normally feel bad describing him as a creepy old man, except that I think old, white, middle class, entitled men working in professional environments have had enough unearned privilege.
He made me so uncomfortable with his leering, general commentary, and overly familiar disposition that I ultimately had to keep my door closed and have the receptionist call me if he was spotted in the vicinity. To their credit, my supervisors were concerned and dutifully referred me to the sexual harassment office and supported whatever I wanted to do about it. The counsellors there were supportive and excellent.
What wasn’t great was the response I received on how to move forward—a face-to-face meeting with the perp and a mediator was the only real option.
I recognize the necessity of safeguards for the accused. I get that, despite the evidence and the many co-workers who witnessed his behavior, the current policy doesn’t allow the supervisor to straight up reprimand and confront the person. There are many things in place to protect the harasser, and there are very little in place to protect me.
I was a part-time grad student and a full-time student services professional. I was leaving the job in a few months to move away and continue my graduate work full-time elsewhere. I was coping with a lifelong anxiety problem. I was only 24. The last thing I wanted to tackle was confronting this old man and coping with the discomfort and embarrassment of avoiding him for my few remaining months at this institution.
This is why I threw in the towel and forgot about taking it further—the experience was too stressful and the likelihood of anything actually being done about it seemed too remote.
More than three years later, I wouldn’t tolerate this now. I have deeper convictions and a greater sense of responsibility to other women, other potential victims of gender-based harassment.
I don’t know what the solution is, but there has to be a better way to discourage and, when necessary, punish the perpetrators of gender and sexual harassment. Being old and “not knowing better” because “things have changed” is not an excuse. A man cannot touch me without my permission because he’s a man and I’m a woman and he’s old and I’m young.
As someone who has frequently faced ageism, I refuse to forgive someone because they didn’t have to respect women “in their day.”
Gender-based harassment cannot be written off as an interpersonal issue or co-worker tension. That kind of attitude naturalizes and ultimately neutralizes the oppression women face every day simply by existing in a society in which patriarchy has tried to dupe everyone into believing it is normal, allowed, and supposed to be there.
Zaren Healey White is a St. John’s, Newfoundland based journalist, web editor, and blogger. She is completing her Master of Gender Studies degree at Memorial University in St. John’s, having already completed a Master of Arts in English at McGill University in Montreal. Zaren blogs at Of Sugar-Baited Words.