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This is what Sexual Harassment looks like … June 8, 2006

Posted by Winter in sexual harrassment.

Warning: the language quoted in this post could be triggering if you have experienced sexual harassment or abuse.

This morning I came across a post on the Vagina Magazine blog telling me that the Equal Opportunities commission are looking for stories about sexual harassment. Having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, I decided that I’d like to participate, not least because it gives me an opportunity to do something positive with an experience that’s been in the back of my mind for a long time.

I was 21 years old, just out of college, and I got a simple administrative job in an office. I wanted to go back and study for an MA after one year and this job paid just enough for me to live independently and save some money. I was a feminist, but I was very naïve, even innocent. Within a few weeks of joining the office, I realised that three men in the room were actively harassing the female staff, especially the younger ones. These were quite well-educated men in their thirties and forties. Two of them were married. There were several other men in the office who did not participate in the harassment, but did nothing to stop it and were clearly on friendly terms with the perpetrators. Once they realised that I was lacking in confidence, they started to pick on me and, as is often the case with sexual harassment, they presented their behaviour as a harmless joke, nothing to get upset about, something that should actually be experienced as flattering.

Officially, I did nothing, but I wrote some of it down in a notebook, with the idea of making a complaint if I ever got up the courage. I never did, and when I left the job the notes went into a file and festered there for seven years, until today, when I pulled them out thinking about using them in my contribution to the EOC. When I read and really remembered what had happened, I decided to post about my experiences here because I think it shows something of the reality of sexual harassment.

It began with comments about my breasts: “Your chair’s too low, your breasts are resting on your desk.” Then they moved onto my hair. At the time, I was a little bit of a goth and had long wavy black hair which I kept simply bundled up at work in a scrunchy. One day I let it down for a few minutes and this action was what really kicked things off: “That was sexy. Your hair all cascading down your tits.” After this they made repeated comments about my hair and demanded that I should let it loose for them because it was “sexy.” One time, a female colleague and I were discussing a work do in which we planned to dress up a bit: “Are you going to show us your tits?” Another occasion, I mentioned that I was going out dressed up: “I’ll be waiting outside in my wank mac.” I’m not entirely sure what that means, which is probably a good thing. They progressed to even more explicit comments. One of them began to ask me repeatedly if I wanted to “eat cock.” Once, when someone asked me what I wanted for my birthday, one chimed in “I’ll stick my cock between your tits and cum on your face.” I was not the only one subject to this abuse and I’ve also noted some of the things said to other women in the room. One that stands out is, “I’ve cut my nails if you want a good fingering.” To the 18 year old woman identified as the office slut, when she asked him if he’d like a chocolate, “Only if you melt it down and put it on your tits.” Also, directed at her, I have, “You weren’t born with a mattress strapped to your back.” And so it went on. They were also fascinated with our underwear and would repeatedly ask us if we were wearing thongs. They said they liked thongs because it made it easier to have anal sex without removing the woman’s underwear. Of course, they would insist that all women should have their pubic areas shaved.

The scariest thing that happened to me was at the Christmas meal when one of them bought me a drink. After I’d taken a sip he said “I put something in that.” I knew he hadn’t because he wouldn’t tell me if he had, but it was the first time he suggested himself capable of rape. I rather doubt it, but he seemed to think it cool to make such an insinuation.

Obsession with tits, tit wanks, thongs, anal sex and shaved women, all presented as harmless fun …. Do you recognise the language? Yes, that’s right: lads’ mags. Lads’ mags had an important role as props in the sexual harassment. They were really getting started at the time and I think they only had Loaded and Maxim in the office. These men always brought them in and would put up pictures on the wall. They were told to remove these pictures and would comply for a while and then put up some more. They put similar images on their computer backgrounds and would read things out to us from the articles. It was inescapable.

Now, let me get something straight, I don’t for one moment think that the lads mags created the misogyny demonstrated by these men or made them engage in sexual harassment. They were clearly inveterate misogynists from way back in their lives and would have sexually harassed women no matter what. However, the lads’ mags provided them with a language and a kind of legitimisation. Suddenly there was a media loudly proclaiming that this kind of attitude to women does not constitute harassment; it’s fun, it’s ok, it’s ironic. I’m sure those men knew full well that this was not the case. They were not trying to make us have fun, they got off on making is uncomfortable and anxious, but the lads’ mags provided them with a rhetoric with which to justify themselves.

Things came to a crunch for me one day when one of them suddenly grabbed my hair in the office and tried to loose it. I hit him. I hit him hard. “Owwwww” he wailed. After that, the dynamic shifted a little. I made more effort to stand up for myself and put them down. They immediately started referring to me as a “lesbian,” which was true, but I certainly wasn’t out in that office (they were as homophobic as they were sexist), and also, interestingly, as a “dominatrix.”

I say “interesting” because I view the sexual harassment of women as one aspect of much larger (but in no way monolithic) sexist disciplinary apparatuses which work to produce submissive, anxious, self-conscious and, all importantly, frightened, female subjects. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I suspect most women in the UK, if not all women, will have been subjected to some form of sexual harassment in their lives. It exists on a continuum, of course, but it’s all about controlling women.

As soon as I attempted to discipline the men through a little bit of violence and some verbal puts downs, they started referring to me as a dominatrix, an icon of sexual discipline. It was partly a way to contain me, but also I think, to speak about something in me that scared them a bit.

So why didn’t I do anything? Why didn’t I complain? I thought about it a lot, but I needed the job and the money. I knew that if I complained I would probably be ostracised in the working environment and thought I would have to leave anyway. I was pretty convinced that the other women in the office would not support me. They generally responded to the harassment with nervous giggles or blank stares. The 18 year old did fight back in her way, but she tried to do it on their terms, and this also egged them on. Maybe I was wrong. If it happened to me now, I would fight them all the way, but I’m much older now and a very different person.

Since then I’ve worked in 3 more offices with a lot of different men and I have never experienced anything of the kind again, thank goodness. It was specific, it was absolutely deliberate, and I was never in any doubt about the fact that I was being sexually harassed.

I am not going to suggest that sexual harassment is a simple issue; I know full well that it isn’t, but I thought I’d put my own experiences out there and see if anyone had anything to say.



1. bookdrunk - June 8, 2006

Jeez. I think I can only say thanks for sharing your experience: speaking out is the only way to stop such behaviour from being unmarked and unremarkable. I feel lucky, if not privileged, for not having had to face that kind of casual abuse.

2. John - June 9, 2006

That’s great that you gave the warning about possibly triggering someone. Very appropriate. 🙂

3. ms-violet - June 9, 2006

I felt insanely proud of my little sister yesterday who told me that she had stood up for herself when she and her friends were being sexually harassed in a pub. But what concerns me is the fact that SHE was told by the barstaff that if she “had a go at” a regular again, SHE would get thrown out. My sister was made out to be the bad-guy since she stood up for herself and the behaviour of the males was dismissed since they’d “had one too many”. What a fantastic message to be sending out, huh?!

4. Andygrrl - June 9, 2006

jesus winter. I’ve only had a very slight taste of behavior like that, I can’t imagine enduring it on a daily basis.
I don’t blame you for being afraid to “do” anything about it. Think of the power dynamics. Maybe if you could have gotten the other women on your side, but they would have to have the same view as you, and lots of women just think this stuff is *normal*, you know? But at least you were smart enough to document it, in case the opportunity came along.
Maybe there should be a blog where women could expose sexually abusive coworkers. Like that one where women post pictures of guys who are harrassing them on the street. I don’t know, just a thought.

5. Winter - June 9, 2006

Hurrah for your sister Ms Violet. You know, as I get older, I think I’d rather thrown out of the pub than put up with the harassment. But, yeah, your sister was being the bad guy because she was objecting and that’s exactly what women are not supposed to do. We’re supposed to shut up and take it, giggle and look at the floor.

You’re right Andy, a lot of women do think it’s “normal” behaviour. Hmm I’m not sure how I feel about naming and shaming, but I think a website where women who are being harassed could get together to discuss it and how to fight it would be good … if such a thing doesn’t already exist.

6. cristy - July 6, 2006

I have been working my way through a backlog of ‘posts to read’ so sorry for coming into the discussion so late.

I just wanted to say how much I appreciated your post. I have experienced minor sexual harassment in the work place before, but many of my friends have experienced it on a far more serious scale. It is always upsetting to realise how disempowering it can be and how the structures are still not in place to support women to make a complaint or to effectively stand up to the men (or women on occasion) who harass them.

Several of my friends have ended up leaving their jobs, because they were not adequately supported once they came forward (while the men who harassed them stayed employed), which is a terrible indictment on the real power dynamics that still operate in the workplace.

7. Winter - July 10, 2006

Thanks cristy.

Disempowering indeed. It was particularly upsetting because I went through an even worse period of sexual harassment (I should call it abuse really) while at school. After this second experience, I became very sensitive and anxious for some time.

Sadly, I’m sure that if I had gone forward, it would have been me who had to leave.

8. Anonymous - April 14, 2007

I was recently subject to sexual harassment by a colleague I trusted and thought was a decent person. This made me feel very confused and anxious. Also the fact that he had a family made me very worried and anxious about the effect a complain would have on them, because if you saw him you would think he was the last person capable of sexually harassing anybody. However, I did not do anything, and although I left my job eventually now I feel quite depressed and sad because of what happened.

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