I used to believe that if I was being sexually harassed at work, I would know. Like, holy macaroni, no matter how many times I tell Mac to stopping macking on me, he keeps inviting me over to a game of strip chess. I’d be able to document everything, talk to HR, and voila! Sexual harassment managed.
Oh, how strip-chess was the least of my problems. What happened to me left me in a state of mental limbo, often wondering, Wait, am I being harassed?
It started with a smile (doesn’t it always?). I smiled as I asked him questions to help me write content, and soon he started swinging by my desk, inviting me to Paris. “I only go to Paris with people who know my last name,” I’d reply, laughing polite I-will-make-a-favorable-impression chuckles.
I was new at the job, eager to appear good-humored and easy to work with, so when he started G-chatting me, I replied. He invited me to lunch — I deflected. We chatted about the cupcakes served at All Hands, upcoming deadlines, BART. He invited me to lunch — I declined.
Then came the R-rated poetry. Famed risque lines that hung in my chat-box like a smirk, always followed later by Never mind, maybe that was inappropriate — I ignored it all.
An apricot-sized pit of trepidation grew in my stomach during the weeks this behavior prevailed. I felt like his bad manners — as my mother called his behavior — were my own fault.
We learned during a timely sexual harassment training at work that while it would be ideal if people didn’t cross lines, it was up to other people to set boundaries (the whole shebang was wink-winkily delivered, so everyone knew we people were men and other people women). And I was setting a boundary with silence, a social cue so quiet only deeply attuned people would pick it up.
One reason I didn’t say anything came from fear of overreacting. Sure, if you read between the lines you saw innuendo and romantic intent, but put on a pair of pure-colored glasses and it looked easy to suggest his messages were just simply verses shared from one word-bird to another. Maybe he needed to learn social cues, but I didn’t want to jeopardize my reputation to be his teacher.
I kept hoping for a holy macaroni moment, one that would allow me to know if these messages were something or if they were nothing. How could I capture intent? Could I blame the guy if I didn’t say “no”? The only clarity I had on the situation was that the definition of sexual harassment can be blurry. I felt damned if I said something, doomed if I didn’t.
So I stayed quiet, even as his messages became allusions to articles I retweeted, despite not following me on Twitter. Is the you that you refer to me? he asked once without context, minutes after I vaguetweeted (it wasn’t). Eventually I left the job, and only then did the messages stop.
There’s a part of me that still hates myself for not mustering the courage to help protect his future coworkers from discomfort, for refusing to teach in a teachable moment, for not being able to find a graceful way to talk about this. But there’s a larger part of me who looks back at the woman I was and says, “I understand.”
And maybe that’s all we can hope for from ourselves, each other, and eventually those I will speak up to: a willingness to understand and accept someone where they are, as they are.
When Alicia was 17, she wrote an essay titled "I Am a Snail Watcher." The themes of that essay—noticing tiny details, celebrating small victories, and rooting for the under-appreciated—still apply to her daily life and affect her writing.
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