Almost a decade ago now, I was sexually assaulted in the workplace on a routine basis. Perhaps more shocking: presidential candidate Donald Trump helped me come to that realization.
Recently, Trump has been blasted for a videotape, recorded back in 2005, in which he made extremely crude and vulgar remarks about women with Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush.
Some have claimed this was “just locker room talk between men”—but the definitions of sexual harassment and assault disagree. Sexual harassment is defined as bullying or coercion of a sexual nature, or the inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favors. Sexual assault is when a person is coerced or physically forced to engage against their will into a sexual act, or a non-consensual sexual touching of a person.
Even with these acts so clearly defined, numerous reported and unreported cases of sexual harassment and abuse still take place in 2016.
There’s a fine line.
Sexual harassment or assault isn’t always as black and white. However, the important thing is to know if you’re ever uncomfortable, you need to speak up.
Make a detailed log about each incident. Include what happened, when it happened, and what you did as a result of it happening.
Where my story begins.
When I was fifteen, a coworker twice my age made lewd comments to me daily, telling me all the things he wanted to do to my body. At the time, I knew it was wrong, but I was only fifteen and not entirely sure how to handle the situation.
I told my boss, who gave me a “boys will be boys” excuse for my coworker’s comments. He added that if I truly desired the unwanted attention to stop, I’d find my own way to make it clear to the coworker, who in addition to being twice my age was also at least twice my size. I remember telling him repeatedly to stop talking to me that way and nothing changed.
One day, he followed me home, and my fear of him rose to a whole new level. I worked for a national hardware store chain, and because my boss would do nothing to help, I went straight to headquarters. They forced my boss to fire the coworker. Neither of them were happy about it, to say the least.
Although this is just a rumor, I heard my former coworker was quickly hired by another retail chain and shortly thereafter beaten within an inch of his life by a customer’s husband after telling her he wanted to father her children. If true, I often wonder if at that point he had learned how not to treat women.
The cycle continues.
Fast forward to a decade ago. I was older and wiser, although apparently not enough so. Almost immediately upon starting a new job, my middle-aged director-level boss was touching me. He found any excuse to rub my shoulders and otherwise put his hands on me.
At first I went to peers at my level. These other women seemed to just accept this unwanted touching as par for the course. “At least it’s only the touching,” they said. “He refuses to take his eyes off my boobs. He will literally be on a conference call and turn his speakerphone on, just so he can face away from the phone and directly at my chest.”
It got so bad that I had to install a doorbell on my cubicle -- one of those that if you broke the plane, it would ring -- so I knew when he was coming up behind me and I could steel myself for what was about to happen.
I then went to a colleague at the director level. He was sympathetic and gave me some tips. Write everything down, he said, and once you have a big enough log, take it to HR. So I did.
Sometimes HR doesn’t have your back.
The log itself was an excellent idea, but even though they are required by law to investigate, sometimes, like here, HR won't. At the end of the day, HR is there to protect the company’s interests. Their reaction to me reporting this was that I was a huge liability for the organization.
Despite the fact that this individual’s actions were well-known throughout the office, particularly among young females, HR told me more women had to officially step forward in order for my complaint to be taken seriously. (I asked my peers, and they refused. They didn’t want to harm their careers.)
Because no one else would step forward, I must be a liar. HR refused to even approach him about the issue. Instead, I was again left to my own devices, which to date had done nothing to stop his touching me.
To make matters worse, the company blackballed me, taking me off every client account and giving me no further work. This went on for months until I found a new job.
This man still works for that organization today. I can only imagine the number of women he’s assaulted by now.
Hierarchy doesn’t matter.
Whether you’re being victimized by a same-level coworker or a leader in the company, sexual harassment and assault are wrong. There’s never an excuse that makes it OK, and you should never be afraid to speak up and defend yourself.
No job is worth it.
Some employees fear speaking up may cost them their jobs -- and like the company I worked for, they can legally make it miserable so you quit. There are laws meant to protect you against these harmful acts, but no matter your circumstances, know that you as a person are worth more than your career and salary. There will always be other opportunities.
Just because you weren’t battered, doesn’t mean it wasn’t assault.
When I’ve told this story in the past, I’ve always referred to it as sexual harassment, but now I realize it was actually so much more than that.
Do I have permanent physical scars today from his repeated attacks? No. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t assaulted over and over again in a place where I should have been safe, by someone who I should have been able to trust.
Get people on your side.
Don’t go to the top by yourself to fight your battle -- find a high-level colleague instead. Someone you know will look out for you and have your best interest at heart. As high as you can go in the organization but you know with certainty they will look out for you. Then they should be advocating for you with the powers that be.
Be there for others.
Even if sexual harassment or assault isn’t happening directly to us, we need to speak up and defend others when we see it. Coworkers may confide in you with this type of information, and you have a moral responsibility to support them in any way you can, even if just in private between the two of you. Let them know these acts aren’t acceptable or normal, it’s not their fault, and they have a right to fight.
The cycle must end.
TELL US: What advice do you have for those who are being sexually harassed, or assaulted in the workplace?