sexharass (Photo credit: iVoryTowerz)

The first time it happened I was shopping with my mother in a discount department store.  I felt a physical quality that was completely new to me.  It was a fear, almost primal in nature that filled me with an uneasiness and mild panic.  I was drifting in and out of the circular racks of clothing when I felt it before I heard their words,

Look at blondie.  Someone thinks she’s sexy.  Hey, little sexy girl.”

I was only five years old.  They continued,

“Do you want to come home with us pretty little lady?” as they laughed in a way that caused my spine to ache.

My mother, at first in shock that this was even happening, laid into them in a rare public display of anger.  Her voice strident with all the rage of an animal protecting her young,

“What is wrong with you?  She is a child?  You are disgusting! Get away from my daughter!”

Even with my mother’s objection they simply cackled in her face and walked away.  I wondered what I had done to cause them men to do that.  Was I walking strange?  Did I have a weird look on my face?  Was it something I was wearing?  I knew it wasn’t just the words.  What I felt that day was unseen and startling to me – it was predatory sexual energy.

That incident was the first of many.  Strangers have grabbed me on the street, I have been stalked, cyber-stalked, intimidated, threatened, insulted and fought off more than one would be attacker.  My childhood dentist would make blow job references.  One eye doctor was noticeably aroused in front of me, when I was only 13 years old.  Then there was our parish pastor who simply creeped me out.  A photo exists of me in my first communion dress standing next to him, the rigidness in my back, apparent from my body language.   I am not sure why he made me uncomfortable, I just knew his hand on my shoulder made me queasy.

In the workplace I didn’t fare much better.   It didn’t help that most of my jobs, meant to supplement my acting career, were rife with toxic work environments.  When I worked at a sandwich shop near the Chicago Board of trade my manager had the back room plastered with X-rated porn images.  He would comment on my body and more than once graze up against me.  Was it an accident?  Why did it seem to happen nearly every day?  I needed the job for the summer, I put up with it with the message in my brain. Just one more month, just one more month, just one more month.  I only had one more month until school started and I didn’t have time to quit and find a new job.  I had to pay my rent, so I put up with it.

Multiple food service jobs that I had over the years I dealt with: comments from co-workers, full on gropings and even uninvited kisses.  I would always blow up and chastise the men for their behavior but why did I have to constantly correct them after the fact?  Even in the corporate world it didn’t completely stop.  Once when discussing my tax returns a co-worker implied that my acting and modeling income was the same as working as a stripper or prostitute.  I threatened to go to Human Resources and report him, he immediately apologized.

Recently I shared a story about having to drop out of college and give up on a full ride scholarship due to overwhelming sexual harassment. A peer in a writing class commented that

“I was bragging”

because of this admission and another story about being hit on in a work related environment   He  put the two stories together and decided I was boasting about being sexually desirable.  I was just so floored that a man would view sexual harassment this way.

“I should be proud that “I still have got it!” was his second quote.

Well at the time of the first sexual harassment, in college, I was all of 18 years old.  I think most 18-year-old women have got plenty to attract most men.

When the words came out of his mouth I was just too dumbfounded to actually say much of anything.  Is this really how some men view sexual harassment?  Should women be open and gracious to all sexual advances no matter how unwanted or inappropriate?

Is it really so difficult to understand the concept that sometimes women just want to go to work, get and education or walk down the street without having to feel like the object of some man’s sexual fantasy?  Do these men understand that we don’t want to feel like we must “go along” with comments or actions to keep our jobs, get a good grade or be polite?

Would this same man view a story about rape, attempted rape or child molestation as boasting?  That somehow I was so physically attractive that a man just couldn’t help themselves and decided to force me into a sexual situation.  Harassment is simply a weaker form of sexual abuse.  Rape, molestation and sexual intimidation are all various shades of the same color.  Because that is what harassment is at its core – intimidation.  It is forcing a woman who has no power to speak out or do anything about the abuse to put up with it.  She may have thought she was getting an education, or working at a job, but a man with some power over her, has decided that it is more important that she is a sexual plaything.

As if being intimidated to the whim of an older man with power over my future was somehow something to envy.  It seemed like a classic case of projection.  Perhaps he had a fantasy of an older woman coming on to an 18-year-old version of himself.  What he failed to understand about female and male sexuality is profound.  Perhaps he resents the sexual inequality between the genders.   Woman can get sex easier than most men.  The downside is of course, that woman also have to deal with sexual violence far more often than men.  I wondered if this man had ever had a grade in college determined on whether he would or would not have sex with a teacher.  Would it be OK if the teacher harassing him was a gay man?  Had he ever been pushed up against a wall by a stranger and groped?  Had he ever had a man force himself on him sexually?

Was he implying that sexual harassment is not a real problem?  He even used the phrase

“I was making much to do about nothing.”

It was shocking really.  I walked away from a full ride scholarship because I didn’t want feel forced into a sexual relationship.  Would this man want his daughter to face the same dilemma in her career?  Would he want his mother, sister or girlfriend to put up with this kind of treatment at her workplace?

I baffles me that sexual harassment should even be talked about in this way.  I am more than whatever sexual desire a man wants to project upon me.  I am more than the sum of my body parts.  I am more than my physical appearance.  And when I finally become too old, when my glory days are over.  I won’t look back and miss the feeling that I first felt at such a young age with my mother – like a prey animal about to be devoured by a predator.  I am not bragging when I simply call to light a problem that nearly all women have had to deal at some point in their lives.  I am just sharing what it is like to be female – and our reality is not always so nice.

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5 comments on “Sexual Harassment – Nothing to Brag About

  1. tropicaltheartist

    This is a very open and honest post. I feel sad that these events are all things you had to endure. It isn’t fair and it’s disrespectful in the worst possible way. You are absolutely correct. No woman should have to endure these unwanted insults. I hope my daughter never has to.

    1. julietjeske

      I think what I have striven for my entire life is to just be treated equally. I don’t understand why I have to be cut down like this repeatedly because of my gender. I think some men really resent women. Last night was an excellent example of it. When he said. “It seems like you are bragging almost” in regards to my professors harassing me to a point that I left school…I don’t even know if he realized how stupid he sounded. I had suspected misogynistic tendencies in this person before this incident, but he really showed his true colors at that point. I don’t consider him a friend or even an acquaintance. I played nice last night but…that was just so ridiculous.

      1. tropicaltheartist

        It really bothers me that these attitudes are still around, to be honest. You and all women (and especially my clever young daughter) deserve to be taken seriously, as creative human beings, without the gender crap getting in between. You might enjoy the writings of my friend Professor Catharine Lumby. Cleverest feminist I know 🙂

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