The Workplace Harassment Issue
The first thing that struck me when reading this week’s essay was the image of the pin-up girl calendar. It is quite vivid: the juxtaposition of the term “girly,” with all its cute, butterfly-filled connotations, against the reality of the ultra-sexualized women on the calendar. I found it disturbing to imagine young girls studying such calendars, not quite understanding the full intent of the content, but internalizing it nonetheless.
Today's television, social media, advertising campaigns, and more flaunt images of women with a largely uniform body type, promoting storylines where the man is the hero and the woman’s most important qualities are her physical appearance and her role as damsel in distress.
These norms both play into and are products of our gender-based power dynamics. When women are devalued for all but our bodies, our words mean very little when we speak out against men - especially those in power. There remains great fear of the consequences: professional failure, lack of legal support, and, perhaps equally important, the sense of personal humiliation.
This week’s author explores her understanding of femininity and harassment from childhood through adulthood, and tackles these difficult topics with an emotional frankness that lends her story further complexity and value. Coming forward is not easy. Talking about emotional and physical harm is not easy. Our author spent years doubting whether her experiences were real and valid - or whether she had somehow “asked for it.”
But she did come forward. She did decide to talk about it. And I am so grateful that she has allowed Issue readers to hear her story. I hope that it will be an inspiration for others who have struggled with similar burdens, and who worry that their own traumas are insignificant, that they are to blame.
It was never okay. And it was never your fault.
MY DADDY HAD A GIRLY CALENDAR - Anonymous
My dad had a “girly” calendar. It hung from a nail with a small head, chosen for the sole purpose of easily flipping through the photos. From last month’s bikini-clad babe on a Harley, to next month’s country cutie in cutoff jeans and an overfilled bikini top, the calendar was an oasis of sexuality in the center of an office that smelled like oil and Gojo hand cleaner.
Daddy was the blue-collar boss at a welding shop. It was there that I learned terms like “Acetylene torch,” “arc welding,” “steel-toed boots,” and “tempering.” The girly calendar was soft and lovely in an environment filled with angles and noise and red-blooded American men.
The first time I noticed the calendar, I was confused. I was maybe ten years old. Why would ladies let people make their pictures while they were rubbing suntan lotion onto their bodies? Did someone gift the calendar to Daddy? Maybe the Coca Cola delivery man left it on Daddy’s desk when he refilled the Coke machine. I was sure the calendar would go away on December 31st.
And it did. But on January 1st, another appeared. And eventually, another. And another.
I was a Daddy’s girl. He adored me, and I, him. By the time I was thirteen or so, I had studied these conspicuously displayed feminine pictorials for years. Gradually, I began to internalize the girly calendars not only as my dad’s, but as every man’s expectation of a perfect woman. His calendar girls became my understanding of my role as a woman in a male-dominated society. I was comfortable in my ultra-feminine persona, enjoyed the attention it coaxed, and could even see its potential for power in the workplace.
I was hired into my first real adult employment opportunity as a graphic layout artist, designing and writing advertising copy for the local newspaper. My three male colleagues and I worked together in a matchbox-sized space, sitting on stools at slanted drawing tables. The all-male advertising sales team in the adjacent cubicled office space would drop by after a day of door-to-door sales’ calls, leaving a stack of clipart and notes for the Sunday newspaper ads. It did not go unnoticed that most of the advertising design requests were delivered to my desk by salesmen who lingered a while longer than necessary, offering syrupy compliments and fatherly pats on my arm.
In my honest reflection, I enjoyed the attention. It was innocent flirting from men twice my age, who went home every night to wives and children they loved. I genuinely liked these guys. They were respectful and protective of me. I felt that I was the office calendar girl, making everything soft and lovely in a competitive, stress filled workplace.
Until the office Christmas party.
With carols playing on a radio and mistletoe hanging above the doorways, the men removed bottles of Mark Twain’s favorite and Kentucky’s finest, Old Crow bourbon, from groaning desk drawers. Paper cups by the water fountain substituted for cut-crystal shot glasses, as these fine southern gentlemen toasted all things glorious. I smiled and laughed at their crass and unamusing jokes. I accepted the holiday hugs, the occasional whisper in my ear, and the circle of attention from guys I actually liked, but who were clearly celebrating beyond their usual limit.
Soon, I recoiled from the pungent aroma of alcohol and breath mints. I tried to leave, only to be caught around the waist by the chunky hands of the ungroomed Advertising Department Director, who walked me into his office, left the door standing wide open, and drew me into his chest and groin.
I stood statuesque, petrified, completely affronted as he nuzzled my neck and slowly ran his hands up and down the sides of my breasts. Anyone in the adjacent party room could see us. What still disturbs me most about this memory was my inability to stop this monster from touching me.
In a Psychology Today article entitled “Why Don’t Victims of Sexual Harassment Come Forward Sooner?” (November 16, 2017), Beverly Engel describes “fear of the consequences” as one of the powerful emotions that immobilize victims of sexual harassment. I was helpless. He was the boss. He had the right to do this. My job was at stake. I was young. I was powerless. I was in “fear of the consequences.”
Years later, I was working as an Architectural Design Consultant (ADC) for the largest wholesale flooring company in the southeast. Hundreds of salesmen traveled territories from Virginia to Florida, selling floor covering to retail shops and architect firms. The six ADCs were the only women working for the corporation.
The first time I met them, I was taken aback by how physically beautiful these five vibrant women were. I wondered if that happened by chance, or by design. I wondered if management saw that kind of beauty in me. I wondered if this sorority of corporate sisters had been hand-selected to be the sexual bait for the male dominated architecture and design firms with whom we interacted.
At that time, the city of Atlanta hosted wholesale flooring marketing shows in January and July. In my first year of employment, the January show culminated on the weekend of the hallowed Super Bowl football game. To celebrate, the corporate office rented the convention center of a major hotel in downtown Atlanta and staged a Super Bowl Super Party for their buyers.
Free food. Free booze. Giant television screens. A guest appearance by a well-known, record-setting quarterback from the National Football League. And cheerleaders.
Did I say cheerleaders? If asking the only six women who worked in a company with hundreds of men, to dress up in short skirts and tight sweaters emblazoned with the company logo on the front, certifies as organizing a cheerleading squad, then: yes, I said cheerleaders.
On the night before the party blitz, a seamstress with a tape measure showed up at our hotel rooms. By late afternoon on the following day, we had each donned skimpy, custom-fitted cheerleading uniforms, complete with white Keds, and - it’s true - pom-poms in the company colors. We made our grand entrance running in from the back of the grand ballroom, shaking our pom-poms, just as the officials completed the coin-toss.
In the aforementioned Psychology Today article, Engel states, “Sexual violations wound a woman’s self-esteem, self-concept, and sense of self. The more a girl or woman puts up with, the more her self-image becomes distorted. Little by little, acts of disrespect, objectification, and shaming whittle away at her self-esteem until she has little regard for herself and her feelings. There is a huge price to pay for going along with sexual exploitation. A woman doesn’t just give away her body; she gives away her integrity.”
My five co-workers and I were “going along” with this blatant sexual exploitation. It was our job. We were team-members. We wanted to secure our allegiance to this corporate giant. After all, we were the company calendar girls, all soft and lovely.
As we were getting dressed for the appearance, I felt hesitant, as did the others. One of the women blurted, “I can’t do this!”
But she did. We all did.
And women still do. Television network anchors, corporate figure-heads, movie producers, United States presidents, advertising directors, Boy Scouts leaders. People in positions of power still coerce and influence others, both women and men, to serve their needs in demeaning and devaluing ways.
I have many other personal examples, but cannot bring myself to share them. I still feel the need to hide these events, to protect the families of the perpetrators, to be forgiving and to let it go. I still struggle with whether or not my desire to be soft and lovely somehow encouraged men to touch me.
Recently, my friend’s daughter was preparing for an upcoming job interview. My friend said to me, “I told her that she should wear her hair down for the interview, because, well, you know, it matters.”
I do know. It does matter. Even if it should not.
My lingering desire is to remind both women and men that remaining quiet about sexual assault or harassment allows it to continue. There is never a situation in which unwanted sexual advancement or attention is “okay.” There is never a situation in which unwanted sexual advancement or attention is “your fault.”
And… it really is okay to be soft and lovely.
MORE TO THE STORY
“One of the questions I’ve gotten that sticks out to me is, ‘How do we raise our daughter to make sure that she doesn’t set herself up to be a victim of sexual harassment?' These are the kinds of things we’re thinking -- if we fix her, then she won’t encounter this problem. And in reality, she is not the problem.”
In the height of #MeToo, John Oliver reminds us that we've been here before - and things haven't changed all that much. Then, he talks with Anita Hill (skip to 18:00) about her perspective on the evolution of American perspectives on sexual harassment and her hope for the future. Watch the video below.
This week's contributor expressed her feelings of powerlessness and her "fear of the consequences" she might face if she were to speak up. This article explains more about why victims of sexual assault often fail to report violence, and even stay in contact with their abusers.
"Why do men feel threatened by women? They're afraid women will laugh at them. Why do women feel threatened by men? They're afraid of being killed." Decades after Anita Hill's testimony, Jackie Fielding discusses the public treatment of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, tackles the question of when to believe women, and offers some alternative avenues for pursuing justice.