When I entered the workforce, I thought sexual harassment was just part of what I had to endure. And I did. Co-workers amused themselves in the kitchen of the fast-food restaurants by talking about things they knew I didn't fully understand. They didn't know I had already been sexually abused and that I was very confused about my sexual identity after losing my virginity against my will. Was I a virgin or a slut? Was I damaged goods--even more than I already thought I was because my dad abandoned my family? My co-workers were just trying to get me to blush. It was mostly harmless and playful. Right?
There were also customers who flirted with me. Some of them were classmates, including a couple I had crushes on. Others were men old enough to be my father: police officers, professors, and probably fathers of daughters my age. It didn't happen all the time, and I was protected behind the counter. Wasn't I? So, it was probably okay. Wasn't it?
A few years later, I took a job as an international document auditor at United Parcel Service and was eventually promoted to a human resources supervisor/employee relations representative. I had probably been told to watch the generic sexual harassment training video in prior positions, so my supervisors could check off that task in my orientation kit. But it wasn't until I was responsible for others' training that I deeply understood why we have anti-sexual harassment laws.
As I've mentioned before, I'll never forget the day my mother shared a story of quid pro quo sexual harassment that she was subjected to after my dad left and she was struggling to feed me and my two sisters. It took a little longer to realize how often my sisters, friends, and I were subjected to hostile work environments that were also inappropriate. I still question myself about my lawsuit against a prior employer, in part because the sexual harassment I was subjected to there was less severe than what I had endured elsewhere.
After reading the stories fellow women in the workforce send me or post on social media, I know I am not the only one who has had such experiences. I've also heard plenty of stories from men and people who don't identify with traditional genders or gender roles.
As I discuss in my sexual harassment course, the statistics based on reported cases do not tell the full story. At least two studies of unreported cases indicate 70% of men and women think sexual harassment is a problem in the workplace. That could be due to the way cases are discussed in mainstream media. But read the threads under #sexualharassment and #whyididntreport on Twitter. You'll get a better idea of what seems to have been going on in the shadows far longer and more frequently that we might want to admit.
If you're in the shadows now:
- Forgive yourself. It's possible you sent someone a signal you didn't mean to, but more often than not, a sexual harasser is trying to control you. It's less about what you did or didn't do than you think. Even if you started something and decided to end it, stop thinking the harassment is your fault.
- Acknowledge yourself. Regardless of whether you have asked for it to stop, reported it, or taken any action at all, remind yourself how much courage it takes to endure a conflict such as sexual harassment. Any action you take toward freeing yourself or holding the harasser accountable is more than many of us do. You are so strong!
- Forgive the world. The world gives us conflicts, such as sexual harassment, to push our growth. It sometimes does so in very questionable ways. But there are opportunities here for you, the harasser, and everyone around the conflict. Look for the lesson--whenever you're ready to. You get to control the process.
- Free the emotions. I have been hurt, disappointed, angry, confused, sad, and even flattered when I have been sexually harassed. It can do a real number on your brain and what you think about people or how the world works. Whenever you need it, find a safe place where you can release your emotions without causing harm to yourself or others. Holding them in takes energy away from places you need it, which is in part what the harasser wants. Keep your power and use it for you!
- Clear your mind. I've often replayed the harassment over and over, trying to make sense of it, only to find myself re-living the disappointment and sadness to the extent that my brain can't fully distinguish the past from the present. Yet, the present is all there is. Don't keep bringing the past into it--and definitely don't invite it into your future. Meditate, take a walk, call a friend, or write in a journal, and clear your mind, so there is room for what you do want in your life.
- Assume you know nothing. You might think you know enough about sexual harassment because you've done the training at every job you've had for the past five or more years. Maybe you think you know how to handle the harasser, the investigation, or any retaliation. But when you are the target, your emotions are likely higher than normal, which means your ability to process stimuli effectively might be lower than normal. Assume you know nothing about how to deal with this, and ask for expert help.
- Listen with your heart. This might be the hardest choice. Your brain will keep scanning for danger, which means you will keep defaulting to analysis mode. You might think you know the full story and be adamant that a particular punishment is warranted. Sometimes, you will punish yourself, in addition to the harasser. Keep listening for the humanity in yourself, in the harasser, and in all of the people trying to do the right thing under the uncomfortable circumstances--and often with very little training or experience.
Make these choices as often as you need to, until you consistently remember how powerful you are. In the next post, we'll go through the Five Actions to take, after you've chosen to master your inner game. In the meantime, you might also find one of my online courses useful.