I’m trying to explain to my dad why I withdrew my application for a corporate job at Uber. He’s confused. I choose my words carefully. “The way they’ve handled sexual harassment complaints makes me uncomfortable.”
“Everything is sexual harassment now,” my dad groans. “You can’t even touch someone’s hand without them squealing sexual harassment!” He eeks those last two words out like a whiny princess laying on mattress infiltrated by a pea.
“It’s not just touching, it’s...” I begin, but I’m sure my let-me-school-you-on-harassment monologue is as tired to him as his 401-k-rollover-options lecture is to me.
Sadly, hand touching—or any touching at all, really—is the least of my workplace harassment worries. I’m far more concerned about the mental limbo that comes with borderline harassing antics. Case in point, the tale of the friendly-G-chats-turned-R-rated-poetry-sharing (unsolicited), in which on more than one occasion, a colleague chatted me some famed risque lines always followed a few minutes later by Never mind, maybe that was inappropriate, and a lunch invite.
An apricot-sized pit of trepidation grew in my stomach during the weeks this behavior prevailed. What today? I’d wonder. It wasn’t just the chats that knotted me up, though.
My almost-boyfriend, who I confided in, crafted a message for me to send the G-chatter. When he heard I didn’t deliver the message, he chastised me with “I’m disappointed in you, Alicia.” A timely sexual harassment training didn’t help me, either. In the class, the trainer explained that while it would be ideal if men—er, people—didn’t cross lines, it was up to women—er, other people—to set boundaries and clearly tell someone when they’re making us uncomfortable. The whole shebang was wink-winkily delivered, so everyone knew we were talking about men and women, and as if women’s place in the pecking order didn’t depend on being a team player and not being seen as a “problem.” Finally, there was my parent’s reaction: “Well, it just sounds like he has bad manners.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if his bad manners were my own damn fault. I’d been undeniably friendly to the G-chatter. He didn’t seem close to anyone on his team, so I smiled when we passed in the hallway, and laughed when he made up a bit about traveling to Paris together. I was kind when he reached out, stating he wanted to make friends with coworkers.
Maybe I shouldn’t have laughed.
“You should say something,” a friend told me at the time. “ He needs to learn.” I didn’t want to jeopardize my job and reputation at the company to be his teacher, though.
I reread his messages, and felt cornered. They were vague enough that saying something felt like an overreaction. Sure, if you read between the lines there was slight innuendo and romantic intent, but put on a pair of pure-colored glasses and it would be easy for the man to back-peddle and suggest I was blowing things out of proportion. Damned if I said something, doomed if I didn’t.
“You’ll just suck that up if he says something,” my friend said. “It’s the price you pay for letting him save face.”
And there it was. All of this rigmarole was about the one thing it’s always about in these situations: making sure a man still felt like a man.
I stayed quiet, and fretted about signals I might sending. I didn’t respond to most of his messages, which came infrequently but were often an allusion to articles I shared through my Twitter feed, despite the fact he wasn’t an active follower of mine. Is the you that you refer to me? he asked once, minutes after I vaguetweeted (about the quasi-boyfriend-turned-ex). I stopped wanting to use Twitter.
He eventually mostly stopped.
The choices I made and measures I refused to take didn’t lead to a happy resolution— but I’m unconvinced the choices I didn’t make and measures I could take would, either.
Aside: Ten years ago, I was seen as a problem at work—not about harassment, but because I cried once. The incident tarnished any chance I had to go anywhere in the company but out. I know what being a problem does to my spirit.