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I Was Sexually Harassed For 3 Years And Didn’t Even Realize It.

Well. I’ll admit. Saying I didn’t realize it is probably inaccurate and a little bit insulting to the level of my intelligence.

So.

How does one fairly level-headed, zero-bullshit, astutely self-aware human not fully grasp the fact that what she is experiencing is harassment?

Well.

She could be twenty-three. She could be in serious college debt. She could not want to be the kind of person who is too nervous to say anything, so she ignores this fact about herself and still says nothing.

The thing is, from a young age, I’ve mostly had my act together. I had great grades in school, was mentally and physically healthy, maintained an active social life, and never envisioned myself as a doormat — spousal or otherwise. So, I married the kindest man I knew, graduated college, landed my first real job at an amazing corporation but couldn’t hack the long commute, so landed my second real job working as a contractor for the military.

That job was a dream.

I was able to utilize my degree in Environmental Geosciences, make maps, and work with an incredibly motivated group of people. Mostly women. On an Army installation. This is great! I’d thought. Coming from a predominately male-saturated workforce of engineers and geographic information system specialists, it was refreshing to work with more women — especially women who were driven, smart, and fun to work with. (There was only one exception, and we’ll get to her in a minute.)

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I felt like I would fit right in. And I did.

So it was easy to ignore the things — the things that in retrospect, make my stomach churn, but at the time just felt like irritants.

The problem was my boss. We’ll call him Craig. “You’re salaried, now.” Craig calmly explained after my first week on the job. “Salaried employees don’t leave at 4:30 on the dot. They’re passionate about their work. They stay because they want to.”

My work ethic, honed.

“I can’t believe you invited your husband to an after-work function,” Craig laughed. I felt dumb. The office had gotten together for drinks on a Friday at an installation bar. My husband, who’s active duty Air Force, worked right down the street. He’d never been unwelcome at casual employee social gatherings at my other jobs. I didn’t know it was weird.

My after-work ethic, honed.

“You asked Sam for a raise?” Craig asked, exasperated. “Sam” was my boss at my contracting company. Technically, as a government employee, Craig was not supposed to even know my salary, let alone decide it. “If you need something, you ask me. I decide what’s happening with my employees.” I felt small.

My ladder, honed.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that Craig was meticulously cultivating a culture of unquestionable loyalty, praise-based morale, and strategic competition among his female employees. He was inspiring and charismatic, sympathetic and understanding, and a leader in the truest sense of the word. Craig led, people followed. It was the same deal with Hitler.

I was promoted and became, essentially, Craig’s right-hand woman. He called me his Girl FridayI learned later that the one woman in the office who didn’t like me was the one who used to be his Girl Friday. She felt betrayed. I understand, now.

I just didn’t understand, then.

 

The issue

Craig didn’t want families invited to holiday parties. To Craig, it was somehow wrong to invite personal lives into office spaces, yet it was okay for him to text me that he missed me while I was on vacation. It was okay for him to obligate me to one-on-one work meetings, at bars, after everyone else had gone home. It was okay to keep me in his office for hours, discussing work, and joking that people outside of the door probably thought something else was going on.

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I can’t speak for the others, but I don’t think I’m the only woman there who felt his behavior was, at least a little bit, wrong.

Yet there we were, a harem of fairly intellectual, well-educated, and attractive young ladies — each of us keenly aware of the weirdness on some level or another — and yet none of us did anything about it. Maybe because he never seemed overtly forthcoming. Maybe because it wasn’t bad enough to give up our jobs. Maybe the feeling of specialness was enough to override the feeling of creepiness, at least on a day-to-day basis, and we were able to consistently talk ourselves out of the fact that this was actually not okay. But I think they must have known. We just didn’t talk about it because it would’ve felt like a betrayal. I can only imagine that the phenomenon is something akin to Stockholm Syndrome — when captives psychologically experience sympathy or even empathy for their captors.

 

Victims mistake a lack of abuse as an act of kindness.

 

Craig made me feel uncomfortable, sure, but he wasn’t saying blatant sexually harassy things. He wasn’t doing blatant sexually harassy things. So, his behavior wasn’t harassment.

Was it?

Craig liked to touch. It wasn’t unusual for him to walk up behind a female employee and rest his hands on her shoulders and give a little squeeze. Hugs, to him, were an appropriate employer-employee way of saying goodbye. I used to do it one-armed from a distance, torso leaned-in with a back pat for good measure, but it wasn’t enough. He told me so. I remember joking (because that’s what I do when I’m uncomfortable) that only friends get the double-boob contact, but of course my crassness gave us a bond. An inside joke. We were friends. After that, it was okay to go in for the double boob contact because I’d made it light. I’d invited closeness.

Hadn’t I?

There were times when Craig had something important to say — a quippy joke or some workplace insight — that was only meant for me. He’d lean in close, put his mouth on my hair, and forcibly whisper — prominently pronouncing p’s with a sultry puff of air into my ear.

I felt revolted.

But I didn’t push him away. I didn’t tell him to stop. He was my boss, and we were buds. I was His Girl Friday, after all, and he was just being himself. He hadn’t grabbed my ass or told me I had to sleep with him in order to get a raise. He wasn’t blatantly abusive, therefore he was kind.

Wasn’t he?

His uncanny knack for not recognizing body language was just an unfortunate personality trait. His disapproval of family at social gatherings was just an unfortunate effect of his apparently unhappy marriage. There was a reason for everything. It could all be explained.

Craig was eventually let go for — get this — sexual harassment. Unofficially.

We all feigned surprise.

A former employee of his from years before my time had come forward with disturbing news of their sordid affair because Craig’s wife, an understandably suspicious and unhappy woman, had been hounding her at work. The case required an investigation. I was asked to participate in an interview with Craig’s boss — a man who would’ve preferred to sail just below the radar, oblivious, and have the driver drop him off at retirement. Had I told the truth, he would have acted shocked. I’m not sure, though, if he would have believed his disbelief.

But I didn’t tell the truth. I defended Craig. I was His Girl Friday and I owed him my career.

Still, there was the girl. The brave one who knew better. And she couldn’t be ignored. In true government fashion, Craig was asked to leave his position to accept a promotion in another state. Out of sight, out of mind.

Problem solved.

Before he left, Craig and I had a heart-to-heart. He couldn’t believe that this was happening to him. He’d worked so hard to build what he’d built, and now he was destined to watch from afar as some undoubtedly complacent government employee came in to lead the program into obscurity.

“You, though –” he said with a wink and a smile, “you will go far.”

Relief. After years, my work — and my tolerance — felt validated. Someday, he knew, I’d make it to the top. I was smart. I was driven. I was —

“You could be assistant to one of the top guys in Environmental or any major corporation. My Girl Friday. You’ll make me proud.”

The realization that he didn’t take me seriously as a business woman — that I was a servant, not apprentice — is what finally broke me from three years of an enchanted, deluded haze.

It was hilarious.

And humiliating.

And I’m very glad it’s over.

UPDATE 11/15: So far, everyone who has read this piece and decided to comment here, on Facebook, via email, etc. has been extremely nice and supportive — including those who were there. One, though, clarified something in the comments below, and I feel like it’s important to include it here. She pinpoints why I was hesitant to call this particular type of harassment “sexual.” It’s because while some of the subtleties we experienced were certainly physically uncomfortable, she pointed out that his behavior likely wasn’t sexually motivated — it was about the power that comes with overstepping boundaries. And in retrospect, I think she’s spot-on with that assessment.

Note: There are likely several people who might be mad that I wrote this — people who were there, but experienced it differently from me. People who have Craig to thank for successful careers, and to whom he’s been nothing but kind. And that’s okay. You have your experience, and I have mine. I almost removed the word “sexually” from the title, but there it stands. I’ve had years to reflect on this, and my perspective hasn’t changed. What he did is wrong. How he was is wrong. And I hope, for the sake of his next Girl Friday, that he knows it. That he’s changed. Or that she, at least, will know better than me.

Katie

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Comments

Lee Hyde
Reply

Wow, thanks for sharing that. Hopefully it helps someone else as well.

Katie
Reply

I hope so, Lee!

Penny
Reply

A teacher in high school, a doctor, a boss – I think most of us can look back and remember those uncomfortable feelings, probably more than once, but being young and vulnerable, not knowing what to do or say, so you do nothing. I also now understand that a “fairly level-headed, zero-bullshit, astutely self-aware human” sometimes cannot fully grasp the fact that what she is experiencing – even if it’s not sexual harassment – is just not right. It’s why so many women deny their husbands’ cheating, drinking, fetishes, or subtle verbal abuse. You can’t kick yourself forever for being silent. I can also tell you from experience that going to your contractor boss to complain about Craig, would not have worked – Craig wasn’t his employee and he wouldn’t have cared so long as you kept bringing in the $$. But Craig’s boss? I’m kind of surprised that you didn’t defend that brave woman – even while letting the boss know that you did understand what he was saying. Even years later, I think you should write him and tell him, so he isn’t always second guessing his decision. And maybe another woman is going through the same thing Craig – in another state.

Katie
Reply

The sad thing is, it’s very likely the result would’ve been the same. But I guess I’ll never know… The only good news is that I do believe the girl who came forward kept her job (she worked elsewhere on the installation at the time), and she had a really wonderful boss and a prominent position. Because she no longer worked for Craig, it wasn’t as scary for her to come forward.

Tammie Saunders
Reply

This is excellent Katie. I’m glad you wrote it. I believe it happens all the time. Don’t know why we women put up with it. He knew what he was doing. He knew EXACTLY what he was doing.

Katie
Reply

Thank you, Tammie! The problem is that it’s so difficult to reprimand a nearly indefinable problem. The issue? If someone I trusted and liked and who didn’t give me the “creep” vibe had done the same things, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. But you’re right — if he didn’t know how he was making people feel, it’s because he CHOSE not to think about it.

Mike Burton
Reply

The shocking thing about reading this is you saying that you were shy or silent. This isn’t the same girl I remember bullying professors into changing grades because they gave you a B……

Katie
Reply

Ha! It’s not that I was shy — or silent — I was just silent about this. The undefinable “ick factor” that made it not okay. Of course, now that I write out all of the issues, it seems so obvious. But at the time, I just plain didn’t know any better. And it was easier not to think about it.

hannahmaggiemae
Reply

Amen. Just Amen. Subtly does not excuse a person’s actions. I have been in similar situations and I know what it is like to be afraid to tell someone how you feel out of fear that they will think you are “overreacting”. Thank you for writing this.

Katie
Reply

You’re absolutely right! And you pinned it — it’s the “overreacting” accusation I’m guessing many of us were worried about. Which is just… sad.

roxannelumme
Reply

This needed to be written, and you did an amazing job. Thank you for doing your part to continue to raise awareness – and hopefully – to give another the strength to stand up to guys like this. For me, it was my business law professor, though he was not quite so subtle. It’s sad that so many have similar stories. Well done. I’m proud of you.

Katie
Reply

Thank you, Roxanne! What’s scary is how many women are telling me they’ve experienced something similar. The only way to make this stop is for people to be vocal. I’m ashamed that I didn’t say anything then, so I’m saying it now.

Suzy
Reply

Amen sister – it ha always amazed me at how long that all went on and everyone up and down the chain doing diddly squat about it. I’m proud of you for being brVe enough to write about it – I think all of us at one point or another have looked the other way and/or dismissed the way we felt (the creepiness was real but we chose to ignore it). I have done it too, and still do sometimes. On a strange note, one of my coworkers from my last station met Craig at a conference. In the day or two that she knew him even she was uncomfortable!! So he hasn’t changed and hasn’t learned which is sad – I wish our system was better at dealing with problems vs passing them on to someone else!!

Katie
Reply

That doesn’t surprise me and just makes me… sad. I wish we’d said something when we had the chance. But how do you define what can’t be defined? I’m sorry you still have to deal with it sometimes. If you ever decide NOT to, you know I have your back. :)

Mark
Reply

Hi Katie. So sorry you had to have an experience such as this so early in your career, or ever. As a manager for 30 + years, I never had a “His girl Friday”, Monday, Tuesday and so on. I always respected every employee, and showed my appreciation in ways that made them walk away with a smile, knowing they were appreciated. I was able to move up the corporate ladder, without a formal education, by treating my employees with respect and dignity. Thanks for sharing your story.

Uncle Mark

Katie
Reply

I bet you were a GREAT boss! Trust me — the work force needs more people like you. It’s a shame (for everyone else) that you retired so early. :)

Kat Richter
Reply

Great post! I’m always amazed what intelligent, talented, seemingly put together women will put up with (my self included). I’ve had a post on a similar topic waiting in my “drafts” folder for three years now. Maybe I’ll finally publish it :) Kudos to you!

Katie
Reply

Thanks, Kat! It was hard to hit that “publish” button, for sure. And I’m still waiting for a backlash that may never come… It’s strange to feel bad about something I know was right to write. And that’s the bitch of this type of situation.

Shreya
Reply

Thank you for sharing

Katie
Reply

You’re very welcome.

Kerrie
Reply

I love your brave, authentic, no b.s. self! By putting this in writing and airing to the masses you are empowering women who are in the midst of this battle and find themselves asking ‘am I crazy’…’it must be me’. I would not change a word of this post…raw but so eloquent.

Katie
Reply

Thank you so much, Kerrie. It’s kind of good to know that it resonates with so many — yet it’s also a major bummer, for obvious reasons. It was scary to write, and I’m still not sure of the consequences, if any, but it had to be finally said.

Colleen Brynn
Reply

Holy. I bet a lot of people will be upset reading this. And good.

Katie
Reply

So far the response has been positive, but yeah… it’s the ones I haven’t heard from that I worry about a little.

Stacy
Reply

KT, THANK YOU for writing this!!! I’ve recently witnessed (and previously experienced) inappropriate behavior that was shrugged off in an effort to not be “that” girl – the one who cries foul when there’s nothing tangible, or when there’s a teensy bit of doubt? I mean, who wants to risk ruining a career over a hunch or feeling? I think because we’re nice we WANT to favorably misinterpret things that are NOT okay. We don’t want to misuse or abuse a system that’s supposed to protect women – we want to be taken seriously in the event that something obviously bad happens, and thus do not want to “cry wolf” and risk being wrong or ignored. The sad thing is, the Craigs of the world prey on these better natures – they are master manipulators, and they do this intentionally, even methodically. As you noted, and as I witnessed, he had a lot of very intelligent people fooled / confused. I admire your courage and self-reflection in writing and sharing this. Situations like these need to be discussed openly, and as we’ve seen from the comments are more common than we all probably realize. Moral of the story: Trust that “ick” feeling. We live, we learn, and we grow. You’re not the same person you were at 23 – and maybe now some other 23 year old girl can learn a thing or two from your experiences.

Katie
Reply

You’re absolutely right, Stacy — it’s that not wanting to make a “big deal” out of something that’s maybe not a big deal that allows these situations to continue. And still, sadly, had we said anything at the time, I doubt there would’ve been consequences. And honestly, I don’t think that’s what I would’ve wanted. I wish I’d been brave enough to say something to him. To slap some sense into him and make him acknowledge that it was wrong. To make him look at himself and address whether or not that’s really the kind of person he wanted to be. Maybe this post is finally my attempt at that… who knows?

Tricia
Reply

Great article. Thanks for sharing.

Katie
Reply

Thank you, and you’re very welcome Tricia.

Neysha
Reply

This is a great post Katie! Something about your writing makes me not want to stop reading, even when it’s surrounding a topic as heavy as this.

Katie
Reply

This is one of my favorite comments ever. :) Thanks, Neysha!

CGH
Reply

Katie- Thanks for sharing and well written! Always trust your gut.

Katie
Reply

Isn’t it interesting how easily our gut can be ignored? All of the little pieces individually weren’t so bad at the time. But in retrospect, writing it all out and seeing it all together, explains that queasy feeling I had. It put a strain on my marriage and forever changed how I feel about working in a government or corporate setting. I wish I’d known how to trust gut feelings in my 20’s, but I certainly do now. Thanks for your support. :)

Luci
Reply

Katie, Thanks for being so open about this. We are taught not to listen to our gut feeling. I did not realize the extent of what was going on, but then again I was not in the target demographic. I will share this with my daughter who is now in the working world. Craig will get his just karma in the end. I wonder how he would react if his daughter was treated this way!?

Katie
Reply

You know, I didn’t realize the extent of it either at the time. Call it inexperience or naivety or a willingness to ignore, but I don’t think any of us did. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one effected… I just didn’t realize how much until later. When it’s not blatant, it’s so hard to pinpoint what the issue is. Writing it all out certainly helped. And the sad thing is, I’m not sure whether he’d acknowledge that any of this was actually bad. I hope you do share it with your daughter, though — little things like this don’t seem “so bad” while they’re happening, but in retrospect it was. I wouldn’t want someone else to brush it off because she’s afraid people will think she’s overreacting. Like I said, nothing blatant happened, so it’s not like I was openly (or even knowingly) suffering all that time, but the worst part is that I’m ashamed of how I answered during the interview — and that’s something I have to live with.

Dennis Hong
Reply

I really have nothing to say here. Just a big thumbs-up.

Katie
Reply

Well if Dennis has nothing to say, I know I dun good. ;)

Erin
Reply

Man, you hit the nail on the head. You totally captured what it felt like to be vaguely creeped out yet also inexplicably beholden to that man. I remember basking in his praise yet dreading going into his office for one-one-one meetings. Looking back at this point, I’m not even sure that it was sexually motivated, I just think it made him feel powerful to overstep boundaries. The real kicker is, he actually managed to make me feel embarrassed and prudish for wanting a conventional employer/employee relationship. Whatever you call it, when you demand a level of emotional intimacy from your employees — and insinuate that opportunities for advancement necessitate it — it’s shitty and weird.

Katie
Reply

Argh, now I wish I’d shared this with you before posting, because YOU hit the nail on the head. You’re right — the motivation was very likely power, which is why I debated calling it “sexual” harassment but couldn’t pinpoint why. I’m going to update this post with a clarification using your words — I hope you don’t mind.

schnuffichen
Reply

So. I’ve been reading your blog for years. I read it through Feedly most of the time because I’m lazy. You’re in my “Other random cool blogs” folder, so I didn’t realize which blog this entry came from, I’m subscribed to a bunch of HuffingtonPost blog and BlogHer type of, well, blogs. (Though I did think “Oh, GIS, the girl with the home improvement blog used to do something similar, right? Funny.”)
It didn’t dawn on me that this is you until I clicked on the comments to leave my two cents that this is you. And it baffles me. And scares me. Because to me you’re this impressive loud-mouthed supergirl who speaks up no matter what. And you didn’t. Which just goes to show how sneaky and creepy and scary these types of relationships with bosses and supervisors and colleagues and a hundred other potential people are. And that everybody, no matter their character, position or gender, can fall victim to them.
What a great piece – I hope it will enlighten a lot of other people! Thank you for this!
(Also, I will totally put you in my “Friends and not to be missed blogs” folder now.)

Katie
Reply

Ha! Thank you for finally leaving me a comment! I love it when people come out of the woodwork and say they’ve been reading for years — it makes me feel all exposed and surprised — in a totally good kind of way. Also, I’m glad to hear about the folder upgrade. While “random” and “cool” is a really great classification, “not to be missed” is even better. I hope I can live up to your expectations! If you downgrade my folder, don’t let me know because it would totally break my heart. And it’s funny — you’re not the first person to tell me you’re surprised by my inaction. I’M still surprised by my inaction. And you’re right — that’s why things like this need to be said. Thanks for reading!

Samantha
Reply

I feel like I wrote this… everything, from the inside jokes, forced happy hours, all female staff, to constantly rationalizing everything he says and does (well, he’s unhappy in his marriage, his father didn’t give him enough attention as a child, etc…) Why? Because complaining would mean I was sensitive and wasn’t “tough”. I saw it as a price I had to pay to have a career, to “play with the boys”. If I stirred the pot, I would just be replaced with another young female who would go along with it. Maybe by accepting that this is the norm, I’m part of the problem. But playing along seems to be the only way that women can make it to the top, and once we’re there, we can finally change things.

Katie
Reply

I’m sorry you’ve had to go through this, and I hate how many women can relate. The problem with that line of thought is that it’s not a very reliable way to get to the top. In the end, I learned that even by going along with it, he still didn’t take me seriously. It’s not playing with the big boys when only the girls are required to play. We can’t accept it. And we have to teach the younger women to not accept it either. It’s hard, but it’s the only way to enforce change.

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