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