President Obama’s recent quip about California Attorney General Camala Harris “best-looking attorney general in the country” and Adria Richards dismissal after tweeting a picture of two men making sexual jokes has reignited a conversation about sexual harassment. For clarity, by no means, do I think Harris was sexually harassed by the President’s remark. Technically, they don’t work together, and while I find the remarks inappropriate for a professional setting, I don’t think all the hullabaloo that led to a prompt apology was necessary. As for Richards, I’m on the fence over whether she was wrong to out the guys holding a crass conversation within her earshot.
But since we’re talking about sexual harassment though…
My first understanding of sexual harassment came about long before I entered the workforce. I was 11, when Anita Hill complained that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas asked her “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?” I didn’t get it. I knew what pubic hair was, but why anyone would ask if another person put it on a soda can was beyond me. Plenty of boys of my school, and grown men, said (and did) inappropriate things to me, and other girls, but wasn’t that just boys being boys, or er, men being men? The idea that a comment about my expanding boobs or backside and all the things they’d like to do with them just seemed, unfortunately, normal. Sexual harassment was for grown folks, I thought.
But then, I grew up.
Eleven years later, I was out of grad school and working my first job at a government agency in New York City. I was 22 and trying to navigate an overwhelming post-graduate life, I had the fortune of sitting at the end of a long hallway where I could see all the comings and goings of the office, and near enough to the copy room that I could hear all sorts of conversations I wasn’t supposed to over the sound of the Xerox. I also had a habit of wearing skirts and sitting sideways at my desk, cluelessly offering anyone coming down the hall a good look if calves and a bit of knee were what they wanted to see. This was pointed out to me by the guy who ran the mail room.
We hadn’t said much more than “good morning” on the day he, about 50 or so, approached my desk to deliver a package and after, leaned in close to tell me, “I like them legs.” I recall being overpowered by the stench of too much cologne, an also that I felt ashamed that he, a man old enough to be my daddy, had taken notice. Instead of being outraged, I felt like I had done something wrong by just sitting the way I always did, by not covering up enough even in knee-length skirts.
So in the dead of September heat, I started wearing thick black tights under my dresses and made a conscious effort not to sit in the way that was most comfortable to me. For awhile, the mailroom man didn’t say much of anything other than “good morning” and “how you doing?” I was creeped out by the way he said that too, but what was I going to do? Go complain to HR that I didn’t like the way he essentially said, “hello?”
A few months later, he dropped off another package. I looked up from my computer to thank him, and he lingered to say, “You know, you got a pretty tongue…” He waited for my reaction, which was taken aback and a puzzled. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. I couldn’t believe he said it.
For the rest of that day and all of the next, I debated going to my boss to report him. The delay was a conflict that may keep a lot of women from speaking up. I was still the newbie on the job and I didn’t want to make waves. I also worried that I was doing something to invite his inappropriate comments since it wasn’t the first time a man had been entirely left field with me. Was I sending something off?
He’d said what he said, but I hadn’t said “this is unacceptable” or “stop”. I wondered if my awkward and stunned silence had someone given him permission to proceed. I didn’t think I would be believed. And compared to what I’d gone through as an intern when a senior editor followed me into a unisex bathroom, locked the door behind him and tried to remove my head wrap when I was in my Imitation of Badu stage, words just didn’t seem worth kicking up dust over.
Sometime Friday afternoon, I passed the mailroom guy coming down the hall as I headed to the ladies room. As soon as I spotted him, I got the creeps, a feeling that only intensified the closer he came. I was expecting another leering, “how you doing?”, but I got… nothing? He walked past like I wasn’t even there. F***ing finally. But still, I decided I had to say something to my boss about him anyway though. I didn’t like feeling creeped out at my office. I set up a meeting for Monday.
On Monday mooring, I was sitting at my desk checking emails and overheard a conversation in the copy room. Turns out the mailroom guy had been fired on Friday. According to the rumor mill, a colleague had heard the mailroom guy telling a co-worker that she had a pretty tongue. The woman who heard it had been putting up with harassing comments from the mailroom guy for years, but had never said anything. When she realized she wasn’t the only one, she spoke up. He was immediately dismissed because he had a long list of sexual harassment complaints by women that had followed him from agency to agency. Her complaint about what she heard, and what she experienced was the last straw for his current employer.
I wrote my boss back to cancel our meeting, assuring him that everything was fine.
I tell this long and detailed story so other women know it’s okay to speak up– to the harasser, and/or your boss, and/or HR. You don’t have to pull an Adria Richards and blast inappropriate people on social media, but actually do something, unlike young, naive me who endured BS I didn’t have to because I was just too scared and hadn’t yet figured out my worth. If sexual harassment is happening to you, you’re probably not the only one. And even if you are, it happening to YOU matter enough to speak up. Tell anyone until someone listens and intervenes to protect you, and if they don’t, get a lawyer and sue the **** out of the company.
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria), in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk.