I was 20. Maybe 22. I can’t remember. Parts of this are fuzzy, the kind of blur that comes from years of separation between The Moment and The Memory.
I was working at the bank. I’d managed to get myself up to assistant head teller status. We had some overflow and understaffing between our two local offices and, as one of the few people with familiarity with our processes who was part-time, I was asked to split my days between the branches.
It was good. I liked it. I didn’t mind being the floater. Every day was different and I got to interact with everyone. What more could an extrovert want, right?
Then the comments started.
“I bet the boys think dirty thoughts about you.”
“Look at those perky tits.”
One day the tag of my underwear stuck out of the waist of my slacks when I bent down. Suddenly, my thong was snapped up out of my pants.
This was the day when everything was “low cut.” Even semi-professional dress slacks. Or at least the ones I could afford in college. I wasn’t pulling a Britney Spears. And even if I had been, no one gets to touch my underwear without my permission.
Then she decided to cop a feel of my “perky tits” to see if they were real.
My harasser was a woman.
Internalized misogyny is a real bitch.
The day she touched me was the last day I worked with her. I sat down in my branch manager’s office and spilled the entire sordid tale, how uncomfortable the other woman’s actions made me feel, how she sexualized my body without my consent.
I don’t think I used those words. I don’t think I had those words.
I had a lot of shock.
This wasn’t the kind of sexual harassment we heard about in training. This wasn’t what we were taught to protect ourselves against. Men were the arrogant assholes who demanded sex acts in exchange for professional favoritism, right? That’s how it happened?
But no. That wasn’t my experience.
I was never asked to do anything, but I was made to feel inhuman.
I can’t remember her name. Pat, I think? Something nondescript. She had this ungodly red-purple hair, a color she concocted herself. That I remember.
But maybe Pat wasn’t her name.
I think she thought of me as…not a woman. A girl. She often remarked how she could be my mother.
My mother would never touch someone else’s body without their consent, thankyouverymuch.
She didn’t see anything wrong with her actions. That was the problem.
In her mind, she was paying me compliments talking about my “tits” (I despise that word) and popping my thong tag out of my pants. She was attempting to remember the days of her bygone youth as she topped 60 and neared retirement and Medicaid.
In her mind, if she’s even still alive, she probably still doesn’t think she did anything wrong. She still probably thinks I had something against her or wanted her job.
I mean, I was a young college kid who’d just bought her first house. I was probably just complaining because I hoped there’d be something in it for me, right?
That’s not why I did it.
When my branch manager asked me to write up my story, I did. I filled up a page and half or more of the history of my interactions with her. We submitted them to HR.
HR called after reviewing the claims and asked me what I wanted as a resolution. The ball completely in my court, I could’ve had her job. I mean, not had-had her job, but I could’ve had her fired.
If she’d been a man, I probably would’ve.
Even now, I can hear the excuses in my head.
“I don’t think she meant to hurt me, but she has to know her actions are not okay.”
That’s what I said. I remember that much.
She didn’t mean it, but she has to know.
There are a lot of men out there–and women–who would consider themselves well-meaning. They think they’re paying compliments, heaping praise, upon the women–and men–they harass.
Their own misogyny and gender-bias, ageism, sexism, it all plays into their interactions with others.
It’s not an excuse any longer.
It’s never been an excuse. At least not an acceptable one.
We have to do better. We have to raise a better generation that the one we’ve grown up in. We have to demand better from those with whom we interact. We have to stop treating women like our bodies are not our own.
The personal is political, and this spans all sides of the aisle. We vilify the sinner and the saint for her appearance, reducing her to nothing more than the sum total of how her ass looks in that skirt, no matter how long or short it is.
We talk about tits like they’re floating around out there disconnected from a brain and a heart.
We laugh off “jokes” from strangers. We utter bullshit phrases like “boys will be boys.”
When HR asked me what I wanted, I said I didn’t want to work with her anymore. I didn’t want to be responsible for her losing her job. I didn’t think I had that much power. I didn’t think I should have that much power.
It didn’t feel right somehow. I’m not sure why. I’m not sure if I’d do things the same way a second time around.
Our solution was that she and I would never work in that office at the same time. If there were full-city meetings, one of us would be excused from attending. I would work there when she was on vacation.
It was an acceptable arrangement. No one ever mentioned what had happened, and I’m sure they knew, at least in her office.
I know they knew I’d made a complaint. I don’t know if they believed me, even though they were witness to the things she’d said.
But I believed me. I knew how I felt. I still know how I felt.
I believe you, too.