Should I Come Forward About Being Sexually Harassed?
Thirteen years ago, I was a young administrative assistant for a very powerful man who is well known in my community. On more than one occasion, we were in the office together after hours and some questionable things happened. For example, he asked me to go get drinks or dinner with him several times and gave me a number of gifts, including $200 worth of gift cards to Victoria’s Secret and some erotic novels he said he thought I would like. He was married at the time and, as far as I know, still is.
I was 22 when this all happened and I’ll admit I was flattered that this man I admired took an interest in me. I did go out with him for drinks on one of the occasions he asked me, and although he flirted with me and got too close for comfort (for my part, I remember giggling a lot like an idiot), he didn’t touch me and nothing sexual ever happened. For two subsequent positions elsewhere that I ended up taking, he served as a reference. I did not use him as a reference for my current job, though—in part because I feel like I can stand on my own, but also because I felt a bit dirty accepting his help earlier.
With sexual harassers being outed almost daily in the news, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my time working for this man and what happened. I can see now that he wasn’t interested in me for my professional abilities or potential but purely because he found me attractive. I have come to recognize that his actions in many cases were inappropriate or even abuses of his power. I think I knew it then but rationalized or excused it, for whatever reason.
It’s hard for me to imagine I’m the only woman he’s ever treated this way, which makes me feel gross, but I don’t know of any other cases. Also, because I didn’t reject or report him at the time and in some cases accepted his gestures or was flattered by them, I don’t know if it’s worth coming forward about it or even if it can be classified as “sexual harassment.” I don’t know what is to be gained, as I am not looking for gain. And I don’t hate the man; I guess I’m more disgusted with him and with myself for not clearly seeing what was going on. He’s not in politics or the entertainment industry, but he does have some clout and taking him on would be a very risky play for me.
I know you’re not a lawyer. I am not expecting legal advice. But as my therapist, how would you respond if I walked into your office and told you all this? —Me Too
Dear Me Too,
Thank you for sharing your story. As we learn more and more each day about the prevalence of the kinds of experiences you shared, there are so many natural responses we may feel: sadness, confusion, shock, anger, shame, frustration, guilt, hopelessness, purpose, and resolve among them. Sometimes we may feel all of those, and more, in the same day. Each of us has a responsibility to explore for ourselves how to navigate the complex feelings that may come up—and, as you ask, what to do about it.
I am not a lawyer—you are right—and if you were to come into my office with this question, my primary concern would be to help you identify what felt “right” to you. There is no one right path for you, nor for anyone in the ever-growing #MeToo movement. Survivors are sharing their stories for deeply personal reasons. My interest would be in helping you identify your reasons for sharing, and how much and with whom you want to share.
I hear you questioning whether what you experienced technically qualifies as sexual harassment. The danger in that line of questioning is that you run the risk of de-legitimizing your experience. You used the words “gross” and “dirty” to describe your feelings about your experiences. Those authentic feelings deserve to be honored.
Is it enough for you to share with a therapist and explore what you need to find peace? Do you feel like you want to share with friends and family? Do you want to share in a more public setting? Do you want to shine a spotlight on your harasser?
As you pondered those questions, I’d want to explore with you what you hoped to gain and what you feared you might lose with each course of action. Are you seeking validation that what you experienced wasn’t okay, or are you seeking something beyond that? How do you want to integrate this new awareness into your life? Identifying your needs and hopes would drive the work you might do with a therapist.
I hear you questioning whether what you experienced technically qualifies as sexual harassment. The danger in that line of questioning is that you run the risk of de-legitimizing your experience. You used the words “gross” and “dirty” to describe your feelings about your experiences. Those authentic feelings deserve to be honored. You came away from your interactions with someone who was in a position of power feeling diminished. You might not have had words to put to it at the time, nor did you have a clear, egregious action to point to. That is all part of the dynamic many #MeToo voicers experience. The toxic culture in which these kinds of power relationships take place puts individuals in situations where perpetrators may not be fully aware of the impact or impropriety of their actions, and recipients of their actions may not be aware of how deeply they are impacted and how not okay those actions are; it is the “norm,” so we may tend to dismiss and minimize our feelings. Thanks to the courageous women and men sharing their #MeToo stories, hopefully that is changing.
I encourage you to not minimize your feelings and to offer your 22-year-old self some compassion for not having the awareness at the time to put a name to what was happening. I also encourage you to find a therapist with whom you can work through these thoughts and feelings so you can find clarity about what you want to do.
Best of luck,
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Sandra HFebruary 7th, 2018 at 12:23 PM
The #metoo mvmnt is empowering a lot of ppl, that’s great. I just hope our society doesn’t forget about due process
carrieFebruary 7th, 2018 at 2:45 PM
Sorry that happened to you
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