This year’s newspapers have been full of stories of sexual assault, harassment, and general bad behavior from the presidential campaign to Fox news to New England private schools. What has struck me as I shake open the paper in the morning, or scroll through my Facebook feed, or talk with other women over tea, is the ubiquity of the experience of sexual harassment and misconduct. Yeah, we’ve all been there. That should be a shocking thing to say.
What shocks me most, when I look back on the years during which harassment was a regular part of my life (age and a mane of gray hair seem to have protective benefits) is how often it happened at work, rather than at bars or on dates. By “at work” I don’t mean in an office – though that happens to others, it has never happened to me. Harassment is a real challenge for many of us in development and service work precisely because we are out in the world, on the street, on the bus, on display. How regular is harassment? Well, a quick scan of my memory brings up this litany:
The supervisor at my job cleaning the snack-bar floors of my high school (one of those New England private schools, it so happens) who leered, put his hands on me to “help” me mop, and watched me work, saying I’d make some man a good wife someday.
The frail, broken down old men who were my clients and their wandering hands when I was a social worker for self-neglecting elders.
The boys and men who followed me daily, throwing rocks and cat calling, when I walked around my small town in Turkmenistan in Peace Corps.
The uncountable men on uncountable trains, planes, and automobiles who used the excuse of dim lights and proximity to touch, and deny the touch. I remember one man on a long-haul bus ride across Uzbekistan who sat in the seat behind me, reaching through the gap between seats to grope me. His wife sat stone faced beside him. And I remember the drunken oil worker in the seat next to me on the plane home from Nigeria who leaned in too far, put his hands too close, and talked of inappropriate things until he downed another scotch and fell into a stupor. That was recent; maybe the hair isn’t always protection.
These incidents were all in my “workplace”, and they were all repeated, a chronic, toxic experience of being treated as an object, a thing to be touched. When I close my eyes and remember those times, what I remember most is the anger, the boiling feeling of outrage that this was so ordinary, so normal, and so seemingly unavoidable. And then I remember the feeling of utter boredom with it all, just another dirty man with his dirty wandering hands. I am shocked, thinking of it from a distance now, that daily harassment was part and parcel of work life for me for many years, and that I never considered that remarkable: literally, I did not consider it meaningful enough to remark upon.
I feel compelled, with the daily titillation of stories of high-powered people misbehaving sexually (often at work, it must be said), to remark now. To say how unremarkable it has been, how ordinary and boring and ubiquitous. How did it take us so long to notice? To finally take umbrage?
When I was in high school, I did a semester abroad in the Dominican Republic. I was regularly harassed there, as I was told all teen-aged girls were. When I came home I wrote an essay about the experience for English class in which I basically said that objectification was a cultural norm, and that I had no right as a foreigner to question it, but rather should understand it as an anthropologist might when doing field work. My English teacher wrote in the margin: “Lisa: do not grow so open minded that your brain falls out.”
Over the years I have been guilty of letting my brain fall out, of saying nothing as I accepted what I do not want my young colleagues to accept. This ugly side of our work is not inevitable. It is not unspeakable. On planes, trains, or automobiles, we should be talking about it, and those of us who have come through the experience (and those of us, women and men, who have been lucky enough to avoid it) should be ready to put our brains back in and lend a helping hand.