Hello friends and lovers! I’ll give you a break from my usual “look at me! look at me!” updates and leave you unattended as you’re sexually harassed by fellow writer and friend Mike Monson. Pick up Criminal Love and Other Stories, Mike’s collection of gritty crime, here. Check out his blog here.
Confessions of a Sexual Harasser
This is what happened:
It was just last week, on Tuesday. I was at a temp job, in a small office, sitting at a computer. I was performing data entry. I was being good. About 10 feet from me, in my line of sight, a woman sat at a desk. This woman usually wore her hair in a tight bun. In the middle of the morning I looked up and noticed that she had taken her hair out of the bun and was shaking her head and running her fingers through the now-loose hair. Her hair was amazingly long and strikingly beautiful.
The woman’s head shaking went on and on. She looked happy and glad. She seemed to be having a sensual experience. I could not stop watching. The longer I watched, the more uncomfortable I became.
Now, I’ve worked in offices continuously since about 1980. I’ve had seminar after seminar on sexual harassment and related issues. At my last job, at a large San Francisco law firm, we had to take an online course on sexual harassment once a year. There was a lot of pressure to take and complete the course before the deadline.
So, what I am saying is, I know how to keep my freaking mouth shut and to avoid doing or saying anything that could possibly make a co-worker uncomfortable in any way. Ever. Believe me, I have been trained.
I once dated a co-worker. I think I was a little in love with the woman. I drank a bit of wine on our one date and I think I became too (romantically, not sexually) aggressive. At one point I saw a look of discomfort on her face. This look made me afraid for my job so much that I immediately stopped the relationship and sweated for weeks that I’d get a call from HR. It was excruciating. It made no difference to me how much I liked this woman. I was recently divorced and I had alimony and child support and other obligations. I needed that job and I did not need any embarrassing work-related drama. No way.
Luckily the call never came. And, until this week, I was never, in all my jobs, in any trouble for any sort of harassment issues. Never. Not even close.
Okay, so, back to the other day. For reasons I’m still not sure about now, I called the woman by her name. When she looked over at me I mimicked her hair-taking-down movements and told her that it was distracting. I made sure to smile. I said, “I may have to shut the door so I can’t see you anymore.” She said something I could not hear (there was a loud air conditioner blasting and other people near her talking loud) and then I said, “I’ll just keep my eyes on the screen.”
Then I turned away.
I felt like an idiot. I felt slightly ashamed. I vowed to not look at or talk to the woman ever again—just to be safe. Since at that point I knew the job would end on Friday, and since me and the woman did not really work together, I figured I could pull that off.
About an hour later I had a talk with the office manager who had hired me. She re-confirmed that I was doing a great job (“two gold stars”) and she once again assured me the job would last until Friday at five. She was certain that by then I’d be finished with the backlog of work that I had been hired to complete. She told me when I was at lunch to be sure and obtain a parking pass from the security office—a parking pass that would last through Friday.
All was good with the temp job.
When I came back from lunch 30 minutes later the manager called me into her office. She said, “It’s just not working out, you need to leave.”
Weird. I didn’t get it. Why such a drastic change in just 30 minutes? I didn’t think about the long-haired lady. I kept asking the manager what happened, what I did wrong. She kept saying “It’s just not working out. You have to leave now, the job is over.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said. “Please tell me the truth. What happened?”
“Let’s just say that we decided we don’t need a temp anymore. We are all caught up now. Let’s just say that. You need to leave.”
For another couple of minutes I tried to get her to tell me the truth. She wouldn’t budge. It was clear that I needed to get out of there, that she really wanted me gone. Her face was bright red.
I spent an awkward couple of minutes putting away my materials and filling out my time sheet. She signed the sheet and took her copy.
On the way out of the office and to the parking lot (which was about a five minute walk) I was aware of how upset I was. I had that creepy feeling like in grade school when the teacher sends you to the office: I felt light-headed and my stomach churned with an intense ache. I tried to think of why this was happening to me. Then, I remembered what I’d said to the long-haired lady and I knew the reason I was being sent away.
I had made the woman uncomfortable. She had spoken to the manager about it and—boom—the temp had to go. There was really no other explanation.
My discomfort continued on the drive home. I had the vague conviction that I hadn’t done anything wrong but I still felt miserable—completely rejected and dejected. Plus, shit, I needed the money I had just lost. Badly.
Once home I contacted a friend of mine who I knew had expertise in workplace/office issues such as mine. She told me that what the woman had done is known in Human Resource parlance as “a form of undressing” and that it was considered inappropriate to do in the office in front of male co-workers. She felt that my comments were my attempt to, in a friendly way, gently let her know that she was making me uncomfortable.
This made me feel better of course. But, still, I wonder: was I flirting or not? Was I innocent? Was she? I just don’t know. The emotional trauma from the shame and embarrassment related to the event has created a cloud in my mind that prevents me from accurately remembering the details.
For sure though, I am surprised and impressed at how much this has affected me. I still feel shame off and on all day, though that is diminishing. I have been questioning myself a lot—what kind of person am I? Am I good? Bad? Do I creep people out, make them uncomfortable? Is my presence in the workplace challenging and upsetting rather than pleasant and helpful as I’d always imagined?
I am also feeling a visceral anger, which is growing. How dare she lie to me? How dare she think she could deal with me by sending me away? Who do they think they are? Who do they think I am? I’ll show them. Thoughts like these seethe though me all day.
And, now, every time I see a woman with long, lovely hair (and there are a lot of them where I live in Kona, Hawaii) the shame returns and I avert my eyes, which is a complete drag, you know?