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This is part 2 of a guest post from Michele Phillips, her reflections on the InFocus session, Silence, Agency, and Gender in an Increasingly Violent World. In this part, she shares a very personal story of her own experience with sexual harrassment and speaking out.
Shut up, you live in a man’s world
Q&A: Amanda asked: “How do you know which silence is empowering and which is not?” Dr. Enloe responded that in the early 80’s the term sexual harassment was nonexistent. It was something that was considered private but was becoming public. Secretaries had developed clever, silent strategies to avoid sexual harassment, for example by placing their desks facing the door and chairs against the wall. Has anything really changed?
A few years ago, I worked for a respectable organization. I worked with approximately 30 men, 3 female coworkers, a female supervisor and a female boss. Much to my dismay, I did not have a choice as to where I placed my desk; I had the door to my back. As a whole, I felt respected by my coworkers; I only ever had an issue with one of them. He would sneak up behind me in my office and startle me, repeatedly. Every time he did, I told him firmly not to do so, that he was not welcome in my office. He persisted.
I put up a rear view mirror on my computer monitor. It seems ridiculous to me now, my “silent secretary strategy” was a rear view mirror mounted at my desk. He persisted. I became so jumpy that I alerted others to keep an eye on him. He persisted. Why didn’t I report him at this point? He was terrorizing me, but I felt I could not explain this situation and be taken seriously.
Then, one day while I was working out of town, he came up behind me in a warehouse, pinned my arms back, and pressed himself against me. I was disgusted and outraged! I kicked and screamed. Luckily I was not alone, but the other woman who was standing in the warehouse had no idea what had just happened. Since I was out of town I had to wait to get back to my office to report the incident. I was terrified.
Upon my return, I immediately reported the incident my superior (who is a woman). The first thing she asked was “Did you ask for it, and what were you wearing”…we had uniforms. She said that I was “flirtatious and had probably sent him the wrong signals”. I was NEVER flirtatious with him, not that flirtation gives anyone the right. She questioned me over and over, to the point that I felt as though I had done something wrong. Finally she told me she would write a report for his file but that
no action would be taken against him. I wanted to throw up. I ended my contract early. As cowardly as it may seem, I couldn’t face her response to the asssault. I felt revictimized. This comment may sound sexist, but her response felt worse because it came from a woman. I now realize that to survive in this male dominated industry and rise to the top, she had to reproduce patriarchal norms. And it really shouldn’t matter whether she had a vagina or a penis, the way she responded is a reflection of
our patriarchal society… but it hurt even more because I felt betrayed by another woman I thought would understand what I had gone through.
Then something magical happened. I started receiving emails from male coworkers. Much to my surprise I received kind words of support and understanding, even if they were expressed in the typical macho, “If I ever see that guy again I will break his jaw,” style.
The next summer when I went back to work the co-worker who assaulted me was still there. He kept his distance and after a few weeks, he quit his job. I never asked the male co-workers what they said or did to him. I didn’t care. I tried to go through the system and the system failed me (as it often does), but my male coworkers came through for me and for that I am truly grateful. My experience provides rich material for gender analyses of sexual harassment, silence and silencing as well as for institutional and personal responses to assault.
**Please watch this testimony from an extremely courageous Guatemalan woman speaking out against rape perpetuated by a Canadian mining company http://youtu.be/dSGuDk4cnz4