Friday, October 14, 2016

We Need to End the Silence

     When I was seventeen I had a part-time job at Burger King. I have a number of entertaining stories about the joys of fast food, like the constant smell of french fries, the customers who think "fast" means instantaneous (even when there's a long line), and the co-worker I had a crush on who introduced me to the yummy goodness of french fries dipped in mayonnaise, which most people think is disgusting. It's not. It's wonderful.

     Instead of talking about all those wonderful things, I'm going to talk about something less wonderful. I'm going to talk about the reprehensible behavior one of my supervisors, who I'm going to call Ned (not his real name). Ned was in his forties. When Ned talked to me, he liked to stand close. Very close. So close that we no longer had our own personal bubbles, but he was sharing mine. So close that our toes were practically touching. Close enough that I could smell his breath and feel it on my face when he talked.

     What did he talk about while standing so close to me? Anything and everything. Work-related and non-work-related. He talked about the proper way to fill the fry boxes, work skills of mine that needed improving, how I still wore nail polish to work, how my day was going, how his day was going, etc. But let me tell you about Ned's favorite subject, his girlfriend. Yep. Ned liked to talk about his girlfriend, and how they weren't getting along. Guess who reminded him of his girlfriend? Yep, that's right. I did. Ned felt the need to tell me this many, many times. I reminded him of his girlfriend because we were both quiet and petite. He would smile while pointing out my similarities to her.

     What did I say in response to this? Not much. Many times I think I just nodded or said, "Oh" or "yeah." I didn't know what else to say or do. I believe my strategy was to just be a good employee, and not do anything to encourage his creepy behavior. I moved farther away from him when possible, but sometimes he'd come talk to me when I was already up near a wall or counter, so that it was harder for me to create more space between us. What was I supposed to say or do? I was a teenager, he was a forty-something year old man, who was also my boss. Besides, he was just making conversation. That's what I told myself, anyway. I had to repeat it many, many times, because he creeped me out. He never got the hint when I moved farther away.

     One day when Ned wasn't around, I was talking to a female co-worker, we'll call her Jill, who was roughly the same age as I was. Somehow, we got on the subject of Ned, and discovered that we both had the same problem. Ned also liked to stand in Jill's personal space and breathe all over her while talking. Ned also liked to talk about his girlfriend. Jill and I discovered an amazing coincidence: we both reminded Ned of his girlfriend! Crazy, right? Especially considering that Jill and I looked nothing alike, other than being teenage girls who also happened to be Ned's subordinates. We both were creeped out by him and bothered by his behavior. I felt a little better knowing I wasn't alone. Jill and I never reported his behavior. Neither of us even mentioned the idea.

     Why didn't I report Ned? Well, that was nearly twenty years ago, so it's hard to remember exactly what I was thinking, but I can say that the main reason was that he had power over me in two ways: he was my boss, and he was an adult. Let me reiterate that: he had the power. I didn't.

     There was a part of me that believed it was my problem his behavior bothered me. Why? Because I told myself things like: "he's not actually doing anything." He never touched me, he never made a move on me, never threatened my job if I didn't do one thing or another. Those were the definitions of sexual harassment in the workplace that I'd been taught. I believed that because he wasn't violating any of those rules, that it was my problem that he bothered me, that he technically wasn't doing anything wrong.  I thought that I would be looked at as "overreacting" if I reported him for standing close to me and telling me that I reminded him of his girlfriend.

     I also never told him to stop, or that he made me uncomfortable. Why? Like I said, he was my boss. I was a teenager and he was an adult. He had the authority. I didn't. He was a snippy, grumpy boss at times. I didn't want to make him mad. I didn't want to lose my job. I thought it would be less of a hassle if I just continued moving away from him whenever possible and giving little attention to his "you remind me of my girlfriend" remarks.

     Now that I'm an adult I can look back on this experience with greater insight. Just because he never actually made a move or threatened my job, doesn't mean he wasn't doing anything wrong. He was. He made me uncomfortable, and no employee should have to feel uncomfortable at their place of work. He violated my personal space. As an adult, I now fully realize how vastly inappropriate it is for a forty-year-old man to be continuously telling a seventeen-year-old that she reminds him of his girlfriend.  Even if nothing had come of it, I wish that Jill and I had reported him to another supervisor, because at the very least his behavior would've been on record. I know that now, and wish I'd said something, but I'm not angry at my past self. I don't blame myself for having been afraid, because that's the world we live in. That's how insidious rape culture is.

     This is the world we've lived in for so many decades. Victims were/are shamed, ridiculed, and taunted for coming forward. Many victims were taken advantage of by people who wielded some power over them--such as Ned did with me--making it even harder to come forward. Things like this are still going on today, despite the gains made over the decades. It needs to stop. People shouldn't have to be afraid to come forward about harassment, abuse, or rape. People shouldn't be told that their feelings aren't valid, that their situation was all in their mind, or that they caused it, or any of the other insane, ridiculous things that victims are told.

     Over the past week I've been seeing on Facebook many women coming forward with accounts of incidents like the ones I described above, and incidents of assault. These brave people give me encouragement. It's time to end the silence. The more women (and any victims) talk about their experiences, the less afraid others will be to do the same. That is my hope. People aren't going to like the things they learn about the world, but that doesn't mean the problems aren't there.