More on sexual harassment. (Case 2)

If this is your first time visiting my blog, please go read my previous post before you start on this one. Otherwise not much of it will make sense. Also, locusts will eat your brain while you sleep.

Now, assuming you’ve all read it, I want to start off by clarifying a few things regarding the incident I described last time. I will do that by responding to a couple of your comments.

echidna says:

It seems clear that the woman’s approach was unwelcome and sexually explicit. If you asked her to stop, or to leave, and she continued regardless of your expressed wishes, then it would be harassment.(…) Did AJ make it clear the advances were unwelcome?

To be completely honest, I don’t recall if AJ made it clear VERBALLY that the young woman’s proposals were unwelcome. I don’t think I verbally expressed that either. The situation was very awkward overall. I do remember that we both used the kind of body language which in normal circumstances would have been obvious: ignoring her, turning away from her while she was talking, not responding in any way. It’s possible that the woman was so drunk that she didn’t notice all this.

Btw, from the way I phrased myself last time, it may have appeared like AJ bailed on me by leaving the table. She didn’t. Her plan was to go say “Hi!” to someone at another table and then come back, hoping that the woman would take the hint and leave her alone. AJ didn’t anticipate that she would start bothering me after that. The entire thing happened really fast – probably in the span of a few minutes.


Timid Atheist says:

1. Was this girl or her boyfriend a part of TAM? Would that have been something obvious that you could tell?

I can’t know for sure, but my guess would be that they weren’t there for the conference. Neither of them had a badge and she never mentioned the conference (common ground comes in handy when you’re hitting on someone, so I think she would have mentioned if they were there for TAM).


Also, a few of you were wondering why do I have to ask YOU whether an incident which  involved myself and my friend was sexual harassment or not.

You need to understand my attitude and initial reaction in the context of some significant cultural differences between Eastern Europe (where I was born, grew up and lived all my life) and what we call “The West”. So let me tell you about my experience with sexual harassment.

When I was 18 years old I got hired as bartender’s help. The club in question was pretty much known as a “singles” type of place, where people came to dance, drink and hook-up. Apparently, for some people this meant they can also hit on ME all night long. It was a given. If I were to guesstimate, I’d say that at least 40% of all the guys who bought a drink at the bar felt entitled to grossly “flirt” with me and the other girl who was also a bartender help.

Besides her and myself, the rest of the staff was all-men : four waiters, a DJ, a bartender and a bouncer. That’s because the owner of the bar was a cheap-ass, in reality we probably needed at least twice as many employees. This meant that everybody was over-worked and didn’t have time for anything else besides their own job. Which in turn, meant that I couldn’t bother the waiters every time someone was being a jerk to me, because the waiters hardly had time to take bathroom breaks. The bouncer was also overwhelmed in handling the people who would try to leave without paying, or would start a fight and so on. The bartender was the busiest of all of us and the DJ was just a kid.

The harassment I experienced in that place was not limited to unwelcome verbal advances … some men would grab my hand when I served them their drink, in an attempt to keep me there talking to them. Sometimes they would send me to fetch them more ice or napkins when they didn’t need them, just so they’d have an excuse to make slimy attempts at (what they probably considered to be) flirting. They didn’t care that I was working and I didn’t want their attention, they didn’t care how uncomfortable and frustrated they made me feel.

The worst was when I was sent to clear off a table. Being behind the bar at least gave me some protection, but having to go into the crowd and find my way through all the drunks was a nightmare. Every time. In fact, each night (morning really) when the club would close, me and the other bartender help would share stories about all the assholes who bothered us during the night.

Later when I started working as a waitress (at another place which was not so much a club, but a pub), things were not very different. Here it was a bit quieter, but all the employees were women and we had no bouncer, so again we had to deal on our own with the customers who crossed the line.

During all this time (about 2 years of waitressing or bar-tending), only twice I asked someone to help me out when I was harassed. And on both occasions I asked for help only when I literally feared that “this person might try to hurt me”.

When I first started looking for more “serious jobs” (to me that meant working a 9 to 5 job in an office) I learned fast that employers sometimes feel within their right to hit on you during the job interview. Sometimes they are perfectly professional during the interview, but not so much once you’re hired. Once I had to quit my job at a very respectable shipping agency (the second biggest in my city) because one of my superiors kept pressuring me to go out with him. Yes, I told other people about it. No, no one did anything. Because I was replaceable and he was not.

There are many more stories I can share, but I think you get the picture. In all this time, I had to not only remain silent when someone harassed me, but to also smile while it happened. Because my job depended on me being nice and polite to people. Because “the customer is always right”. Because “the employer is always right”. Because “my superior is always right”.

In the spirit of fairness, I have to mention that I also worked in places where I was never harassed and I was treated as a valued employee. But from my personal experience with harassment, you may understand why right now I have a thicker skin – and maybe sometimes I am even unable to recognize *mild* sexual harassment when it happens.

To give my personal criteria, I would identify  as “sexual harassment” any type of sexual advances which don’t stop when you make it clear you want them to stop.

Also, I find flirting to be inappropriate when there is any type of power imbalance (either obvious or implicit) which favors the person making the advances. Like when someone is being hit on by their employer, or by a co-worker who is also their superior, or by a teacher, etc.

Another example more in the context of the TAM meeting,  is when someone is trying to collect money for one cause or another, and they’re being hit on by the people they’re supposed to collect money from.

To quote Rebecca here : “Guys? Don’t do that!”.  No matter how sexually attracted you are to someone, refrain yourself from making a move if you hold power over them. The kind of power that would make them obliged to be nice to you. The kind of power that would make them fear the consequences of *not* being nice to you. Oh btw ….being physically stronger is also a power imbalance when the other person has no means to escape if they wish to. (e.g. a closed space, like, say, an elevator?)

In the example I gave on my first post, my *personal criteria* of sexual harassment was not met (not to the point of reporting it anyway) not only because the woman did not have any power over me (there would be no consequences to me rejecting her proposals), but also because she was about half my size. I simply did not regard her as threatening. But what if instead of her there would have been a very buff, very drunk dude acting in the exact same way? Probably neither I nor AJ would have felt as safe.

I’ve also come to understand that even if I personally didn’t perceive that situation as threatening, someone else might .

I really don’t want to see sexual harassment policies become so strict that they begin to interfere with normal, healthy interactions and flirting. But you know what ? I don’t think ANYONE who chimed in on this subject wants that. This is not a case of “fun OR safety”. We can easily have both!

If a while ago someone asked me if I think it’s necessary for the TAM organizers to implement sexual harassment policies, I might have said “no” – and if I did, I would have been dead wrong. Just because I always felt safe at TAM, it doesn’t mean that everybody else did, and it also doesn’t mean that I always will. These policies are not meant to take the fun out of the event, but to ensure that if someone needs help, help is available.

I want to end this topic by showing you another case, this time it’s a fictional one. The clip below is from one of my favorite romantic movies  : “A Room With A View ” (1986) starring Helena Bonham Carter as “Lucy” and Julian Sands as “George”:


To give a little context for this, there has been very minimal interaction between Lucy and George before this point. I want to follow the clip with an excerpt from Roger Ebert’s review of the film :

Lucy meets George and his father in their pensione. A few days later, while standing in the middle of a waving field of grass, the sun bathing the landscape in a yellow joy, she is kissed by George, most unexpectedly. He does not ask her permission. He does not begin with small talk. He takes her and kisses her, and, for him, something “great and important” has happened between them.

Lucy is not so sure. She catches her breath, and Miss Bartlett appears on top of a hill and summons her back to tea.

To this day, this kiss appears listed among the most romantic scenes in a movie. And I have to say I always loved the scene too.

But what we need to fully understand is that this scene is romantic BECAUSE we have an insight into how Lucy is feeling. We KNOW what she really wants. We KNOW what she thinks. We feel this kiss is romantic and implicitly consensual BECAUSE in a movie, the characters and their intentions and desires are revealed to us in ways we’d never have access to in real life.

In real life, you will NEVER have this insight into the other person’s mind. You DON’T KNOW how they really feel and think. In my opinion, this is the most important thing to keep in mind when you feel the urge to do something that (to you) may seem “fun” , or “romantic”, or “sexy”: the other person may feel the exact opposite of what you’re assuming.