Ripples of Doubt – my experiences of sexual harassment
There have been a lot of brave women speaking out about incidences of sexual harassment lately. I’ve been meaning to write something about my experiences for some time, but recent discussions have made me realise just how useful it can be to read other people’s stories. There’s something comforting in knowing that you’re not alone in the way that you feel about these things, the obvious flipside is the sheer awfulness that other people have been through not only similar, but far worse than me. So, in case it is of any use to anyone else out there, here are a few examples of things that have happened to me, and how they made me feel and how I responded.
1) “Do you want to sleep together tonight?”
Said casually, as though it were a perfectly normal thing to say, except for a number of things: It was totally uninvited, it was my boss who said it, my married-with-children boss, my new boss, he’d got me drunk first.
I lost part of my evening that night because I’d been encouraged to drink on an empty stomach, and while at a conference trying to keep potential new clients sweet, I’d lost track of how many times my glass had been topped-up. My boss could have been looking out for me, instead he kept filling my glass, even when I wasn’t keen. I was relatively new in the job. I wanted to keep up. I am usually fine with a few glasses of wine. The small complimentary limoncello at the restaurant (I’d finally persuaded the group we should eat) threw me off course. Scarily, there are blanks in my night. I had a spare room key in the morning – where did that come from? Did I go to my room alone? Thankfully, yes, a trusted friend confirmed that I somewhat suddenly left the bar and went to bed. The reason? My boss had just asked if I wanted to sleep with him. Even in that less than sober state I recall reeling and saying “What the fuck?! NO!” and him responding casually saying “Oh, I just thought I’d put it out there”.
With the benefit of hindsight I should have told him he could put it right back in there and told someone immediately. I didn’t. I went to bed. In the morning I woke up, unsure about how the evening had ended exactly, but with the inappropriate proposition and my answer crystal clear.
So what should you do in that situation? Report it to his boss? He was the CEO. Report it to HR? We didn’t have HR. Report it to a colleague? I was the only girl in the office and I was new. I sat stewing for a couple of days. Furious with him for doing such a thing but even more damagingly, questioning myself completely.
I’d got the job on merit – hadn’t I? I had all the skills they needed, the exact set of skills and experiences and genuine love of the product. People not only congratulated me on the job, but congratulated the company on getting me. It felt good, like I’d made the right decision and could bring some real worth to the place. Suddenly all that was gone in an instant. Did he just hire me because he wanted to sleep with me? Does he only value my looks? Maybe the hard work I’d put in to the business was less important to him than getting into my knickers. It felt horrible. I felt horrible.
What did I do? I put all of the facts down in an email and I sent it to him. I didn’t want to cause a fuss because it could prove lethal for the start-up, which was already losing its place in the market, and I liked the product. I made it very clear that he should never have done that and he must never ever do anything close to resembling that in future. If he did, I would not flinch at making it a huge deal. A one-line response ensued “It was totally inappropriate. I apologise for the upset it caused you and rest assured it will not happen again”. To be fair, nothing like that ever happened again, but I was given many more reasons to wish I’d not stayed on there. I was never shown an ounce of respect – especially when my contract was terminated over email because I refused to lie for the company, but that’s a whole other story.
2) “Oh please come swimming with me”
With an estimated 30,000 cardiologists in attendance the ACC is perhaps the largest cardiology conference in the world. I attended it a few years ago to do some research into the way doctors were using smartphones and tablets in their work. Questionnaires at the ready, I stopped attendees at random and asked if they could spare a moment to answer some short questions. I was surprised by three things while I was there: the enormity of the conference, the shocking ratio of men to women (I had to attend a specific ‘Women in Cardiology’ lunch to fill my quota of female respondents), and the readiness for any of the men to assume that by talking to them I wanted something “more”.
On the bus back from the centre I got talking to an older gentleman who agreed to fill in my questionnaire. We got chatting about this and that – he told me about his wife and sons – we shared stories of places we’d travelled to. General chit-chat. He’d not quite finished the questionnaire when the bus reached my hotel, so he offered to buy me a drink and fill it in. To be honest, I was glad of the company since my work colleague had managed to lose his passport the day he was due to fly out. He seemed harmless, an older gent, with a relatively high level position at a professional organisation, telling me about his family. When my other contacts stood me up for dinner he offered to keep me company. All fine. All very pleasant. There were different cuisines of offer and I chose Italian, not realising that this was the restaurant at his hotel. It was a fine restaurant, he ordered some very expensive wine, I realised that US doctors must earn a pretty penny but opted for something pretty basic on the menu. I’m not one for taking advantage and if I were to offer to go halves on the bill I had to ensure it wouldn’t entirely cripple me.
By dessert, the conversation had changed somewhat. He wanted to know if I would go swimming with him since the hotel apparently had five different pools. My immediate thought was to reply “no, I don’t have my swimming costume”, but the last few days, and this change in the tone of the conversation had put me on guard somewhat. I knew he’d have a simple answer to that, and it was one that I didn’t want to hear him say.
“No” I said, internally wracking my brains for a good reason to put him off, “I’ve already been swimming today” I said, as though it was perfectly obvious that you couldn’t swim twice in one day. He kept on though, cajoling, encouraging, suggesting, and then eventually begging. I’m not even kidding. Here was a chap, a professional, intelligent chap, old enough to be my father (perhaps grandfather), begging me to go swimming with him.
I just didn’t know what to do. I wanted to run away. I wanted to get out of there. But I was brought up nicely, I didn’t want to appear rude, he’d just bought me dinner. But there he was, begging me. It was worse than David Brent in the Office, it was so cringe-worthy that I was embarrassed for him. He had no idea though. No sense of how pathetic he was and so he kept persisting. It was hard for me, I don’t like to let people down, I don’t like to make people unhappy, but this? No way. I got out of there as quick as I could, even though my relief at being safe in a taxi was shortlived as the driver then tried his own brand of “charm”. Back in my room I just felt weird. I never said anything to my colleagues.
It sounds quite funny now. The one where the prominent cardiologist begged me to go swimming… When I tell it as a story I make it into something funny, because that’s all I can do. The truth of it though, was that it made me feel deeply uncomfortable on so many levels, and once again left me questioning my own worth as a person, as good company, as anything other than a stupid shell.
The two stories above happened in the last few years. The two following stories happened in the past few months – and actually, within 24 hours of one another, leaving me feeling like shouting “seriously mankind, get your shit together”.
3) “You wanna suck my cock?”
I’d done my good deed for the day, I’d walked an elderly American couple back to their hotel so they didn’t get lost, okay, it meant I’d be home later than I would have liked, but it felt good – a nice way to end an evening with new friends.
I was walking home, it was around midnight, I was alert to people around me. I was scared by the large group of young guys heading toward me, but I passed them fine and felt relieved – almost home. That is why I was so shocked when I walked past a lone young man and he grabbed my bottom just as he passed me. I was shocked and I was annoyed. I shouted at him. I don’t like to shout, I’m a quiet person, but I was furious. “Fuck off” I said loudly. “Do you wanna suck my cock?” he replied. This time a full volume “FUCK OFF!”. Not intelligent, but all I could muster. I walked a few steps away, then turned around and shouted after him “Is your mother proud of you?”.
I’d read a story once, about a woman who was being raped, somehow managing to ask her attacker what his mother would say if she saw him right then. Would she be proud. It shocked him, enough to stop attacking her. I always thought what an incredible woman she was for thinking of that at the right moment, and not in the aftermath – anyone can think of something clever afterwards. I remind myself of that story and practice saying it in my mind every now and then, trying to ensure that should I ever be in that sort of situation it might spring to mind.
I don’t know what my night-groper thought. I hope that it stuck with him though. I marched on proudly for a couple of steps, and then burst into tears. I was physically shaking by the time I got home and it took a while to put the key in the door. I told Twitter because I needed someone to be there while I was in shock and I didn’t like to wake my housemate. People were lovely. They were patient as I ranted and they sent good wishes as they checked that I was okay.
I felt better than previous occasions when similar things had happened to me, because I had said something, I had shouted, but I also felt violated, scared, and angry. Someone told me to call the police, but I didn’t, I didn’t think there was anything they could do, I didn’t like to make a fuss. So what that someone touched my bum, is it that bad? Am I physical hurt? No, it could have been so much worse. But despite the lack of bruising or more serious assault, I was on edge for days. My home streets were no longer mine, no longer “safe” (and I put that in inverted commas, because this is London we’re talking about..). How dare this person take away my safety like that. At least I shouted though. I did something. That has been the worst thing in the past – the thinking that it was in some way my fault or that I should have said something. Beating myself up for letting someone take power away from me and then make me feel like I’m not allowed to say anything. Feeling embarrassed about myself because of something that someone else did. It’s a strange set of feelings, but reading other people’s stories I realise that they are not uncommon.
I don’t know why I shouted that night. I don’t know if I would be brave enough to shout again in future. I don’t like to draw attention to myself. I’d like to think that I would though, if someone else is doing something wrong, then why should I keep quiet through guilt or embarrassment?
4) “I want to kiss you”
I woke up, still shaken by the above, but felt heartened by kind comments on Twitter and decided that I wasn’t going to let this boy take anything more from me. I drew a mental line under it, put on a smile and went to a conference.
At lunch I networked with various interested people in the queue for food and was then offered an open seat on one of the tables. I got talking to the people around me and the guy next to me mentioned something to do with space. Those that know of my alter-ego “spacekate” will know that it doesn’t take much to set me off enthusing about spaceflight and here was a wiling victim. I explained the T-10 app that I’m developing to help connect astronauts and people on Earth. He thought it was great. Having had a somewhat unsupportive time at work of late I was delighted that someone was genuinely interested in something of mine so I let it pass when he said it was so wonderful he wanted to give me “a metaphorical hug”. I thought it a strange turn of phrase and decided to give him a wide berth at the post-conference cocktails. I kept talking about work, things that I have created or developed. He kept saying he thought I was marvellous. It was getting a bit strange, so I made even more of an effort to talk about my professional life in line with the topic of the conference. Suddenly he said “You’re a difficult woman aren’t you? I want to kiss you.”
I was taken aback. Seriously. Not even 12 hours had passed since I’d been groped in the street and now this – at a professional conference in London. Unbelievable. I told him it made me feel uncomfortable. I was quiet and polite and yet still felt as though I shouldn’t say something to upset him. He brushed it off and I made my escape.
During the rest of the afternoon though I got more annoyed – both with him, and with myself. How many other women had he done that to? How many others said nothing? Why did he think that was appropriate behaviour in the context of the situation? And what of my professional skills? I thought that he was impressed with my achievements, but was that all just a way of buttering me up?
I couldn’t tell if I was over-reacting to be feeling so sleazed-upon. Perhaps I should just accept that some people are just like that? But this was more than a daft flirty comment, this made me feel really uncomfortable. I couldn’t concentrate in the sessions so I tweeted a bit about it. People were immediate and clear in their response – his behaviour was entirely unacceptable. It was okay for me to be cross. So I decided. At the next tea-break I was going to politely, but firmly tell him just that.
I waited until he was not locked in conversation and said hello. He looked delighted that I had come over to talk to him again. That didn’t last long.
I said that I wanted a word about our earlier conversation. I told him that it made me feel uncomfortable. His response was that “I say that to everyone”. Erm, right. I persisted, I said that it wasn’t appropriate in a professional setting when we had been talking about professional matters. “It’s a Latin thing” he said, “they would be offended if I hadn’t said that”. Putting all ridiculous imagined cultural stereotypes aside, for the moment, I told him to look around. “Is this Latin? No, it’s a business conference in the centre of London. You can’t act like that”. He’d just come back from “there” apparently, so still needed to adjust. I didn’t buy it. I told him that he really mustn’t say things like that, that it was inappropriate, uncalled for and made me uncomfortable. I also let him know that I had made the conference organisers aware of his behaviour. He looked crest-fallen, upset even, and I almost apologised for making him sad. I didn’t though. I caught myself just before that and told him not to put women in uncomfortable situations and gave a quick “thank you” before walking away.
It was the right thing to do. Whether he meant to cause offence or genuinely thought he was being friendly, I had to let him know that it’s not the done thing. I hope that in future he will think twice. Who knows. All I know was that it was draining, that I was still left questioning myself and that despite it being his own doing, I felt bad for upsetting someone else. Then I felt annoyed to be feeling that too.
I don’t like to make a big deal of things,I’m writing this now because there is a conversation happening and I think that the more people share their experiences the more people will realise it is something that needs to be addressed. These are not the worst things that could have happened to me, thank goodness, but like I said, these situations leave you with a strange mix of feelings. It’s really disconcerting each time. Such a mix of guilt, anger, fear, doubt, embarrassment and more, even if you stand up to this unacceptable behaviour it is tiring. I am glad that more people are speaking out and sharing stories. I’m just sorry it has taken me so long to do so myself.
These are by no means all the stories that I could tell you, there are many others from my online and offline life, some less significant, others more so. The latter are riddled with complex feelings or misplaced loyalties. I’m not ready to share those. I’m sorry.