Bringing sexual harassment out of the shadows

Sexual harassment being brought out of the shadows

April 20, 2017

So Bill O’Reilly is gone, swept out of the TV gig that made gazillionaires of both him and Fox. In his exit comments, he said he did not sexually harass any of the female co-workers who accused him, and that the payouts were only to protect his children. But the figure “$13 million” will cast a long shadow over him and his denials.

But it’s scandalous, and the scandal has opened the floodgates. Women are talking about their own experiences with co-workers who have crossed that line. I find it pathetic, that years passed and we have carried around our own stories, as if what happened was too shameful to be shared.

Facebook today is full of postings by women who are adding comments to the O’Reilly story. They’re saying things like, “Sexual harassment has always been the case”, and “It’s getting better for women on the job but it’s still happening.”

I have my own stories. As an intern, the men in charge asked me to record a voiceover for a birthday “joke.” They told me to talk “sexier.” I was 20, and didn’t really know what they meant, but I tried. I can feel my face getting red as I type this now.

Later, at a different company, a manager blatantly propositioned me at a work-related social function. I told him to get lost. But I was shaking as I drove home that evening, worried that my rejection might change my job circumstances. And I couldn’t have that. I’d worked too hard to get there.

In each case, the experience left me with a jumble of emotions: I felt alone, humiliated, embarrassed. I was green and ambitious. I never considered reporting the incidents – I don’t think I knew it was an option. This was the 1980s, and the term “sexual harassment” had only been around for about a decade.

I wonder why we women didn’t talk about what had happened to us. Decades later, I’m learning I was not the only one. It would have helped to share a drink with some co-workers and hear them say, “He tried that with me, too.” Then I wouldn’t have felt so alone.

I never felt it was my fault. If I was guilty of anything, it was of being too eager to please. But isn’t that the way we’re supposed to be as employees? Focused and dedicated and always ready to learn?

Sexual harassment, as defined by court precedent, is all about power. (And it affects men, too.) As little girls, we were taught to be compliant, to respect those in authority, to do as we’re told; I don’t know if that approach is such a good thing. I expect less compliance from my own daughter. I want her to be less yielding, and more self-directed. Still, I fear she will have to navigate some of the same choppy waters that I encountered.

Once, as a very young woman, I was in a car with a male co-worker. I’d dropped a pen, and when I went to retrieve it, I looked under my seat to find a Penthouse magazine, open to a page with a full-color photo of what you’d expect to find. Embarrassed, I pretended I didn’t see it. Yes, it was stashed under the seat, but it was in his work vehicle.

I never said a word. But now it feels right to talk about it – for our daughters, for our friends – for all of us.

Beth Dolinar can be reached at cootiej@aol.com.

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