Harassment Could -- and Did -- Happen to Me

4 years ago

I was 23, working at my dream job teaching writing at an alternative outdoor high school, when I experienced sexual harassment.

I did not think that I was the type, whatever that means. I was too smart to be manipulated, too tough to be tormented, too well-liked for anyone to want to mistreat me. I was so clever and quick on my feet that I could diffuse any situation before it became unpleasant.

And if what happened next hadn't happened, I bet I'd still be walking around with those same ignorant ideas in my head. 

Out of the seven teachers at the school, only two of us were women. We all lived together, along with our 13 students, traveling to different rivers each week, and driving up the spine of South America at night, camping out in the woods or living in cabins in tiny surf towns. We had no space from one another and very little time to ourselves. It was tough, and unusual, but I was used to the challenges of communal living, and right away I figured out how to thrive.

The key was to like everybody. If you do, then everybody likes you. So no matter what came my way, whatever stresses occurred around me, I'd just grin, shrug, make a joke out of it, and stay out of the way. I never got flustered, angry, or terse. I was strictly agreeable and cheerful.  

It wasn't just the desire to be popular that made me adopt this attitude of affable till death. It was survival. It's much easier to live together if everyone gets along, and if you let a few things roll off your back. It's basic group dynamics that every guide and camp counselor has to study at some point in their lives. 

It worked in the beginning. I was well liked by my co-workers and my students. And when I started to observe another teacher harassing the other woman on staff, I stayed well out of it, grateful that it wasn't me. 

He invented stories and rumors about her that he spread to the students, who were eager to be let in on staff gossip. He eroded her confidence and credibility with skill. 

Yet I knew the way he treated her was wrong, and the way he treated the students like frat brothers was inappropriate.  I never questioned him, though, and I never stood up for her, because I was so hell bent on remaining passive and pleasant. In fact, that he could emotionally annihilate her in public, then turn around and want to be friends with me, seemed like more proof of my rank as a likable person.

So, guess what happened next?

Over two months, I watched this man’s behavior became increasingly volatile and bizarre. I watched from a distance until one day I woke up, and it was me he was harassing. 

He said off-color, cutting, and abusive things. He told me he was so sexually frustrated that he should be allowed to hit me just for the release. 

The other woman complained, but nothing was done about it. We were so isolated, in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country, that it would have been difficult to do anything without completely disrupting the entire program. I was afraid of that happening, so I refused to complain. Being one of the few women in a work environment can make one do anything to avoid seeming dramatic or emotional.

One day I was alone with him in the attic of the staff cabin. He yelled at me that all of my students hated me. I remember his snarling face leaning into mine as he called me "a selfish bitch, a selfish little girl." As he left, he ordered me to stay in the attic until I "got my shit together -- even if it took a week." 

Five years later, I still don’t understand how I let it get this far. But truthfully, I just could not believe that I was being harassed, as if there is a type who attracts this treatment, as if it only happens to the weak, sensitive, and dramatic. 

I held on to this belief so tightly that by the time I realized what was going on, I thought it had to be my fault, that I hadn't stopped it early enough, so I had to endure it for the rest of the semester. 

On the airplane home from South America, with the kids sleeping in their seats, this man sat down in the seat next to me, shaking me awake. He was drunk. I straightened up and told him he needed to leave. He didn't. He threw himself into another diatribe against me, threatening to spit on me.

It finally dawned on me that this was a dangerous person. This wasn't just an annoyance. I was not safe around him, nor was I safe at work. 

When the plane landed, I made the phone call which kicked off mediation, lawyers, documents, insults, and frustration. I've never felt so confused and isolated in my life.  In the end, he refused mediation, and this was the official reason why he was fired. Another staff member quit in protest. The rest of us were shell-shocked, still living together, with half a semester to go. Just as I'd figured, the entire school was disrupted. 

I learned a lot during this time -- specifically that any incident that occurs on an airplane becomes a tedious legal no-man's-zone. I learned that we'll never know anybody's full story. There are too many factors, legal and otherwise, that prevent us from telling it.

Most of all, I learned just how complicated these situations can be.  My previous assumption about the 'type' of person to be harassed, offended, ignored, and even abused, were so ignorant, so massively and entirely wrong, I think this had to happen in order for me to understand.  

At least, that's what I tell myself. 

This post is part of BlogHer's Women@Work editorial series, made possible by AFL-CIO.

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