Like most women who are sexually harassed in the workplace, my first encounter with my harasser was not my worst. Like any other kind of manipulative, hostile behavior, sexual harassment is carried out in stages, in which the harasser tests the water and erodes your sense of what a “normal” interaction should look like. This was the case in New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s alleged advances towards former aides Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett. It was also the case with me and the senior manager whose sexual harassment ended in him rubbing his body against mine in full view of my bosses and co-workers, none of whom took action against him.
At one of my first jobs, I was seated across from my harasser in our small office, a stroke of bad luck. He made two things about himself very quickly known: He was newly divorced and on the market, and there was nothing he could say that would jeopardize his role at the company.
As a major investor, my harasser was untouchable, his inappropriate comments always brushed off or treated as commonplace — a phenomenon both Bennett and Boylan describe of working in the Cuomo administration as well.
“He made unflattering comments about the weight of female colleagues,” Boylan describes of Cuomo on Medium. “He ridiculed them about their romantic relationships and significant others.”
“Mr. Cuomo was chatty, asking about her love life and, in a gossipy way, whether she was involved with other members of the governor’s staff,” Bennett similarly described to The New York Times.
CUOMO ACCUSER SPEAKS OUT: Tonight, we sit down with former staff member for NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Charlotte Bennett, to discuss her accusations of sexual harassment against the governor.
— Norah O'Donnell 🇺🇸 (@NorahODonnell) March 4, 2021
My harasser also asked his assistants about their dating lives and overshared about his own, setting up a Tinder profile in the break room and commenting as he swiped. He was friendly with me, a little more than to some of my colleagues — and, bless my heart, I thought he might even be pleased with my work, though the only questions he ever asked me were about my workouts or my weekend plans.
At my first company party there was a team dinner, at which assigned seating placed me next to my harasser, followed by dancing at a nearby bar. Even at this dinner, I was relieved that I found him easy to make conversation with — awkwardness had been my main fear with a company-wide dinner. But he gave me an early hint that he wasn’t looking for friendship.
“I bet all the guys had crushes on you,” he said when I mentioned a former workplace. My heart sank.
If I was naïve, then at least I am not alone. Before her alleged harassment escalated, Bennett describes thinking Cuomo was “taking on the role of a mentor.” Boylan describes the “uncomfortable but all-too-familiar feeling of wanting to be taken seriously by a powerful man” — only to realize that the interest they’ve taken in you has nothing to do with your ideas.
I managed to distance myself from him as the company headed out to go dancing. I decided to stay for a few songs and was dancing in a small circle of co-workers when my harasser came up behind me and started dancing, getting way too close. I hurried to move myself but he reached out and pulled me instead, pushing his body against mine and grabbing my ass. I yanked myself free, ears ringing and barely processing what had happened when one of my supervisors suddenly appeared dancing in front of me.
“I call this move the c**kblock,” she told me. “Just keep dancing!”
Once more for those at the back, women are not responsible for men's behaviour. Men are. If a man behaves badly, it is his issue, not hers. Most men get this, tragically too many of our leaders appear not to and this is both weird, scary and ultimately, self-defeating.
— Jane Caro (@JaneCaro) March 3, 2021
She told me not to worry — that one of the engineers was also going to help physically block my harasser from me. If it hadn’t been clear already, it was then: All of my co-workers had seen what happened, what had been happening all night and all year. I left very quickly, waking up the next day to texts from the same supervisor who wanted to make sure my harasser hadn’t tried to follow me home.
The morning after the incident, I felt sick and scared. A few months later, I was job-hunting. Bennett similarly describes knowing she wouldn’t last long in her role after an alleged incident with former employer Cuomo.
“I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” Ms. Bennett told the Times. “And was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job.”
I left that company before my harasser did, but not before I found out he had left his last job after having a sexual relationship with an employee, a story all my co-workers knew well. I mentioned the incident once to a colleague with whom I was close before leaving, and she confirmed that both she and our mutual friends had watched it happen too.
“She hoped you were okay,” she told me of one co-worker. I didn’t quite believe her.
“We are accustomed to powerful men behaving badly when no one is watching,” Boylan writes. “But what does it say about us when everyone is watching and no one says a thing?”
I knew what it said about my co-workers that they had stood silently by, even as I profusely thanked the woman who had thrown herself between my harasser and me. I wasn’t safe there, and every time the same woman who had protected me laughed at one of his jokes in a meeting or brushed another sexist comment aside, I felt my stomach turn.
If Boylan and Bennett’s allegations prove to be true, and moreover if their description of the workplace culture proves accurate, it will be a damning indictment of everyone who did not speak up, who ignored workplace harassment so long as they weren’t the target of it. From descriptions we’ve heard, Cuomo’s alleged inappropriate behavior was as much of an open secret as this manager’s penchant for young female employees was at mine. It’s time for those secrets to come out.