When I was just 16, I was the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace at a highly popular fast food franchise known for their south-of-the-border-inspired menu. It’s been 20 years, but looking back, the saddest part is that I let it happen.
I never complained, I never protested and I never told the men responsible to stop. I wore the responsibility for their objectification like a scarlet letter — and it cost me more than my dignity: It cost me my job.
The sexual remarks started innocently enough on the very day I started my job. My shift manager, Juan (not the jerk’s real name), told me I had “beautiful eyes,” and asked me if I had a boyfriend. Juan was engaged, he’d told me, and was looking forward to marrying his high school sweetheart.
Later, Juan asked what size bra I wore and commented that he admired my breasts under my uniform shirt. I remember laughing when he said that, and he laughed, too.
The store manager, Tony (and yes, I’ve protected the privacy of this jerk’s name, too), made different comments. He talked a lot about my makeup, asking me if I meant to make my lips look so “sexy” when I applied lipstick, and telling me that the way I wore my eyeliner made me look “like a tramp.” He even told me I should probably wear less makeup if I wanted to keep my job because I was distracting our customers, especially the men.
Every time one of them said something to me, I nodded and either laughed or agreed. I did that because I grew up in a world where it was appropriate for men to comment on my body, and I believed they were entitled to make those remarks, even when they made me uncomfortable.
Juan progressed to more direct statements, commenting more frequently on my breasts, my butt or my face. Sometimes he talked about my long hair, and would say that he imagined grabbing it and pulling it back.
As his remarks became more aggressive, I felt strange around him, but because he was my boss, I didn’t feel entitled to speak up against him. I was taught from a young age to respect authority figures, to never talk back and do as I was told. This attitude played right into Juan’s ongoing sexual harassment.
When it got really intense, I would ignore him, but that only seemed to upset him, not discourage the comments the way I’d hoped. He would scold me more on those days, complaining that I had miscounted the money in my register (a big no-no) or had screwed up customer orders, when I hadn’t.
One afternoon, a few months into the job, I noticed Juan’s eyes followed me wherever I went. I remember working extra hard that day, wanting to prove how well I managed my time and the tasks I needed to complete. I felt really powerful. I was fast, courteous to customers and efficient. As Juan stared, I thought, “Maybe I’ll get a promotion. Maybe I’ll be the next shift manager.”
When the lunch rush cleared, Juan stood at the counter near the registers and watched me as I swept the lobby, cleared leftover trays and trash and refreshed the soda machine. At some point, he’d picked up a cordless phone and made a call, never once taking his eyes off of me.
“Hey, cousin,” he said into the phone. “I’m here at work. Remember that girl I was telling you about? She’s here right now.”
I remember shooting Juan a look. It was one that suggested confusion, as in, “Why are you talking about me?” Juan raised an eyebrow and continued his conversation.
“I don’t know. I’d say she’s 38-26-38. Something like that,” he said. Then he put the phone on his shoulder and called my name.
“You put out on a first date, right?” he asked me.
If I looked confused, it’s because I was. I scrunched my eyebrows together, and stumbled to find an answer. I don’t even remember what I said, but it must have been something along the lines of “no,” because Juan’s mood changed immediately after.
He got off the phone and told me he needed to do a random cash register count. I had just clocked in two hours earlier, and had done a count before starting my shift. Normally, a register was only counted when someone clocked in and again when they clocked out. My register had been balanced, so I knew I had nothing to worry about.
Ten minutes after he started, Juan looked at me and his face was angry. “Are you stupid or something? Don’t you know how to count? There’s $30 missing here. How can you be so stupid to miscount that much money? Are you stealing?”
I was shocked and hurt. When I tried to defend myself, Juan wouldn’t listen — instead, he continued to call me “stupid” and “an idiot.” His words hit me so hard I ran to the bathroom to cry. I felt embarrassed, ashamed and confused.
I spent 10 minutes in the bathroom, wiping mascara trails from my cheeks, before the searing heat of humiliation reached an all-time high. I walked back out, clocked out of my shift five hours early, and went home. I quit without saying a word.
When my grandmother, who I lived with at the time, came home from work that night, she scolded me for quitting my job. I tried to explain how I felt and why I made the decision I had, but she didn’t seem to understand how a man “complimenting” me would cause me to quit.
For years, I carried the shame of that experience. I believed that I did something wrong, something to invite that kind of sexualization, and for years I kept quiet about the experience.
That ends now.
It took a long time for me to see that my upbringing, one of obedience and behaving “like a lady,” contributed to my belief that a male authority figure had the right to say and do whatever he wanted to me and that I, in return, was voiceless.
It took me an even longer time to realize that I had absorbed objectification by men into my core being. As a young girl walking home from the store, I remember men honking, licking their lips, making lewd gestures, and me continuing to walk, normalizing the entire experience.
No one ever told me that I wasn’t a sexual object. No one in my life ever said, “You deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.” That translated into a willingness to accept sexual harassment and objectification as part and parcel of the female experience.
It’s simply not true. It’s wrong. And worse — it robs women of the opportunity to work in a non-hostile environment, limiting their earning potential and career advancement opportunities.
Women aren’t objects in the workplace; we are contributors. We deserve to be treated as such. I did at 16, as I do today, as does every human being.
Juan and Tony, if you’re out there, I just want you to know that you didn’t win. Now hush up and go make me a taco.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is a violation of Civil Rights law. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) has more on what you can do if you’re being sexually harassed.