In 2007, I got my very first grown up job out of college, doing administrative work for a national physicians’ membership association. (Think American Medical Association, except it wasn’t the AMA.) Like any job, it had its mix of bullshit and interesting projects. Mostly I liked it, and in particular I really loved and respected one of the women with and for whom I worked. This woman, we will call her Mary, was the first person who believed in me who wasn’t obligated to by social convention. She saw merit in me because she actually saw merit in me, not because she was related to me, or because it’s less of a hassle to teach students when you’ve convinced yourself they aren’t totally worthless. She encouraged me to take on more substantive projects and later advocated for me to be promoted when a more advanced position opened up. She coached me through and out of Imposter Syndrome before I even knew it had a name. She was an instrumental feminist, professional, and personal role model for me in the formative years of my early adulthood.
In September 2008, Mary and I traveled to Salt Lake City to put on an ambitious new program that was currently under development by Mary and two of our association members. While my role in this program was chiefly administrative, Mary allowed me to operate with total autonomy and treated me as an equal. I was involved in all planning and implementation discussions as a core member of this small development team and I was button-busting proud to be a part of this very important project. One of my duties was “member relations;” that is, interfacing with the association’s members who participated in the program. It was my job to make sure they had all their program materials, answer any questions, troubleshoot any problems. I was told it was my job to “be a good host.”
After the conclusion of the first day of the program, I went to the concierge to ask for a recommendation for a good place to get dinner within walking distance of the hotel. One of the program participants, a doctor I would guess was probably in his late 50s or early 60s, was in line by himself behind me. As the concierge began tracing out directions to a new restaurant on a map of downtown Salt Lake City, the doctor* slid next to me and said something about also being interested in restaurants. I smiled politely and returned my attention to the map. After the concierge had finished, I thanked him, took the map, and began walking out of the lobby. The doctor took a couple jogging steps to catch up with me and asked if he could join me for dinner, since he was headed out that way anyway.
I had been looking forward to reading a book at dinner to decompress from all the “on” time during that day. Additionally, this man made me feel uncomfortable in that vague but undeniable way that other women reading this will immediately recognize. These two thoughts went instantly through my mind, followed swiftly by this one: “Be a good host.” Not knowing if or how I could turn this man down while still fulfilling my obligation to my employer, I smiled and invited him along. In the space of an instant, my instincts screamed at me to get away from this guy, something else in me insisted he was no threat, and another thing reasoned that it was certainly possible that he was a threat, but given the circumstances it would be unlikely that he would do anything to me. I brushed it all aside and soldiered on.
At the restaurant, we were given the option of waiting an hour for a table or sitting at the nearly empty bar. My discomfort ratcheted up at the idea of sitting next to the doctor at the bar – too date-like – but in these pre-smart phone days, without familiarity of the city leaving to find another place seemed like too much of a gamble. Waiting an hour before even starting on dinner wasn’t appealing, either. I opted for the bar.
The doctor was from South Asia, and for a while we made inane small talk about differences in climate and culture. At some point, the culture-differences talk led to this comment from the doctor: “My wife and I are very open.” Now I understand that this is coded talk about as subtle as a hammer to the head, but then I was 24 years old – naive and vulnerable in the best of circumstances, and I was more innocent than most. I had no idea this was a reference to swinging and/or cheating, and I thought we were still talking about the fact that the extent of most Americans’ cultural curiosity is wondering whether the dark-skinned girl on the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders squad is mixed or just over-enthusiastic about her monthly package at Darque Tan. Compared to a lot of the schmucks we grew up with, my husband and I are very open, too! When I made some sort of comment in general agreement to his statement about being “open,” the whole tenor of the night changed. The doctor steered the conversation around to very personal topics (I don’t remember what he asked me about, but I remember thinking that this was way too intimate considering we were basically strangers with only a very loose professional connection), and I tried without success to turn the conversation back to more solid ground. He began getting touchy. He put his arm around the back of my chair, his hand on my knee, patted my shoulder and let his hand linger too long. I deployed every tactic I could think of to get out of his reach without causing offense or making a scene. How would a good host handle this?
I resolved not to let him pay for the meal, but he insisted. I chided sweetly, I reasoned gently. Finally, I was firm. “This is not a date,” I told him. “I will pay for myself.” Even then, he did not back down, continuing to make what I can only presume he thought were chivalrous gestures. After that, I simply gave up, wanting nothing more than to return to the safety of my hotel room. The doctor paid.
The walk back to the hotel was long-ish, probably about a mile and a half. On the walk, he invited me up to his room for sex. I told him no. He negotiated; he said we wouldn’t have to have sex, but could he please perform oral sex on me? I told him no. He said he would very much like to suck my pussy. He said he had it on good authority that he was very good at it, and he could give me great pleasure. I told him no. He asked if he could take a picture of me with his cell phone so he could masturbate to it later. I told him no. He pleaded and cajoled, asking two more times if he could take my picture. He promised to wait to masturbate to my picture until he got home if it made me uncomfortable to think of him doing it in the hotel. This is the last thing I remember. Experiencing these words felt like an act of violence. For a second I was utterly suspended in time and space, unable to connect myself to the reality of what was happening to me. There is a jump cut and my memory restarts as I am pushing my hotel room door closed, locking the dead bolt, and considering wedging a chair under the handle. I have no idea how I got there – did I walk all the rest of the way with the doctor? I honestly don’t know.
I considered taking a bath, but I didn’t want to get undressed. I forced myself to do it, pretending that nothing had really happened. I got out of the tub and dressed quickly, furtively. I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was exposed, watched. I tried to read to get my mind somewhere else, but the only book I’d brought was Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and that was certainly no help.
I remember nothing about the rest of the trip, except that I told Mary what happened during a long layover. I presented it as, “Girl, you’re never going to believe this crazy thing that happened!” but she received it for what it is: a serious instance of sexual harassment. She freaked out, chastised me for not telling her immediately, apologized for chastising me, and then made me promise that I will report the incident when we get back. I agreed.
As awful and uncomfortable and frightening as it was being harassed by Dr. No Boundaries, the process my employer made me go through in reporting it was far more traumatizing. I was made to explain in precise detail every single thing that was said and done to General Counsel – a man in his 60s. Do you know what’s worse than hearing an old man repeatedly as you if he can please suck your pussy? Telling another old man, this one an executive at the company that you work for, that the first old man asked you three times if he can suck your pussy – and, yes, Mr. General Counsel, those were his exact words. I went through this “information gathering” process twice with General Counsel and once with General Counsel and Associate General Counsel together. AGC was an attractive young man just a few years older than me; this was his first grown-up job, too, having completed law school only a year or two before. Do you know what’s worse than telling an old man who is an executive at the company that you work for that the first old man asked you three times if he can suck your pussy? Telling that to an old man and an attractive young man in your own peer group.
Once this excruciating process was completed, the matter was handed over to the Grievance Committee for investigation and handling. I do not know what happened at the Grievance Committee, because I was told that process is confidential. I was told that the doctor admitted to the facts I had reported, but stated that he was surprised and dismayed to hear that I’d brought a complaint because he believed everything about the encounter had been consensual.
Months later, right about the time I felt I was beginning to shake this off and put it all behind me, I was brought back into General Counsel’s office and told that the matter had been resolved. I was told that under no circumstances would I be told what that resolution was. Disciplinary matters were kept strictly confidential as a matter of the accused doctor’s privacy and a general policy holding that confidentiality in disciplinary proceedings would encourage reporting. I felt that this made no sense, that I was already a part of the “proceedings” and that any semblance of justice or even common sense would require that I be told the outcome. I didn’t have words for this at the time, though, and remember simply sputtering in a stunned fashion. An important thing to know about the doctor is that he was the residency director at the institution where he worked: it was his job to supervise, manage, and teach the residents in his hospital. He literally had control over the entire careers of the young men and women in his institution. A big part of what made me so upset about the whole thing was how practiced he was. It seemed impossible that this was the first time he’d done this, and all I could think about were all the young women in his residency program over the years. How they must have thought, “Just get through it – you need his recommendation.” Now I would never know if his institution was even notified of this man’s predatory behavior. General Counsel was genuinely apologetic and pained at what he was telling me, nevertheless he toed the company line.
To the company I worked for, you know who you are, you fucked this up. I was more victimized by your handling of the harassment than I was by what that dumbass said to me that evening. It has taken me almost a decade to make this confrontation, but I cannot let it pass any longer. Howard University was sued Wednesday for spectacularly failing its students who had been assaulted on campus and reported those assaults to the administration. It went so far as to tell one of the women she was an embarrassment to her family for going public with the story after not receiving the help she needed from the school. I am sick to fucking death of not women not getting the support they need, that is their right to receive, from the institutions that are supposed to help in times like this. Here is what you did wrong, and how you can fix it. You have the power to do better. Now you don’t have the excuse of not knowing. Do better.
- Autonomy and control. One of the most frightening things about being harassed or assaulted is the sudden and utter lack of control over your own self. Someone else forcefully takes control of you, of the situation, and you are robbed of your most basic right as a human being: bodily autonomy. Your handling of the harassment reporting gave me no options, no security. It stripped me of my right to choose my path as surely as Dr. Dingleberry’s harassment had. What to do instead: explain the process, including the possibilities of what may happen in the end. Let me choose whether or not to go forward. Importantly, train multiple people in how to effectively and empathetically take these statements, and give me the choice of who I want to give my statement to, when, and where.
- Closure. THE reason why I’m still not over this, why I get angrier about it every year, is because I do not know what happened to Dr. Asshat as a result of all this. And I have a right to know. He invaded my privacy, my safety, my sense of self in the most vile way, and yet you protect his privacy from me? That is first class, grade A, number one HORSESHIT. Dr. Douchecanoe forfeited his right to privacy when he repeatedly, brazenly, fucking extremely sexually harassed me. Protection of his feelings over mine in this situation is an egregious, unforgivable insult. I understand your position and the policy arguments behind providing confidentiality for disciplinary proceedings. I am not saying make them public. I am saying only tell the victim what happened in the end. It is a vitally important part of finding emotional closure from the episode and moving on. You should have told me what the results were of the disciplinary proceedings. You were wrong for not doing so. Do it in the future.
These two rules – let the victim control her own reporting process, and inform her of the results of the investigation – are all you need to do to avoid being the lasting monster in these stories. It is simple. If you want some help in implementation, I am happy to talk. And I know I’m not the only one.
*I do not remember this man’s name. If I did, I would name him. Sexual harassment and assault are the most grievous forms of an invasion of a person’s sense of personhood and right to privacy, and I believe that an individual who sexually harasses or assaults another has forfeited his right to confidentiality.