How can you respond to random sexual harassment? Here’s one idea - Women's Agenda

How can you respond to random sexual harassment? Here’s one idea

Of the many heartbreaking themes in last Season’s Suffragette, the creepy attention of the laundry supervisor to the girl children in his care stood out for me as most topical – and enraging.

That’s because well into the third millennium, harassment of women by men, including at work, is still familiar. Women’s responses to intrusive attention on the job are deeply gendered. The legacy of our relative lack of status can cause a deer-in-the-headlights moment, where we say nothing.  

I’m interested in the “freeze” moment; the seconds after a harassment event, when many of us go into “did that just even happen?” followed by “I’m sure it was nothing.” Recently, I watched a colleague go through exactly this: and then come out the other side. Here’s what happened.

Waiting for a business colleague at the other end of airport security, standing in the white light of the boarding area, I noticed her frowning at the uniformed man ahead of her at the pick-up end of the conveyer belt. The security pass hanging from his neck swung a little as he turned away from her while she was still speaking. Whatever was on his mind didn’t seem to include the trail of dissonance he was leaving in his wake.  

All the way to her gate, striding along in power suits and high heels, we workshopped it.

“This dude was going through my handbag as I went to pick it up,” she explained. The look on her face spelt out a familiar confusion: ”Did that just happen?” followed by “I’m sure it was nothing.”

“That’s super weird,” I offered. “Total invasion of privacy. How violating.”

“He said he was airport staff, and that he’d dropped his phone into my tray because he was in a hurry. He didn’t mean for it to fall into my bag and was having trouble finding it.”

“Right, so he was having trouble finding his phone in your handbag.” She looked at me then, and the weirdness of what had just happened to her finally got through.

The immobility that many women experience in the minute after a harassment event by a man has a gendered history. That history is made up of countless incidents, from the mundane to the horrific, in which a woman’s sense of safety was compromised in some way by a man. The idea of checking out whether or not reaching into a woman’s personal space (a handbag, say, or even the tray onto which she had loaded her personal items) is OK with her has not necessarily reached the male mainstream.

Men have not been taught by popular culture, now or at any time in our history, to be gracious about a woman setting a boundary – saying no, saying “step back”, saying “I don’t want to have dinner with you,” saying, “Would you take your hand out of my handbag please,” saying, in general, “no thanks”. Many men experience boundary-setting events like these as rejection and provocation.

On some subterranean level, all of us – women, and men – know very well that saying any kind of “no” to a man can end badly for a woman. “Getting away” with stuff is built into the masculine psyche. Boys will be boys, and women will be asked to forgive, forget, and be quiet about it. For women, this adds up to a permanent state of dissociation: their capacity to feel their own experience starts to take a hit.  

We found seats next to the glass wall. Planes landed, and took off, as I asked her what she had said to him. “I told him my bag was a tardis and he wasn’t going to find anything in there, and as I pulled it away from him he looked down and saw his phone on my tray, next to my jacket.”

We sat for a while. “It’s so hard to know what to say in those situations,” she added. Ain’t that the truth. My colleague, let’s call her Melinda, had managed to speak up – even with humour. Kudos to her.  

If there’s any such thing as a favourite sexual harassment story, mine ends with the person who’s been on the receiving end making a statement which draws a line or makes a request. Bad behavior happens to everyone: the measure of your courage and your power lie in what you do in response. It’s also really important to be clear that once you’ve made a move to say what’s happening for you, your work is done – realistically, it’s hard to know how often a harassment event will end with a conversion experience on the part of Mr Harassment just because you managed to say something really savvy. This is much more about empowering yourself.

Recently, I was in a group of nine women workshopping this very question: how to respond powerfully to sexual harassment. All of us had been sexually harassed, and all of us had had trouble responding in the moment. This is notoriously the event where you later think of the perfect thing to say. The hour we talked about this was one of the most illuminating I’ve ever spent – and the sum of our wisdom was this: keep it light, have some good stock phrases, and practice them in advance so you can just pull them out when you have the feeling of, “Did that just happen?” Because chances are it just did.

In terms of handy anti-harassment phrases, here’s what we came up with: “So inappropriate,” “In what country is that legal?”, or the faux innocent rejoinder: “You probably didn’t know this, but that kind of thing/talk/behaviour is really frowned on around here.” One woman, repeatedly asked about her single status as she travelled through her parents’ country of origin, came up with “Look, thanks for asking, but I already have three husbands, and I don’t have space for another.” Naturally funny, she delivered this line with an elan that had all of us in stitches.

The wisdom of the anti-harassment women I passed on to Melinda while we waited at her gate. “Wow,” she said, sitting back. “That’s incredibly useful.” I took a call then from another colleague, and Melinda got up and began walking to the airline staff at the gate, leaving her sleek carry-on baggage with me. By the time I had hung up, she was back, standing next to me, smiling.

“I told them what happened!” she recounted, eyes wide, blinking hard and pleased with herself. “I suggested they review their training procedures and declined to make a formal complaint.”

 “How do you feel?” I asked. “Upright,” she answered. “They were as grossed out as I was”. She looked relieved. “I feel like I’ve done myself a big favour.” This was another key finding of the recent pow-wow I had with my women friends – not saying anything impacts on your self-esteem. The safety that women have purchased by staying silent has been bought at the cost of their capacity to respect themselves. It’s a high price, and it’s time we stopped paying it.

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox