Sharing personal stories of sexual harassment is hard. But often through sharing vulnerability, one can empower others. It is in this spirit, and in the spirit of Women’s Agenda editor Angela Priestley and Sex Discrimination Commissioner Liz Broderick who have shared their stories before me, that I share mine.
I share my story in the hope that at some stage this sort of story can be relegated to history. That it will seem as ancient to some women as stories of women struggling to obtain the vote seem to us now.
I share my story because for too long women’s stories have not been shared in mass media. Women’s stories have always been shared amongst women, whispered by friends to friends seeking solace, but never shared in public forums. The cost of that silencing has been that many of us have had to deal with our stories alone.
I thought that what happened to me when I was 19 was my story alone, that it happened out of a peculiar set of circumstances unique to me. It was not until I was over 50, perhaps not until I read those stories that Liz Broderick and Angela Priestley shared this week, that I truly realised that my story was not so unique, that in fact it is the story of many women who have reported to male bosses.
My story begins with my first full time job. In a time of 40% youth unemployment, I was pleased to have been appointed to a role in one of the government funded job creation programs that were prevalent then to try and lower the unemployment rates. Community organisations were able to apply for funding to create jobs in their organisations. The one I was employed by had no permanent employees, just four or five of us employed under the guidance of a management committee.
The chairperson of that management committee was, of course, a man. He was charismatic, charming, and probably double my age, although at the time he seemed even older than that. He was a proper adult, whereas I was somehow playing at adulthood after having left the regional town where I grew up and arriving in Sydney for university. Uni and I didn’t quite jell then, so when I dropped out I needed a job. What was on offer seemed like the perfect match for my skills and passions – working in a membership based organisation doing writing, advocacy and training.
It was probably no more than four weeks into the job that the chairman first came on to me. He had driven me home to my share flat then reached across and kissed me. I was, I suppose, flattered that this man was interested in me in this way. He seemed so confident and powerful, and I felt so young and naïve. He was my mentor, teaching me to how to do the job, teaching me how to be an advocate. I looked up to him. But I was also aware of how much I needed the job and that he was my boss – that just as quickly as I had been employed, I could be unemployed if I did not accede to his desires. He had chosen me amongst the other young women working for the organisation and this feeling of being the chosen one probably made me feel OK about it.
I was naive. My 19 year old self saw herself as unattractive and probably undesirable. I could not imagine what someone so much more important and older would see in me. At the age of 50 I now look at men my age looking at 19 year old girls and understand that contrary to my internal feelings, my young flesh would have been highly prized by him. But back then I just didn’t get it. As someone who was sexually abused as a young child I was also somehow probably ‘primed’ to acquiesce to his desires.
He was married. He had other partners as well. He often played these off against me. For two years I worked for him and slept with him whenever he wanted to. An abortion and a nervous breakdown later, I moved on.
Was this sexual harassment? Is it still harassment if one does not actively resist, if it moves on to become a relationship of sorts, no matter how tenuous, how unhealthy?
The 50 year old me, now knows that it was. I felt I had no choice that first night he moved towards me. I have words now that I didn’t have then to talk about the inherent power imbalance between us, how he used that power imbalance to seduce me.
I now feel something akin to anger over how he used his power. That he used it and that all the other older people in the organisation chose to ignore what was happening to me. I feel anger that because of the insecurity of my job, and because of my history, I complied so easily. I feel anger that I had no idea that what he was doing was possibly illegal. I feel anger that he chose to use his power to sate his own desires. But mostly I feel anger because it affected my subsequent career choices and still does today. I now work in a female dominated industry which feels safe on many levels. I still have issues with distrust of those with power over me.
I look at my daughters just entering the workforce and hope that they never have to go through what I went through, but their tales of casual sexual harassment in other spheres of their lives do not reassure me. Maybe there is more knowledge now. Maybe there are better laws now.
But maybe also there are other women who will stand up, speak up and call sexual harassment in the workplace for what it is, an abuse of power. An abuse of power whereby a man can get the sexual gratification he wants at the expense of a possibly very frightened young women’s right to feel safe while doing her job.