My story is no different than a million other women’s stories. Sexual harassment is a way of life for any female — from an early age all throughout their lives. Michelle Obama spoke of the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, and the deep-seated terror women feel when confronted with the possibility of sexual assault — verbal or physical. Sexual intimidation is as primal as mankind’s predilection for violence. But I wish it weren’t so. Silence can only allow predators to flourish, and so, after many years, I am breaking my own silence.
At the age of 18, at a temporary summer job in NYC, I worked as a receptionist/assistant at a garment district showroom. I had to work to pay my college tuition and expenses for the coming year. So I needed this job. And that made me vulnerable.
One of the owners, an older married man, firmly believed that as owner of this clothing company, he was entitled to “handle” all the merchandise, which included me.
Despite repeated rebuffs, he would make lewd and suggestive remarks. And one day he cornered me in the showroom wardrobe room while I was taking inventory, locked the door and forced himself on me, although I was able to push him off and escape the closet before he could actually rape me.
When I told this to his partner and co-owner, and said that I was going to report the incident to the temp agency, he shrugged and said I was making a big deal about nothing and I shouldn’t be so uptight. Further, he told me that if I resigned, he’d tell the temporary agency that had placed me in this office that my work was unsatisfactory and he would make sure that I wouldn’t be able to work anywhere else that summer or for that agency or any other temp agency ever again. He assured me that if I told anyone about the assault, it would be my word against theirs, and no one would believe me. I was young and very naive. I believed him. And, as I said, I needed the work.
So for 8 long weeks, I stayed. I never left my desk in the front of the showroom to go to an enclosed space ever again. I wouldn’t take the elevator, only the stairs where I could outrun him if he followed me. I wouldn’t use the rest room. And I refused to speak to or respond to the owner who’d trapped me in the closet.
Eventually, close to summer’s end, they hired another assistant and required me to train her, which I did. Although I warned her first. However, she needed the job even more than I. She was a single mom with no college degree and no family to help her at all.
For a month or two, we stayed in touch. Sure enough, that same owner forced himself on her as well. But she wasn’t able to fight him off, and she wasn’t willing to give up her job. In our last conversation she decided to allow him to do whatever he wanted, and I was in no position to help her do otherwise. The memory of our last conversation still haunts me.
After that summer, I decided I would never again place myself in a situation where I would be vulnerable to a sexual predator. If there were no safeguards for me in a workplace, (and for much of my working life there were not) then I would only work with or for women. And so every work choice I’ve made from that summer on was informed by that one experience.
The women who come forward and admit sexual harassment and worse should be respected, and their bravery honored. Because to this day, they face humiliation, ridicule, and the likelihood of being re-victimized by those who doubt their experiences. I wish I had been brave enough to come forward back then, and I’ll always regret my silence. For who knows how many other women he preyed upon because I wasn’t willing or able to speak up.
Sexual predators belong in the big house. And I don’t mean the White House. I don’t understand how anyone, man or woman, can believe otherwise.