Harvey Weinsteins Everywhere: Let’s Talk About Workplace Sexual Harassment

Reading the Harvey Weinstein pieces in The New Yorker and The New York Times was intense, to say the least. Listening to that recording was chilling and familiar. It’s definitely the first time I’ve read a Gwyneth Paltrow or Angelina Jolie quote and thought to myself, “wow, stars really are just like us.” Of course it’s only the most recent account of a famous man using his institutional power to be a predator and/or a rapist — reading about Roger Ailes, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump was intense, too. Oh and David O. Russell and Roman Polanski and Larry Nassar and OH I could go on because there are so many men, and yet these men remain in charge of things. Men are still in charge of the whole world! Donald Trump is our president!

So it’s on my mind and it’s on a lot of people’s minds. And so I wanted to make a space here for us to talk about it — our own experiences with workplace sexual harassment and/or assault from the men who are in charge of our careers. Anne Helen Peterson, in Buzzfeed:

…when the gossip is authenticated in the press, it just confirms the sad truth we’ve gradually come to understand, from years of gossip and personal experience: that all types of men, in all types of positions and political persuasions, develop and maintain power by exploiting women’s lack of it. Whether it’s Donald Trump or Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein or the myriad “devils in pussy hats,” the message remains: We trust men at our own peril.

It’s actually easier to think of male bosses I’ve had who never said anything sexually inappropriate to me than it is to remember all of the ones who have. My first waitressing job, at The Olive Garden in Times Square when I was 18, offered me the extreme pleasure of working for a manager named Scott who was often accused, behind his back, of having a “Napoleon Complex,” which I guess was a way of saying he was short and fat without sounding like an asshole. But also, Scott was an asshole. He was THE asshole. I played along when he flirted because I noticed that the girls who flirted back got things, like first dibs on E-Meal and dishes that died on the line. To the side of the line there’d be these stacks of boxes — unopened shipments of stuff, I guess — and Teresa, Scott’s favorite, was allowed to sit there and rest when she wanted to, while the rest of us ran food. Scott didn’t just say inappropriate things; he’d touch us, too, and he seemed fundamentally incapable of completing a sentence free of sexual innuendo. He was one of many co-workers who’d slap my ass on their way past the Com-pri like it was a normal thing to do, like my body wasn’t entirely my own.

I went back to Michigan for school before returning to my esteemed position at the aforementioned Olive Garden in Times Square the following summer, 2001. I was shocked to learn that Scott had been fired for sexual harassment. I was shocked to hear some girls had stood up to him ’cause I couldn’t imagine doing that myself, and I was shocked that they’d succeeded. I wish I’d asked for specifics. I hadn’t been alive long enough to know that I’d just experienced something relatively rare.

90% of restaurant employees have experienced sexual harassment on the job, and the majority of them will not see their harasser punished, let alone fired. It’s possible that tolerating this behavior fundamentally changes how we handle future workplaces, too. From 9 in 10 Female Servers Say They’ve Been Sexually Harassed On The Job:

This dynamic stays with women for life, the report also shows that tipped workers are more likely to tolerate forms of harassment later on in life at different industries because ‘it was never as bad as it was in the restaurant industry.’

It certainly seemed common and basically normal to me, at that restaurant job and several others I had in what added up to five or so years of waiting tables. I’m lucky in that for me it didn’t feel traumatic, it just felt like life, and the men I worked with were like most of the men I knew outside of work, too. Life for a young woman is often just constant sexual harassment. Sometimes the girls would talk about it like we were gaming the system — male servers always made more money than female servers, so who wouldn’t try to get a better section by flirting back? I’d always been better at flirting than networking. I guess that was a master’s tools / master’s house situation. Restaurants, in my experience, were always very sexually charged environments, full of young, spry, unmarried people who drank together (on the job, after it, on breaks from it) and often slept together or dated. Sometimes the lines got blurry with managers, who’d often been servers once, too.

For my first few weeks in any new job as an adult, be it a restaurant or an office job, this or that man who liked me was usually my best pathway into the workplace social web. I wish I’d had more confidence in my work or my social skills. In retrospect, my gains were always short-term. But also this was just the world — is just the world. I’ve never been surprised to hear about a powerful man sexually exploiting women. It is entirely consistent with everything I know about powerful men.

I had a boss once who apparently declared to another co-worker, after a femme girl I was dating picked me up from work and subsequently left with me, “what a loss.” He meant it was a loss that we were dating each other, instead of men. I was reminded of this when I read about Harvey trying to coerce Cara Delevingne into kissing a woman in front of him, and told her she’d never make it in Hollywood as a lesbian. It’s none of his business, is the thing.

Eventually, I decided I wanted to get paid more for having to reciprocate sexual attention to men I didn’t like, and became a sex worker. The money I made went to me and it went to the girls who owned the place, not to a corporation or a man. It was hard work, and not always healthy, and often dangerous. But despite how frequently I was violated in that environment, I felt, finally, empowered in the workplace. Maybe I felt that way because I was prepared, I knew the risks, I knew my boundaries would be challenged, and I was making an hourly rate that reflected that risk. I also had lots of clients who I knew, because they basically told me so, that they were attracted to women they worked with but instead of acting on those attractions, they came to us instead. They were probably lying at least a little bit about that. Now I own my own business and never work with straight white cis men.

The truth is that men like Harvey Weinstein exist in every industry. The truth is that most of us here have probably worked with or for a predatory man.

https://twitter.com/rgay/status/916012537728159745

1 in 3 women report having been sexually harassed at work, according to a survey in Cosmopolitan Magazine. 1 in 5 women have been sexually harassed by their boss. I have created this feelings atrium to be a space where we can talk about those experiences.

Riese is the 38-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2843 articles for us.

53 Comments

  1. I’m not sure how it’s happened, but I’ve never worked for a man, so I’ve never experienced workplace sexual harassment from one.

    However.

    In the psych ward, the psychiatrist on call was deeply concerned with my sexuality. “how do you know?”

    this is not a helpful thing to be questioning, when one’s very sanity is At Question.

    He put “personal relationships” as something I needed to “work on” as a treatment goal.

  2. When I was in high school I worked at a Dairy Queen. The owners son and his cousin worked there and I often worked during a managers shift named Scott.the owners son and his cousin both told Scott I’d had sex with both of them, which had never happened. Scott believed them and kept pressing me for details and refused to believe the truth, neither of them had ever touched me.
    Scott’s wife and daughters had gone out of town for a trip, and during that time for some reason he didn’t have a way to get home. He kept following me around asking for a ride until I finally agreed to give him a ride.
    That night, I drove him home, he had me take side streets which was freaking me out. He had me pull over in the darkest spot around next to his house to let him out.
    I pulled over and he kept inviting me inside. I repeatedly said no, and he kept insisting. Finally he reached over, threw my seat belt off me and tried to pull me out of my car. I fought and managed to get the door closed and locked before speeding off.
    The next time I worked, he demanded I clean this storage space from top to bottom that had solid dust over everything in there and spider webs every where. It took me a week solid to get the room clean but it was spotless.
    The day I finished, his wife and kids came back from vacation and came to see him at work. I remember feeling relieved that I could look her in the eye and not feel completely ashamed.
    That night, me, Scott, the owners son and his cousin were standing in the kitchen and Scott kept talking about pain tolerance and was holding a kitchen hose to a sink that was turned as hot as it would go. It was getting so hot that the kitchen was steaming up.
    He turned to me, asked me if I could handle the heat, grabbed my hand and forced it under the water and held it there for a good solid minute.
    It was so hot, I probably should have gone to the hospital. Everything I touched for the next couple months with that hand made that palm feel like it was burning. I was a scared kid who didn’t want to lose her job, I didn’t say anything to anyone.
    After that, anytime I worked, whether they were scheduled or not, either the owners son or his cousin was there, usually both. They refused to ever leave me alone with Scott again.
    I saw Scott again years later while I was working at another job, the dirtbag had the nerve to ask me out on a date.

  3. My older brother was telling this “funny story” about asking two women at a shop he does distribution business with why they were together because they were so attractive. How could they not have snagged a man?

    He laughed almost in disbelief when my aghast mother tore into him for being “So rude, I raised you better”. While she was doing that I was counting and taking slow breaths trying to not connect the nice throwable items in front of me and his shiny head.

    He hates Trump because “he’s classless and everything that’s wrong with Americans” from his smelly fancy european cheese loving self.

    <_<

  4. I went through several advisors in my doctoral program. Second one had a reputation for not respecting female students. When putting my committee together, I asked one other professor to be on it who had been an informal mentor to me and who had some relevant background. Advisor’s response when I told him she’d agreed: “We don’t ask people to be on committees for emotional support.” Double-whammy sexism, disrespectful to both her and me in one short sentence. How nice.

    That story’s a lot less obvious and less extreme than what a lot of you have had to put up with. But even the “small” stuff gets corrosive over a long enough period of time. It’s hard to feel or be successful in a challenging environment when you have to police your appearance, your word choice, your tone of voice, your facial expression and your emotions constantly for fear of being thought flighty, frivolous, insufficiently committed, not smart enough, not worth mentoring, yada yada – and that’s before you even start thinking about spending energy on the actual quality of your work.

    I send hugs to any of you who’ve been driven to question your own competence or worth because of crap like this. Hang in there and keep going. You are worth the effort.

    • To you and seveal other commenters: I hope y’all don’t feel the need to apologize for your experiences being “too small”. It’s all important, it’s all wrong, it’s all part of the global cultural problem, and it all matters. If we think “oh, I got insulted but I can’t complained because someone else got attacked”, they win. Trickle down is actually a thing here. No one’s assault is less than someone else’s if they’ve been violated in any way.

      I also apologize if that was condescending and I didn’t mean to direct it at you as though you didn’t know it. It’s just a thing I often want to throw out there in these discussions and you gave me an opening.

  5. When the story first broke, I was mostly shocked at myself and how unsurprised I was.

    I used to have a gig in the video game industry. Once, one of my co-workers would not leave me alone, kept saying inappropriate things about how if I’d just “be friendly” and let him grab my ass/boobs/whatever his thing of the week was we could all get along. After months of repeatedly making it crystal clear that not only was I uninterested, but that that was never going to change, he commented that he got hold of my address and could make my dislike of him a “non-issue.” When I reported this, I was told that I was inflating the issue, taking it too seriously and was let go due to “having a negative impact on company culture.” Despite the fact that I didn’t mention the incidents to anyone in the company but HR. During my brief time there, 3 other women suddenly were either let go or “went to pursue other opportunities.”

    I feel like this is one of those times where news breaks that the sky is blue, and all the old white guys are like “OMG! HOW DID WE NOT KNOW???”

    My only hope is that more and more people are encouraged to say something when things like this happen and eventually it does become shocking that it is happening instead of shocking that people are shocked.

  6. When I was 16, I worked at a Greek restaurant. “Family” owned (aka two brothers) where a majority of the employees were paid under the table in cash. I would work 12 hour days with no breaks, mostly washing dishes or cleaning tables. This involved being fairly isolated in a corner of the kitchen where my only interaction with others was when the servers would come yell at me for not washing glasses fast enough. I once heard one of the owners talking to a young (19?) female servers about her tounge piercing, if it hurt, if she “liked pain” and if it made her good at oral sex. I always tried to avoid him. One conversation I couldn’t avoid was him asking me if I had a car, because if I didn’t, he would be glad to give me a ride home. I told him I did have a car, and didn’t need a ride. He then asked if I “wanted a ride anyway” and I just stared at him. He said something like “your boyfriend probably wouldn’t like what would happen if I gave you a ride” and then asked me what I liked to do with my boyfriend. When I asked him what he was talking about, he started asking for details of what kinds of sex I had. Being a very introverted, socially awkward 16 year old, I just laughed and pretended I had to go to the bathroom. Later, my dad went to that restaurant and asked to speak to the owner. I don’t know what he said, but I know I got paid about $700 for one shift, and never went back.

    When I in my 20s, I worked in the jewelry department of a major department store. The assistant store manager was typically really friendly. However, he seemed incapable of understanding how to appropriately interact with female employees. When I was being trained, he asked me a question about some procedure, and when I answered correctly his “encouraging” response was “oh look sweety you knew something!” In the same tone you would use when teaching a dog a trick. Being NOT an awkward teenager, I responded with “please don’t call me sweety” and glared at him. He also once commented on how all the female employees thought they were being sneaky hiding their phones in their bras, but he knew because we all hard large rectangular spots on our breasts. While it was creepy that he was looking, and commenting on what was in my bra, he was also correct. He once surprised me by coming up from behind me and massaging my shoulders. I jumped, and stepped away quickly, and he apologized. I told him that he should probably not touch people without asking first, and he, again apologized. I could never figure out if he was actually a creep or just really clueless. He always seemed genuinely embarrassed when he did shit like that. Embarrassed he was caught and called out, or embarrassed by his behavior, I have no idea. He was relatively mild though.

    I now work for a rape crisis center, the largest in my state. We have 28 employees, all women. First time in my life I’m not worried about being sexually harassed by a man in authority.

    • And this is not to say that it’s impossible for a woman in authority to sexually harass another woman. It happens, all the time. I think, however, the combination of working with all women, and working for an agency that fights against sexual violence makes me feel pretty safe, for the most part.

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