Thursday, July 9, 2009

TMI Thursday: unwanted groping

So I'm starting a new Thursday column called TMI Thursday. Here's where I'll try to talk about something difficult, embarrassing or otherwise TMI.

Today's topic? How some old guy groped me at work.

I've been mulling this around in my head for a while wondering how I'd broach it here with both honesty of how the experience stung and sensitivity to the groper's privacy.

I've made it through a good portion of my career without ever having anything like this happen. Penelope Trunk shares that she's fallen victim numerous times in a recent blog post where she says most cases are not worth reporting but not me.

If you can be frank about your (lack of) feelings and those boundaries are respected, I suppose you can move past the awkward moment, depending on the situation. But sometimes it's good to get it out. I've had enough distance from the incident now that I can share it.

I told myself that TMI Thursday would have one requirement: if I wasn't cringing about some aspect of the post, then it didn't qualify as TMI.

I am definitely cringing about this.

Instead of rewriting the details, I will include a portion from a letter I sent my dear Dad. I was shaking while writing:
At some point he looked like he might cry and I welled up. He held his arms out for a hug and I hugged him back, not thinking anything of it.

But then this is where it gets weird.

He began kissing my face. Not once, like the Italian way of pecking the cheek, but multiple little kisses that seemed to be trying to work their way to my mouth. I was horrified and turned my face away, pulled away and the hug broke up.

He said a couple of things too that I don't fully remember because my mind was too confused by what had just happened. But he said something like "(I made sense most of my life?) but with you I don't want to make sense." And then something about this being (or growing into??) a special "private friendship."

Before the hug, he mentioned his marriage having trouble but I didn't think anything of it at the time. The other things he said after the hug. I was really freaked out and not quite knowing how to respond to all this so I didn't say much.

Luckily his secretary knocked on the door to remind me the shuttle was leaving shortly. I bolted out but I was so shaken by the experience I basically cried the whole way home.
The whole experience was really creepy. The dude was basically my grandfather's age. It took a long time before I wasn't reliving his thin grisly lips grazing my cheek and bad breath hot on my face. I actually had to wash my cheek multiple times. I've seen people do this in the movies but never realized how involuntarily and yet necessary it is.

When I told Dan, he remarked how bold the guy seemed, how quick he was to make the "move." He wondered if this had happened before.

Rumor has it that it, indeed, has.

He's no longer working in my building. Rumor has it he was let go for this very behavior (although not my incident -- I didn't even tell anyone until after he was already gone).

Have you ever been faced with unwanted advances at work? How did you handle it? (You can comment anonymously, nothing about this website captures any information.)

The site "Sexual Harrassment Support" says that sharing the experience helps in processing it:
Because sexual harassment encompasses a vast range of behavior, there is much confusion about the problem. In truth, sexual harassment actually relies on a victim's uncertainty about how to describe, and label, what is happening to them. A rape victim knows when they have been raped, but sexual harassment victims often do not understand what they are experiencing, or even why they are being hurt by it. Even if they can describe the experience to themselves, victims often differ in their willingness to accept what is happening.

Most often, when a sexual harassment victim speaks out about what they are experiencing, they are the ones who are considered the problem, not the harasser.

For these reasons, and the fear that harassment can incite, most victims never report what they have experienced. Often, they do not even talk about it to friends and family. Plus, when there is denial (including institutional denial), disbelief or placement of
blame on the victim, recovery is much more difficult.
The guy did apologize later, after I saw him at a party. He came up to me and asked, "Will I get to see you later??" and I said, "um, I'm here now!" and then avoided him the rest of the night. He got the hint because he came over and apologized, saying he misinterpreted the situation. At least he had dignity enough for that.
Rules for sexual harrassment in the workplace:
  1. If you are attracted to someone, try to use their body language to see if they return the feelings. Note: polite eye contact is an insufficient marker of reciprocity, especially as it is a desireable trait in today's American work force. (e.g.: Someone looking at you while you are speaking does not mean they are ready to rip off their clothes, in case you missed that in social skills 101.)
  2. If you were rejected the last 10 times you did this, think twice about the next 10 times.
  3. If you hold a position of prestige and power and will be ashamed if you are found out, don't do it.
  4. If you are found out, it's your own damn fault. Shoulda known better.
  5. It is unwise to mistake empathy and compassion for passion if none of the other signals mesh (also usually covered in social skills 101).


Niffer said...

I do have to admit that the last comic made me laugh.

This sounds horrible! I am so sorry and saddened that you had to deal with this! Wow.

I experienced something minor at my previous employer. There were two coworkers there, actually.

One was an engineer who maintained his medical doctor degree. He was the same guy who would say "if it's not Miss 9-11 herself" whenever he passed me in the hallways after finding out that my wedding was on Sept 11. Anyway... one year, around review time, I wore a relatively tight, long skirt with a slit up the side. He kind of patted me on the back (though I think he was aiming lower, I was just in the process of sitting down) and said "It was smart of you to dress so sexy during reviews." I don't recall other specific comments, but I do recall feeling incredibly awkward around him because I felt like he was always staring if I ever wore something somewhat revealing.

I ended up talking to another female engineer about him and she talked to him. He apologized for his original comment.

The other guy was a brilliant engineer who had a minor case of turret-syndrome. I'm not sure if I would categorize him as sexual assault or just lack of social skills, but he would always linger around me (especially if I dressed nicely) and make comments about how I was well appreciated through-out the office, and for more reasons than just professionally or even on a personality level. Yes, he said both, and what is left... I guess just a physical level.

I never told anyone about this guy because I wasn't sure if it was just his awkward social skills.

I consider myself lucky to not have had any really bad experiences, especially in the field that I am in (just being surrounded by so many men). Again, I'm sorry you had to experience such a thing and I'm glad to hear that he's gone.

Sornie said...

Wow. If I were a woman I would have definitely turned that guy in. On the other hand, I've had a couple instances of female co-workers go a bit further than that (even one propositioning me to visit her house and "bring protection") but I didn't do it because it was just weird.

spleeness said...

@Niffer: wow, that's pretty bold! Both incidences. I'd say they were bordering on harassment AND lack of social skills. What winners, mastering both. It can be difficult to dress nice at work b/c of all the unwanted attention. One coworker told me, "Oh, you get NOTICED alright!" I thought, "I am not TRYING to get noticed. I am just trying to work." ugh

@Sornie: really?? Wow, talk about bold! Nothing like cutting right to the chase.

spleeness said...

This reminds me of an incident I saw yesterday while I was sitting at a light.

A beautiful woman in a tight skirt and high heels was crossing the street. I glanced in my rear view mirror and noticed the guy behind me staring at her. He leaned out, tongue lolling, and almost fell out of his truck. He could barely contain himself.

The woman was oblivious, just walking.

The guy suddenly noticed a policewoman nearby. He called out, "HEY! Do you SEE that?? It should be illegal to wear a skirt that short!"

For the record, it wasn't THAT short, just a mini. The woman was just hot, that's all.

The policewoman wasn't amused. "Yeah, I see it." And she ignored him.

I thought, "Dude, control yourself!!"

Anonymous said...

Once at an old job, a girl who liked me (although I didn't like back) always made it a point to squeeze past me, scraping her entire body and chest across my back. That was awkward.

Kelly O said...

Bravo to you for writing about this!

Anonymous said...

Oh Holly this makes me ill.

spleeness said...

@anon: and that somehow makes me feel better. I am not the only one sickened by the idea.

I left out the part how he called me relentlessly the next day and tried to get me to come back. More details I'd like to forget: his irregular breathing on my voicemail!

talkingtostones said...

Holly, I would like to talk to you about this sometime. I've handled 100s of harassment cases over the last 15 years, and I have some information that might help you deal with this, as well as handle anything that might arise in future (this isn't solicitation for legal case :>). Too much to discuss here.

But I do want to say (for you and others here who might benefit from hearing it) that what you experienced was absolutely sexual harassment and was completely wrong. There's no excuse for such behavior, and a person who feels it's okay to try this at work in the way you described is one who has some psychological problems above and beyond your personal incident.

I also sincerely doubt that his apology to you had anything to do with dignity and everything to do with playing the game. Harassers, like bullies, tend to pick 'prey' that they perceive is unlikely to fight back or make an issue of the situation. It sounds like he recognized that you were on the brink of making an issue, getting upset, making a scene, or some other potential messiness for him. So he apologized -- which means, in legal terms, that he tried to turn it from an incident of harassment into an incident of misunderstanding.

There are two types of harassment with these kinds of situations -- actions or words that are per se harassment (like kissing someone, grabbing their breast or penis, etc), and actions or words that depend upon the reaction of the recipient to become harassment (like "you look hot in that outfit," which, by itself, would not be harassment). If the recipient expresses that she dislikes the second type of action/words, finds it sexual and thus uncomfortable, and asks the person to stop, the next incident would then become sexual harassment.

It sounds to me like he knew that some actions aren't harassment if the perpetrator misunderstood the situation or didn't know that the victim considered it harassing, so he apologized and called it a misunderstanding. He also was just covering his butt -- if he apologizes and says he misunderstood, you're less likely to make an issue of it.

In your efforts to deal with this, I'd suggest strongly that you have permission to stop worrying about being sensitive to his privacy or sensibilities. A person who begins kissing another like that in the work place is not mistaken about what the other person had in mind. This person clearly knew you were married, were not in the market for being kissed by him, and that it was wrong to engage in this sort of thing in the workplace, regardless. He has a psychological problem that caused him to try it with you -- and others -- anyway, in spite of the workplace/getting caught risks and the wrongness of it. And he succeeded as long as he did because people were uncomfortable bringing it to light.

I'm a pretty forceful personality and I'm happy to say that, in 25 years of working in almost-exclusively male work environments, I've never been harassed. But there are many personalities -- we shouldn't all have to be forceful people to avoid being harassed. At the same time, though, harassers thrive in silence.

In addition, for most people, the surest way to work through the feelings that result from harassment or abuse (and harassment is a form of abuse) is to take back the power from the harasser or abuser. For some, standing up to the person does it. For others, especially if they can't any longer stand up to him, bringing the incident to light, naming the perpetrator, and putting the blame squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrator allows them to take it back and get over it more easily.

You're a genuinely nice person and hesitate to do something that might hurt or embarrass someone else. It's one of the things that makes you so beautiful a person. But in this case, I think you can suspend that.

Don't coddle him -- he's flat-out in the wrong. You are not.

kimmers said...

This is... really disturbing. What an akward situation for you to have to deal with, ugh.

The comics gave me a little giggle, though.

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