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Silent No More: Speaking Up Against Sexual Harassment

by Shavon L. McKinstry

My first ever “real-tax-paying” job was in college. Being able to provide for myself was something that I so desperately wanted, it was a level of independence I hadn’t known, it was another step into adulthood. Unfortunately, after crossing this important milestone, I found myself forced into an unofficial milestone for many working women: being sexually harassed.

Each year in the United States, 15,000 sexual harassment complaints are filed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While people who aren’t women are often victims of abuse in the workplace, the majority of these complaints are women being harassed by men. On top of that, most of those women are harassed by their supervisors. Looking beyond work, a sample survey executed by the American Association of University Women Foundation found that 83% of girls and 60% of boys experienced sexual harassment in their schools. These stats, while already intimidating and disturbing, cannot account for the numerous unreported cases of sexual harassment.

When I was sexually harassed by my boss, it wasn’t just one incident. It started out in the form of uncomfortable questions, followed by inappropriate touching, and continued to spiral out of control until I finally spoke out to Human Resources. I wasn’t the only one affected by my boss’s harassment: in our workplace, the majority of my colleagues were other women, and we would talk about his behavior as a way to relieve our own anxiety. But for several months no one reported a thing. The general consensus was that it was unfortunate, but as long as no one felt like it would turn to something “more serious” like full out molestation or rape, it was harmless. When our boss wasn’t being inappropriate, he was genial and got along with everyone. Nobody wanted to be the “tattletale” and look bad. I know now that that mentality is both dangerous and wrong.

Often talks of victim-blaming are used exclusively in cases of rape. However, victim-blaming and self-blame are very important concepts in other forms of abuse, such as sexual harassment. Workharassment.net reports that only about 5% to 15% of victims of harassment report the actual incident(s) (which means with EEOC reports at around 15,000, actual workplace harassment cases range from 100,000 to 300,000 a year in the US).  The most common reasons for not reporting include fear of judgement, shame, retaliation, including victims losing their jobs. While the EEOC protects against retaliation, not all employees are covered: unpaid interns, freelancers, contract workers, and people at businesses with fewer than 15 employees are not protected.  And like so many other acts of sexually-based crimes, harassment thrives in our culture that tells victims and women that they have done something wrong to receive this unwanted attention or that they’re overreacting to something normal.

All that adds up to this: the anxiety, and sometimes the consequences, around reporting workplace harassment are very real. Workplace sexual harassment thrives when employees aren’t protected from retaliation and when harassing behaviors are considered normal or par for the course. The correct response should always be that it’s the perpetrator’s fault one hundred percent of the time. Regardless of if you’re a student, new graduate, or have been a full-time employee for years, nobody is “asking for” workplace harassment: not you, not your co-worker, not your friend. “Mixed signals” and “blurred lines” are never an excuse for such behavior.

But even though I knew all that and that I was protected by the EEOC,  and despite the amazing support I have amongst my SPARK sisters and friends and family, I was blaming myself. Spending more time at work doing overtime in hopes of being able to afford groceries and clothes meant spending more one-on-one time with my boss. I told myself that it was my fault for not quitting, that I was the one electing to work with him. Even with all of my knowledge of empowerment and equal rights, I was scared. I felt like an embarrassment to my cause for not being able to confront my boss in a way that would make him stop. In my mind, since no one else was speaking up to the higher-ups, I must have been overreacting.

These are excuses that are not special; they’re unfortunately common. Even after I finally gathered up the gumption to make a formal report, I was scared at every turn. But my fears turned out to be unfounded when I sat down at the Human Resources office to speak with a representative. The HR worker I talked to was kind and supportive. She told me that my boss’s actions were completely inexcusable and that it was important that I filed the complaint. She helped me through the process and ensured that my identity would be protected. I was lucky to have such an encouraging person to help me through the situation.

I would like to be able to say that I watched my jerk of a boss pack up a small box of his belongings and be unceremoniously fired for harassing myself, my colleagues, and my friends. However, things didn’t work out that way. In my case, my job, along with the jobs of my boss and coworkers were terminated due to underfunding of the program. Though, in the weeks before being laid off and after filing reports and having interview after interview, I was able to have some solace. When HR informed him of the investigation, my boss got scared. He tried to pry information from myself and my peers, and when no one would budge, he froze up and stopped his harmful actions. The circumstances of my situation prevented me from enjoying the satisfaction of seeing actual action being taken out against him, but it did provide me with the opportunity to see the fear on his face that I’d had just weeks before every time I had to be alone with him or was called into his office.

My experience with sexual harassment is not unique by any means. So many others in this world are victims of abuse in their workplace and schools, but either lack the resources, ability, or encouragement to talk about their experiences in a meaningful way. If you or someone you know is currently feeling victimized, it’s important you understand that you’re not alone. Harassment happens much too often, and it won’t magically stop on its own. Your safety and well being are worth protecting, which means speaking up to the best of your ability. Tell your friends, family, teachers, supervisors, and administration. Find out who is the most appropriate contact for the situation you’ve been put into. Your wellness is important, and no one has the right to take it away from you. I wish that I could’ve seen my boss punished for his harassment, but I got something out of it. I hope that if you’re reading this right now, and you need to report an incident to someone, that you get the full satisfaction I was denied.

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2 Responses to “Silent No More: Speaking Up Against Sexual Harassment”

  1. jl says:

    Shavon, your story is all too familiar to me. Thank you for sharing. I am a 24 year old female currently working in a very small doctors office as an administrative professional. The practice has two offices, two doctors, and six employees. The doctors are husband and wife. At my office it is primarily just myself, an older female coworker, and our male boss.
    When I first started approximately 9 months ago I was completely thrilled to have been given the opportunity. I was enthusiastic, excited and driven. I loved going to work and enjoyed the work I was doing. It very quickly went downhill. It started out as a hand on the shoulder or a touch on the arm. It made me uncomfortable (especially considering two things: I am very happily engaged and my coworkers are aware, and I have been a victim of workplace sexual harassment before. I actually quit that job under very stressful circumstances). I ultimately decided to brush off the touching as being an over reaction from me. After all, I noticed he did it to my older coworker occasionally and he is married to my other boss!!
    Gradually over time it progressed to unnecessary text messages on the days he worked in the other office or right after we had closed up and left. The first few times I had responded because they were not sexual in nature, just conversation..almost as if he just wanted to talk. Regardless, it was inappropriate and unwanted. I stopped responding and found myself deleting them immediately because I was (and still am) worried my fiance would get the wrong idea. I feel a sense of shame and embarrassment and I’m not even sending any messages! I’m worried to bring this issues to my fiances attention because he will encourage me to quit immediately and I’m having a difficult time finding another job opening. I don’t want to live unemployed!
    A new trend eventually started. When my coworker occasionally has to leave the office or is out sick my boss will sit in her seat all day and attempt to chat with me..all..day. Not talk about work related matters, just talk. Majority of the time I am unresponsive and it is extremely uncomfortable. One day he began flinging rubber band at my thighs and hip as I was sitting and attempting to work. I asked him to stop and he did not. The next day I came in to find rubber bands on my seat and a note saying “watch out for rubber bands”. I immediately shredded the note because it made me so uncomfortable. There was an occasion that he “accidentally” brushed up against my butt. He is constantly saying things to me like “you’re grounded” which I completely ignore as if I didn’t hear him. One time at the end of the day (while there were still patients checking out) he called me back to his small, dimly lit office, where he was changing his clothes with the door opened to ask me for a ride to the train station. He was in his underwear and changing his shirt! I looked away immediately and said I couldn’t because I had to get home quickly. It was completely inappropriate and this is when I started seriously realizing this is sexual harassment.
    Just yesterday I was working in a back room doing some spring cleaning and he came in and brushed his fingers down my side from my waist to my hip as I was reaching up for something. I could literally feel his eyes burning holes though my pants, he was that shamelessly staring at my butt. My face immediately became flushed and an extreme sense of panic took over. I shot him a look of disgust and my whole body locked up. I had just pulled a stool over to get to something on the top shelf of a cabinet. I was terrified to move. I knew I couldn’t proceed with standing on the stool because that would only give him a better view and that’s what he wanted.
    I tried to calm myself and refrain from quitting right there on the spot.
    Endless amounts of other things similar to these have been happening and its only getting worse. I’m completely lost and feel so alone. I don’t know how to stop it and have severe anxiety about going to work now. Because of the fact that he is my boss and can be rather hot headed I just know that if I confront him directly he will fire me. I live in a state that practices at will employment so he doesn’t need a reason to fire me. I feel uncomfortable talking to his female counterpart, and wife, because she is so sweet hearted and I don’t want to upset her (although she deserves much better than him..it would still turn her world upside down, or at least I suspect so). I am not as protected as you were by laws because its such a small company. We have no hr department either. I also do not feel protected as far as unemployment compensation goes because there’s been numerous times I’ve called out “sick” because I simply do not want to be around him. The anxiety also does make me physically ill!
    I’m totally unsure of who to turn to or what to do but I am on the verge of just quitting. If there is anyone out there that has even a pennies worth of advice, please help.

    • Shavon McKinstry says:

      jl, thank you so much for sharing your story, I know how difficult it is to put everything out on the table, even though it’s not your fault at all.

      What you’re being forced to go through is deplorable, your boss is being extremely inappropriate, and you don’t deserve to be treated this way. Unfortunately, I can’t offer you any legal advice, but I can offer some suggestions. First of all, I would point you in the direction of the Equal Rights Advocates’ free legal counseling hotline. They can help you determine what you can do from here.

      Another thing, which is going to be unsettling, but if you are able to get help with this issue from a professional, it’s necessary, is to keep any new evidence. This doesn’t mean that you’re letting him do this to you. It just means, that if it continues, if he sends you inappropriate texts or any other sort of tangible evidence while this is getting worked out, keep a record. When I was talking to my HR representative, she told me that things like texts and emails are very vital to getting the best result for you. It’s undeniable proof that he’s harassing you, even though he might not see it that way, you and anyone with a background in workplace harassment will see it right away. I totally get the compulsion to delete and destroy evidence, you feel trapped and you want to forget about it. Being reminded about the harassment gives you anxiety, but as long as he continues his behavior and to ignore your comfort, things will most likely not get better.

      I’m really glad that you found my blog post and left this comment. I wish that it wasn’t happening to you at all, but I really hope that some good can come of this. Please let me know how things go if you contact the ERA. You shouldn’t have to quit over this, your boss is at fault and he should be the one facing consequences, not you. You’ve done nothing wrong. I hope that everything works out and that you can be put to ease.

      -Shavon

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