My girlfriend was sexually harassed by her boss. There was no mistaking it, no confusion about what occurred, no possibility that his comments and actions resulted from a misunderstanding. He was a crass, boorish jerk, about as subtle as an Uzi.
Even so, he got to me. He got to my girlfriend more, but he got to me. I am a nonviolent person, but he made me think violent thoughts. He carried on his harassment while smiling, shaking my hand, telling me jokes when he saw me. He would share a minute of male camaraderie with me when I’d pick her up from work, then call her at night, ask her out and tell her jokes so dirty they paralyzed her. When she finally told me about it, his behavior paralyzed me, too.
For the record, I’m a college professor, a once-married, beer-drinking, politically liberal, average single guy. I don’t like dirty jokes and find it difficult to smile if someone begins telling me one.
More to the point, to my knowledge I have never sexually harassed anyone. But I know that harassment is an ongoing problem in many offices.
Still, when my girlfriend called and informed me that her new boss had left a piece of pornography next to the Xerox machine for her to find a flyer listing 50 ways a cucumber is better than a man I didn’t know how to react.
She told me her boss had wiggled across the office floor, whisking his butt left and right, then turned to her and accused her of watching his ass. She said in shock that she hadn’t, and he replied that was a shame and he would have to watch her ass instead. When she related all this to me, I should have had a clue of what to say. But I didn’t. I was as stunned and confused as she was.
My gut-level reaction, however, was clear. I felt a red-hot anger. I wish I could say that I placed her concerns squarely in the forefront, but I didn’t. My stomach rolled. I wanted to kick his wiggling ass. It felt like I was in high school all
over again, complete with fights in the parking lot and threats because someone looked at someone else’s date. This guy talked sex to my girlfriend. He had to understand he couldn’t do such a thing.
Then, a little later, I realized something important: Sexual harassment is not about sex. I had heard that a hundred times, but it had remained a sociologist’s abstraction. Now it makes sense to me. Most men have known since they were teenagers that women don’t respond to explicit sexual comments. It’s a male fantasy to think they will. Talking dirty is, in fact, the strategy most likely to fail with women. This idiotic boss was not really hoping for a sexual comeback or invitation from my girlfriend. He wanted her to be flustered. He wanted the tension, not the release of the tension. He didn’t want her to become real.
Still, I hated his guts for objectifying her. For making her his toy. How dare he, I kept thinking. How dare he do this to her. And how dare he do this to me.
I also thought: If I was tougher, meaner, crazier, he wouldn’t risk it. You don’t talk dirty to a biker’s girl. You don’t hit on a hit man’s woman. If I had been more explosive, more dangerous, more of a man, my girlfriend’s boss would have thought long and hard about opening his mouth. Precisely because I was a khaki-wearing, politically correct do-gooder, because I was civil and law-abiding, he’d felt on safe ground. Neanderthal thinking? Of course. But it was there. It took up a position in my psyche and didn’t leave for a long time.
Somewhere along the line, I realized I was thinking too much about myself. After a conversation in which my girlfriend told me I was acting testosterone-poisoned when I suggested I go to his office and punch him, something else clicked. Sexual harassment is about power. You can say it a hundred times, but it doesn’t mean anything until it happens to someone you know.
My girlfriend had been an easy mark. A single mom with two kids, a late-model car, day-care bills, she couldn’t afford to anger her boss. He had the power. He had the paycheck, health care, dental plan and even the control over her future references. He could fire her and say she was a poor worker. Had the schmuck made the same sexual comments in a bar, my girlfriend would have handled him without a second thought. But in his office, it was a different matter. He had dominance and knew it. He was the sadistic little boy burning ants with sunlight through a magnifying glass. Power commingled with torture. That’s what he liked.
Which meant the only useful thing I could do was to add to her power. Forget my anger. Forget the chest puffing. What I needed to do was simply to stand behind her. To add to her power when she decided to quit the job and take him to court for sexual harassment as she is in the process of doing right now. And to be there to watch when she finally confronts him in the courtroom and shows him that he picked the wrong person this time.