Sexual harassment – our stories matter

Bruce Maples (bruceinlouisville@gmail.com)
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I pitched my editor about writing an article about sexual abuse and harassment, because every woman I know has experienced it. When I told him about my own experiences, and he suggested I write my own personal story, I thought “Well, okay.” I lie awake every night for a few weeks figuring out what to say, and I realize that although the worst sexual harassment experience I ever had was 37 years ago, it was still hard for me to put it down on paper. I’m a writer, I keep a journal, but I’ve never written anything about it.

I asked myself, Why? After some reflection, I came to the conclusion that I still carried the shame of thinking it was somehow my fault. I thought of all the brave women coming forward now against very powerful men, and I realized, for truly the first time, how courageous they are. I, on the other hand, have nothing to lose: this man is not in my life, and he can no longer hurt me. Doing research for this article, I couldn’t even find a photo of him, and his professional life has been wiped clean. It’s like he doesn’t exist now.

But all those years ago he did exist. I was a 22-year-old secretary at a Fortune 500 company, and he was in his mid-thirties, married with a family. He was very, very handsome. So handsome, in fact, that all of the women in the offices (two floors of women) were infatuated with him. In my naïve young mind I used to think about how it would be to hold his hand or kiss him. Imagine how I felt, then, when he turned his attention to me. I felt altogether different about myself, that somehow I was prettier and more desirable. He began by complimenting me about a dress I wore, or about my hair. Then he started asking me to accompany him to department stores to pick out gifts for the office, and taking me to lunch.

But I never thought once about sleeping with him because I was also married at the time. Even so, over the next two years, this man pursued me at every office party, and he even showed up at my house one night very drunk. I started questioning myself: Was it my fault? What did I do to cause him to treat me this way? Was my relationship with my husband solid?

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I can remember when everything changed from those early “innocent” flirtations. I worked in a tax department, and at the end of tax season there was always a big end-of-year celebration. We went to a local restaurant and although I had never even been drunk, this man plied me with Screwdrivers. What else do you drink for your first time? I can remember an older gentleman who was higher up the company, who kept cautioning me against having another drink. He kept watching my boss buy me drink after drink. When I was pretty tipsy, my boss asked me if I wanted to take a drive in his sports car. Big surprise: a married man with two kids had a two-seater sports car. Of course, I said yes. I thought it was exciting … nothing more.

Next thing I knew, I found myself with him at a huge empty house in a very expensive part of town. When I asked him who lived there, he was vague. He started trying to kiss me and unbutton my blouse, and I pushed his hands away. I told him that I couldn’t sleep with him because we were both married. He laughed at that, and continued to try to talk me into having sex. It wasn’t long before he realized it wasn’t going to happen, so we left and he took me back to my car at the restaurant. Our office party was over, and everyone was gone.

When I returned to work on the Monday after the party, I soon realized that the office gossip was on fire, and I was the topic. This went on for months, and I withered under the assault of a woman who was the secretary of our departments’ director. The shame was unrelenting. I lost weight and developed anxiety.

Even so, I didn’t report him to anyone. It never even entered my mind to report him until after he showed up at my house. That just wasn’t done in 1982! I went to a higher boss after that incident and told him what had happened: how this man had cased my house and asked if my roommates were home. All this higher boss said was, “Are you sure that’s what happened?” When I said I was, he just nodded his head. A few days later, the harassing boss bought in new photos of his wife and kids and placed them all over his office. That was pretty much all that was done.

After two years, I divorced my husband and started night school. I eventually changed jobs because I felt so uncomfortable around my boss. He used to approach me in the hall when no one was around and say “are we were going to lie together?” I’d politely say “No” and hurry off in shame. He continued to compliment me and ogle me at work until I wished that I was invisible.

It got so hard to date that I stopped at one point altogether for a year. I was sick and tired of men pawing over me. One guy asked me if I wanted a drink, so we walked over to his apartment from another party, and as soon as I sat down he turned off the lights and jumped on top of me. When I got upset he told me “I don’t know why you’re so upset, I’m not easy.” This kind of thing happened all the time. It was not unusual, but the norm. Another boss routinely rubbed up against me every time he passed me in the hall. I’ve had to carry large binders at conventions to keep men at bay. Most women figure out ways to protect themselves after a while. But other women aren’t so lucky and are raped or sexually assaulted. I consider myself very lucky that I wasn’t raped.

Recently, I ran into another woman who worked at the company where I was harassed, and for the first time I told her my story. She said that he was a “predator” and no one at the company ever stopped him because he was considered their “golden boy.”

I’ve heard a lot of people ask, “Why didn’t the woman say anything when it happened?” Well, for a very long time, perhaps up until this year, there was no one to tell. If you did, you lost your job and/or your career, and you were labeled a troublemaker. That’s why it is so hard to come forward. There is always a little voice in our head that says it’s our fault somehow. Get this straight: It’s not. Don’t let a man harass you. Fight back! Their biggest ally is your silence.

A friend recently said to me that our stories don’t matter anymore because they happened so long ago. I have to disagree with her. Our stories DO matter, because with our voices we can help protect younger women, including our daughters and granddaughters. We MUST change the culture and make men—and women!—take responsibility for their actions.

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