Escaping Sexual Harrassment: A Commentary

Sexual harassment is as old as sex. I don’t mean that to sound cynical or trivial. Sexual harassment is serious, difficult to handle at any age and has the potential to be emotionally damaging, if not devastating, to a victim for life.

But sexually inappropriate behavior including verbal harassment, exposure, touching, groping or worse — sexual assault — is always a lurker. In my long working life in publishing and journalism I’ve been harassed on several occasions, though thank God never assaulted. One time, declining to go to the hotel room of a Danish publishing executive did cost me a job I wanted as a magazine editor. At least I had the opportunity to decline, which took me 10 seconds. I had no one to report it to — I was on my own as many women are.

As we’ve learned from the national conversation resulting from recent revelations against men in entertainment, government and media, sexual harassment takes different forms. While some distinctions can be made between the actions of film producer Harvey Weinstein, TV anchor Charlie Rose, Minnesota Senator Al Franken, Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, Michigan representative John Conyers and New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush, it’s all the same syndrome. It can affect anyone from a fan innocently posing for a photo with a politician to a world-famous actress taking a business meeting in hopes of getting a great part. And even when it had been reported, nothing has come close to the public naming, firing and apologies we’ve witnessed with respect to these prominent offenders in the past few weeks. That is a new and positive development, I believe.

Hopefully, what this means for anyone entering the work force in the near future is that the frequency and severity of this odious experience will decline. Fear of being branded as a new breed of sex offender should be a deterrent. Yet, in my experience, this isn’t rational behavior. It’s a twisted urge. Like when my boss at a publishing company kept trying to kiss me and repeatedly showed up at my apartment, unannounced, with gifts ranging from flowers to baked goods. It nearly turned ugly until he hooked up with a coworker (who actually liked the creep). After that he left me alone.

Will this never go away? Perhaps — or perhaps not. Sadly, all the talk about the subject on cable news shows reminds me of a line from the film “Silence of the Lambs.” The jailed cannibal Hannibal Lector tells FBI agent Clarice Starling: “you covet what you see every day.” In a way, that concept shows how working together can create a sense of false intimacy that leads to the irrational need to dominate or violate a coworker or subordinate, sick as that seems. With a job applicant it’s unforgivable.

Still, it’s important to develop confidence to go into the workplace without fear and with knowledge that there may be few “safe spaces,” at least right now. Sometimes humor can help defuse inappropriate behavior. Should things turn dark leaving as quickly as possible helps. I have a habit of documenting in writing any experience that leaves me uneasy or seems scary. If something is menacing or uncomfortable I never hesitate to share it with a trusted friend or a member of my family.

This is the first time I’ve ever gone public with my short stories about harassment and I’m grateful I can call them short. They happened, so I suppose that gives me #metoo status. They remain unpleasant and upsetting, like the time I was in Italy working in restaurant kitchens to compile recipes for a book. An elderly, spindly restaurateur seemed harmless when he offered to give me a tour of some local farms. Instead, he took me to a vacant Italian villa saying he wanted to show me the view from the bedroom. It seems almost any bizarre excuse or rationalization will do. It was almost funny. Except it wasn’t.