I Was Sexually Harassed by My (Female) Boss
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s not about the sex.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Join us for Third Rail With OZY, a new TV show presented by OZY and WGBH, where we debate provocative hot topics with experts and celebrities every Friday night. The subject of this week’s show: “Is Sexual Harassment Inevitable?” Tune in Friday at 8:30 p.m. ET on PBS, or online, and be sure to weigh in on social media (#ThirdRailPBS) and/or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your take!
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It should be said, by way of background, that not only do I have four sisters and three daughters, but I was also one of only three men born into my family since about 1912. Men arrived as the result of marriages, but I grew up surrounded by my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunts and female cousins. And despite my interest and advocacy in aggressively male pursuits, there’s one thing I’ve learned by listening, and that’s that men and women use language in ways that vary wildly and widely.
Starting with the whole listening thing.
“I’m leaving. But I think you’ll find your new boss interesting,” one of my favorite-ever bosses told me. She was decamping for a job that pulled her up and out of the hothouse of Silicon Valley. But what she said, in literary terms, would have been called foreshadowing. And had I not been listening to what she said and how she said it, I would have been surprised when the new boss showed up.
An attractive woman in her 40s, she had worked her way up by dint of old-style hard work, having started at the tech company as a temp straight out of community college. She was smart, “sassy” in that TV-sitcom sort of way and disarmingly frank.
“You use too many words,” she told me a few weeks after she arrived. I was leading their editorial efforts, so words seemed part of the deal.
“What are your favorite things to read?” I asked.
“TV Guide and People. So use more photos, fewer words,” she said. Interesting.
I imagined the friendly back-and-forth banter was the beginning of a better working relationship. Emphasis on working.
Also interesting: There was a thing happening. If I had been more self-aware at the time, or if I had been an anthropologist, I would have known what to call it. I’m referring to “the copulatory gaze,” or what happens when people start flirting.
I was engaged to be married, and also heedless in a certain way. So I imagined that the friendly back-and-forth banter was the beginning of a better working relationship. Emphasis on working.
Then the emails started. And, in the early days of email, messages between cubicles, when not strictly about work, seemed, sometimes, almost confessional. Her husband was well meaning, she said, but generally not able to “keep up.” He ran a fairly successful but blue-collar business. She was excited about my involvement in music.
“Maybe I could come to one of your shows.”
“You get lots of women my age at your shows?”
“You’re not that old.”
Rereading it now, it seems like nothing, but dig into the nuance of language and you know this is not at all nothing. Then the emails got more … confessional, followed by “jokes.” At first, they carried a subtly sexual edge. Soon enough, subtle turned overtly sexual. I’m not saying I was innocent. But I am saying that my innocence may be beside the point.
Because there finally came something beyond gazes and emails. An invitation to meet beyond cubicle confines and a realization by me that things had strayed far afield. Workwise I had just gotten a cash award for exemplary service, so there was that. But I didn’t want to be that guy who was cheating on his fiancée before the wedding, and while it may not have mattered to my boss, it mattered to me. We were there to work, so work it would be, and I declined the invite.
“My admin’s unhappy with me,” she said to me a few days later. “I suggested she call the cleaning business she and her sister are starting ‘Spic-and-Span.’ Do you think that’s racist?”
I said that I understood why the Latina admin might be put off. That in general things work better if the people who work for you are happy.
“That works both ways,” was her response.
Coercion is not seduction, and I didn’t need 2017 to teach me that.
And so it went. Downhill. Fast. Gone were the flirtatious emails and jokes about the size of my penis. Replaced, in due course, with a request for a meeting. Another meeting. This one during work hours.
“I’m going to have to let you go.” She peered at me over the top of her glasses. I laughed.
“Three and a half weeks after giving me a performance award?”
“I don’t have to give you a reason.”
“You’ve given me a reason to challenge this.”
“You’re welcome to try.”
Which is when all of those emails came in handy. Every single one. All of which, in aggregate, convinced my attorney to take my case. Which caused the company’s attorneys to fold like a cheap tent. When they asked what I wanted, I told them: “My job back.”
That wasn’t going to happen. Despite the wrongness of the termination, the wagons had circled. So they paid more than I would have earned in a year and bid me farewell. Later? They fired her.
The funny thing is, if not for my soon-to-be betrothed status, I liked her enough to have slept with her. But to quote Ian McShane’s character in Deadwood: “Yankton is muscle. And I don’t like muscle.” And I really didn’t like being muscled. In fact, it left me feeling one thing and one thing only: angry.
Besides, you shouldn’t have to be muscled into stuff you want to do — in this instance, sex. But this had ceased being about that when I backed out of her outside invite. It seemed much more about power and the people in power using it to coerce those with less power.
“Maybe you could write a piece about Harvey Weinstein,” someone suggested at an editorial meeting this week. I opted instead to write this.
“Your story is bullshit,” a cop friend told me soon after hearing about what I was writing. “You weren’t damaged at all. You gamed the system.”
“So I should have slept with her and kept my job?”
“Um, no. But you played a game, and you lost. Take it like a man.”
Thanks. But no thanks. Coercion is not seduction, and I didn’t need 2017 to teach me that.