I was mildly sexually harassed tonight.
Wait, let me start over. I was sexually harassed tonight.
Part of my duties at my job is to help coordinate events so I stayed late to help out with a rather popular event we were hosting. I passed the photographer contracted for the evening in the hallway. I could see from the corner of my eye, he had taken a long hard uncomfortably intense look at me. I ignored it and kept moving on, my stranger danger alert level raised a little. To be honest, that’s par for the course since I’m catcalled or leered at at least once a week. I am not exaggerating or tooting my own horn. This is common for most women working in the city. I went about my business, ever so often, catching this photographer staring at me. And then soon after, mildly aware that he was taking pictures at various positions around the reception that suggested he was trying to capture me at different angles.
I was behind a table, serving wine, standard protocol for our organization, and was an easy target: stationary, charged with being pleasant and engaging. A colleague had saddled up next to me and had begun conversation which I happily indulged, perhaps more zealously than I normally would, just to keep from catching this stranger’s eye, distracting myself from my own unease and the fact that my brain was consciously keeping track of his movements despite my best efforts to appear nonchalant. I could feel heat rising up my back as he came closer to the table. And then suddenly, he was behind the table facing me and my coworker as he shimmied his way across to get a picture from this end of the room. But he paused when he was in front of me, leaned in close to my face, and proclaimed as he pointed at me, “The best picture is right here.”
I shrunk. I shrunk myself and put my head down and sheepishly mumbled “Thanks.” I shrunk, despite four years of women and gender studies classes, and sexual harassment training, and coaching my own friends on how to handle unwanted attention. I tried to make myself small, almost invisible. And not just then, when he brazenly, in front of my coworkers, commented on my appearance but as soon as I noticed he was staring. Hadn’t I been watching him with a wary eye the entire night, adjusting my position whenever I saw him hold up his camera in my direction? Kept my head down as I talked to and served guests just in case he was watching?
Luckily, the coworker I was with heard his comment, saw the look of unease on my face as I picked up my head, and mercifully stayed next to me when I asked her not to leave my side even though there were very high profile attendees she had planned to network with tonight. After a few minutes, he moved away and I realized I was sweating. My nose and upper lip were slick. My body already knew what my mind wouldn’t let me acknowledge: That was wrong. That was not okay. I was not okay. Another coworker I mentioned the incident to right after, had noticed his odd behavior. Later, he would tell me the man seemed to be taking pictures of women’s legs during the lecture. Both of these people are managers and therefore obligated to report instances of this nature. I was very fortunate tonight. Because I was surrounded by competent and compassionate people who take this very seriously. If they weren’t there, I would have continued to shrink. Continued to adjust my behavior and movements to avoid the gaze of this man in a space that’s supposed to be safe for me. A space I have spent most of the past three years in. Made me so uncomfortable in a place that’s basically been a second home, for better or worse, and I would have let him do that despite my better judgment.
I probably would have stolen away early but my coworkers made sure I felt safe, reassured me that they would keep an eye out for him, and would back me up if I decided to report him to HR. And now, on the way home as I type this, I wonder how many women have gone through what I did tonight, this microaggression, this “mild” sexual harassment as I called it earlier, and were made to feel uncomfortable in their safe spaces; shrank themselves down to invisibility; made light of the situation as I did after, telling a coworker that I dismissed my own paranoia of being stalked by convincing myself “I’m not that cute;” essentially discounting their own experience. Or worse, asked someone for help or support as I had and was met with disbelief or indifference. It wasn’t mild. It was a microaggression. Small, but definitely not innocuous. It was what it was. A violation, plain and simple. A violation of professional etiquette, of common decency, and my humanity.
So, I write this now before my indignation runs thin, but not before I report that asshole to HR and make sure he doesn’t work here again.