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Occupational Hazard

Emily Flake

By Mink Stole | Posted 10/23/2002

I am considered an attractive young professional, but I wish I were so ugly that I wouldn't attract so much harassment from men who think they are irresistible. Their attention has driven me to contemplate suicide. I work in a professional setting wherein no one is my immediate supervisor, but one individual definitely has the power. That individual is an old, obese, ugly man with body odor, and since he doesn't wear socks, his varicose-veined feet reek worse than a garlic factory. Finally, after more than a year of unwanted touching and near foul-mouthed sexual come-ons, he grabbed me and stuck his obscene tongue down my throat. After vomiting, I reported him to his superiors. Since then (not that before was great), my career has become a nightmare. The slug has, in writing, said that the kiss was consensual. I thought this was a hilarious joke, but some people really believe his defense. The men I work with make remarks like, "I'll talk with you, but never without witnesses," and other remarks that make me sound like a sexual predator. There is constant talk behind my back regarding the progress against the stoat but no encouraging words for me. I'm at my wit's end. I'm suicidal. I'm seeing a therapist, but I need some better advice about how to deal with my co-workers. I read and appreciate your common sense based on your life experiences. Please comment. Thank you.

Done-In

Dear Done-In:
I'm lucky. I've never been the victim of sexual harassment, although I have certainly had to deal with other workplace inequities. But for all of us, especially you and the uncountable other women (and the occasional man) who have been sexually harassed, it is vital to remember that physical attractiveness is beside the point; it's always about the abuse of power. Just as in rape, neither your looks nor your clothes are the issue; your vulnerability is.

There are several Web sites devoted specifically to this problem. Among the best is the Feminist Majority Foundation at www.feminist.org. Don't let the name scare you--this site has contact information for the various state sexual-harassment hot lines, as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and 9to5: National Association of Working Women. There is a wealth of information about what constitutes harassment, employers' obligations and responsibilities, and information about legal remedies. If the management of your office refuses to take action in this case, immediately report it to a civil authority.

You're very smart to be seeing a professional therapist. Suicidal feelings should never be dismissed or discounted. I can only tell you that time is your friend here. And, although it may be hard to accept, you have much to be proud of. This disgusting, vile creature forced himself on you, and, instead of just slinking off to take the longest shower on record, you stood up for yourself and reported him. That took courage. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for women to have their complaints ignored or even ridiculed, often in the hope that they will find the workplace so inhospitable that they quit, thus sparing management the need to deal with the problem. Even in a case such as yours, where--if your description of this slime bag is even in the ballpark--it would seem inconceivable that anyone could believe his story over yours. It takes guts to stay and fight, but if you can, you could prevent some other woman from having to face a similar ordeal. And, if you can prove your case, you might see this creep held accountable, either financially or professionally. And wouldn't that be lovely?

No one would blame you for leaving your job, but if you stay, remember you did the right thing. Keep your head up and your door open; you have nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of. Do your job as well as you can and refuse to discuss the issue except with management, and then be very specific about what happened. Write out as clearly as possible exactly what happened in the particular incident and as much of his previous offensive behavior as you can remember. Also, keep a diary of any further incidents of hostility, including all those "not without witnesses" remarks. To which you should always reply, firmly but politely, that that is your preference as well. After all, you have no wish to be assaulted again. Don't try to make a joke of it; as tempting as it is to lighten things up, trivializing the issue won't serve you and could even damage any future lawsuit. If there are potential female allies at the office, ask them if they have experienced similar problems, but if they don't want to talk, don't push it. Above all, maintain your dignity; save your tears for the privacy of your own home and your shrink's office.

To My Readers:
Although I usually address two letters each week, I just couldn't think of a short, snappy answer to this one. And, since the issue has been raised, I'd like to hear other accounts of harassment any of you have experienced--how you dealt with it, how it affected your life. I'll devote at least one column to your letters. Thanks.

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