CW: discussion of verbal and physical sexual harassment in the workplace
The summer I was twenty, between college semesters, I worked in the office at Bee’s Cleaning Supply. Coming in the front door, you were greeted by Ben, a graying African American man, who worked for Mr. Bee from the beginning, manning the front desk and supervising the loading dock at the rear.
I spent most of my time at the four-drawer file cabinets in the hall. Just past the files, a door led to the narrow sales room. A counter ran along its length, with phones and chairs. Roger, the lead salesman, often stopped by to joke around.
To the left, Joy, the bookkeeper, had been hired for her skill with the antiquated machine for printing checks. Joy was about twice my age, with dark curly hair, elaborate makeup and jewelry. Straight ahead was Mary, the secretary, who had lived across the alley and had fond childhood memories of Ben and Mr. Bee. She was in her late twenties, with no-nonsense hair and a professional manner.
With little makeup, I was often mistaken for younger than my years. When Mr. Bee came by, he often gave me a one-armed hug around my ribs. Around seventy, with sparkling blue eyes, he seemed grandfatherly, making me feel even younger.
One day when I had my hands sunk into a file drawer, Roger came through behind me, reaching out to tickle my ribs as he passed. I jumped and turned, but, laughing, he ducked into the salesroom before I could say anything. I shook my head and went back to filing.
When rib-tickling became his daily greeting, I’d had enough. I followed him into the sales room, saying, “Roger, quit-“
He held up a chair, legs toward me like a lion tamer, as though he were the one being attacked. “Whoa! Back! Back!”
“Leave me-“ I tried again.
“Look out! She’s mad!” He brandished the chair again.
Embarassed, I went back to my desk and told Mary and Joy what he’d been doing. Joy gave me a knowing smile, and regaled me with stories of other jobs and other jerks she had encountered, including one who had unzipped the top of the one-piece pants suit she was wearing.
Mary called, “Roger!”
When he came out, she said, “Roger, you need to leave this girl alone.” Her tone suggested she was correcting a naughty boy.
“What did I do?”
It was Joy who knew what to say. “Cut it out or she’ll call your wife.” His wife was the boss’s daughter.
The next month passed uneventfully. The job was easy and I enjoyed my days with Mary and Joy, gradually being trusted to do more than file, including deal with customers.
On my last day, close to quitting time, a customer called to check on an order. I went back to the loading dock to check with Ben, who guaranteed it would go out today. I picked up the phone back there to assure the customer that the order was on its way, when Roger came up behind me and smacked my butt. Phone to my ear, I turned without thinking and felt the sting as I slapped his grinning face.
Behind me, I heard Ben, weary resignation in his voice. “Roger, why’d you have to go and do that.”
Every time sexual harassment comes back in the news, I’ve thought of this. Roger didn’t change my life, affect my relationships, or hurt my chances of getting a job. With recent reports, I’ve been thinking about why. I believe with just some minor alterations, he could have.
The strength to fight back comes with privilege. When someone suggests, “Why did she put up with it?” the question assumes power. I had the power of being white, educated and on my way to other goals than an office temp job.
If I hadn’t been leaving and had been desperate for that job, perhaps a single mom, would I have dared to slap back? If I had been there longer, if he had cornered me somewhere with no one else around, what else would he have tried? If I were a woman of color, my chances of receiving unwanted attention would have multiplied. If I were intellectually impaired, chances would increase exponentially that sometime I would be raped.
The following Christmas they invited me back for the party. Roger put his arm around my shoulders. I stiffened.
“They bet me that you wouldn’t give me a kiss. You’ll kiss me, won’t you?”