Shaming, Blaming, & Silence – How Sexual Harassment Changed The Direction Of My Life

I try really hard to stay away from politics on my blog and I’ve bitten my tongue for the last few days over the reported sexual harassment allegations about U.S. Presidential hopeful, Herman Cain.

After yesterday’s press conference, I need to have my say.

When I was eighteen, I joined the Army. I was hopeful going in about the changes I expected to go through and when my enlistment came to an end, I felt I’d met most of the goals I set for myself when I’d held up my hand four years earlier promising to protect and defend.

Protect and Defend

I never expected that I would be required to protect and defend myself from some the soldiers I served with. I enlisted in the late 70s when the military didn’t like to admit to any problem that might affect combat readiness, and sexual harassment was a huge topic that no one wanted to acknowledge as an issue.

I made it through a coed Basic Training and AIT with a sense of camaraderie and connectedness that would not last when I arrived at my first permanent duty assignment. The idea that we were all just soldiers in Uncle Sam’s employ disappeared fairly rapidly when I had to fight for respect over and over from the men in my unit and others on the male dominated military post.

I want to clarify that it wasn’t all the men I met, just enough to make it extremely uncomfortable walking on post or working alone with some people I saw everyday.

It wasn’t just the things that were said. It was the implied threats by groups of men as I was passing by, men who said things that were so overtly sexual and disrespectful that the idea they felt free enough to say them made me feel afraid that given an opportunity, they might act on them. This type of thing happened every day during and after work. No public place felt safe and even my work area felt stressful and uncomfortable.

It didn’t only happen where men were gathered in groups, some would follow me around the PX saying suggestive things in a lowered voice even as I pretended to ignore them.

When my section sergeant, a man in direct position of authority, grabbed me by the lapels of my fatigue jacket and banged me repeatedly in the metal awning of the motor pool door because I refused to ‘date’ him, I took the incident up my chain of command.

It was a difficult process as I was forced to repeat my complaint over and over while enduring the mocking response of men I was supposed to look to for leadership. I went through person after person (all male) until I finally reached the office of my commanding officer who told me that I wiggled too much when I walked, and that I wore too much makeup.

All My Fault

He basically told me that it was my fault as he went over a list that was all about me and not the offenders. When I asked him how he’d feel if it was his wife or daughter, he said I was soldier as if this made it okay.

I remember clearly telling him that I had a right to the same basic respect as anyone and it was not okay with me. I’m still surprised I was brave enough to speak my opinion so freely as he had me ‘standing at ease’ in front of his desk while he sat behind it. Can you imagine what it felt like to fight all the way to his office expecting a different outcome than the one I received? I expected better from people I was supposed to follow into battle.

As to his assertion that I was somehow responsible, I had already worked hard to walk as if I were invisible, protected my ‘reputation’ by dating only one man during the time I was stationed in Germany, and as for makeup, I wore even less then than I wear now.

That I’m even explaining all this now irritates me beyond belief. Why should I still feel obligated to explain how I did nothing to encourage the unwanted attention of the men I worked with.

Taking Me Out Of My Job

Their solution to ‘my problem’ was to take me out of my job and put me somewhere else, not discipline the man who laid hands on me or the men who intimidated me with their near constant sexual chatter about what they’d like to ‘do to me.’

There was a fair amount of finger pointing and veiled threats when it got around that I had complained about some of the words and behavior of men in my unit.

I was labeled a trouble maker for speaking up and you know what happens to women like that … if you’re not sure, take a look at what’s happening to Karen Kraushaar and Sharon Bialek.

I think they are very brave.

Women who speak up about sexual harassment open themselves up to an often dangerous and unbearable amount of public scrutiny and ridicule.

That Herman Cain has gone from calling the charges a plot by Republican Rick Perry, to a Democratic attempt to smear him, tells me enough.

Given a opportunity, it will soon be all about those ‘bad women who wiggle too much when they walk and wear too much makeup.’

Once I thought I wanted a career in the military. Even after the sexual harassment I experienced and the effect on my enlisted tour, I thought it might be different if I were an officer, I thought I might be able to make things different for other women.

With that in mind, I joined the National Guard as part of a simultaneous program with the ROTC program at the university I attended.

After my commanding officer invited me to sit on his lap when we were alone in his office, I decided that a military career was not for me. I thought if it occurred in corporate America, I could always quit, but as a career officer, I’d have nowhere to go and I had no desire to be labeled or held back because of it.

It still makes me angry that I had to consider future escape routes when planning on my career due to the expectation that I might have to work with more men who could not control themselves properly.

I know there are loads of pressing topics facing Americans now and sexual harassment may seem like a non issue to a great many people who have been fortunate to have never experienced it, but this is really a bigger topic than who said or did what to whom.

It is about integrity and the ability to admit to past misdeeds having examined the behavior and changed it. It’s about acknowledging that while that may have been who you were then, it is not who you are now.

I believe Karen Kraushaar and Sharon Bialek in part because I know personally how much easier it can be to stay silent and just move on … easier for a while, but not forever.

If you’ve been affected by sexual harassment, I’d love for you to speak up here even if it’s not possible to do so at work or any other place in your life. 

It needs to stop!

12 thoughts on “Shaming, Blaming, & Silence – How Sexual Harassment Changed The Direction Of My Life

  1. Thank you. And belatedly, thank you for your recent post about bullies. Although I’ve never, thank God, been sexually harassed or molested, I’m sick to death of the way these long-fought battles are rearing their ugly heads again. I thought (ha!) that as a nation we’d progressed beyond this. I thought that my country was never in danger of being ruled by an American Taliban. Living in a mostly rural, conservative state, I’ve also seen my fair share of the bully-types that you talked about in that post. So, Elizabeth, thank you. Thank you for speaking out.

    Do you findn it ironic that the election of the first African American President has brought out this still-hidden side of us/

    I’m ashamed.

  2. I’m crying after reading your post. I am so saddened by the way this country is treating women, and it seems worse daily. Nothing has changed despite all of the history. Have I experienced sexual harassment? Yes. Did I do anything about it? Sort of. I don’t know if I can explain. I have, however, stood up for other women who are braver than I, and supported them through the ugliness of this issue. I stand up now for the rights of women to be who they are. I get angry when I hear stories like yours. I get angry when laws are voted into place that try to put women “in their place.” I am tired of it all and I wish I could do more.

    So thank you for standing up, for being brave, and for speaking out.

  3. The first time it happened to me, I was about 26 years old and in my first real job out of university. The person in question was my direct boss and used to follow me around, ask me out, call my house late at night and question me about any man I was ever seen speaking to in the office. The scrutiny continued to increase and when I eventually spoke to a few women about his behaviour, I discovered that he’d been doing this for years, mostly causing the women he harassed to quit their jobs or seek employment elsewhere in the company. I remember deciding that, since I was single and very early in my career, it could take the hit of being fired if I complained (at that time, no one was sure what the policy was regarding sexual harassment in the company). It was a fairly humiliating experience – having to repeat the details of his actions over and over again, including to an independent tribunal; I also started receive calls from his family asking me why “I was was doing this” to him.

    After the investigation, I was called before a panel of 5 individuals including the senior vice president for the company and allowed to read – under their watchful eye – a copy of the independent report. I had no one with me for support and, being new to the company and very young at the time, I’m surprised I managed to get through it in one piece. I was very fortunate in that the report eventually concluded that this was a clear case of sexual harassment; the individual was given the opportunity to resign, which he took. I stayed with that company for a further three years, but still had people wispering about the incident right up to the end, with some men stating outright that they didn’t want to be alone with me, lest I accuse them of something too…

  4. Glad that you spoke out. I am currently in the military. I have seen what can happen to an individual who has been harrassed and also have seen how those who have committed those crimes go by scott free. It should not be tolerated..PERIOD

  5. @ Dotti ~ Thanks for taking time to comment on this post and the Bullies post as well. You’re so lucky never to have been in a position to defend yourself against such nasty behavior. I may be misunderstanding your comment over the battles ” rearing their ugly heads again. ” I am of the mind that none of this has ever gone away.

    @ Lisa ~ Thanks so much for your emotion and energy about this dreadful topic. Those were tough years where I felt pretty alone especially after taking a stand. I think based on what I’ve read it may actually be worse in some ways as sexual harassment appears to be happening at a much younger age. Good for you for standing up for others too. It has to make a difference even if only a little every time one of us speaks out. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/07/sexual-harassment-middle-high-school_n_1079117.html

    @ Karen ~ I know exactly what you felt like with no support system and no way of knowing what the outcome might be. Then to be blamed by the family … he’s lucky he was allowed to resign especially with a history of harassing other women. Well done you for your courage and thank you so much for sharing your personal experience with us.

    @ Winsomebella ~ Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. I enjoyed following you back to your blog and reading your post today.

    @ Denise ~ Living so long in LA, I bet you have a few stories to tell. Thanks for your support and for stopping by and the comment that let me know you were here.

    @ Lavon ~ I love seeing a comment from a man especially a military one.Thank you for adding your thoughts and I hope you’ll remember me the next time you see someone caught up in an ugly scene of someone else’s making. I know you can’t be expected to be a hero to the world, but a well-placed word if you see someone saying or doing something they should not can make you a hero to the person you speak up for.

    Thanks also for serving. I popped by your site and read about what you do to help other soldiers get where they need to go … it must be very satisfying.

  6. Such a hard and painful post, both to read and resonate with from my own experience. Written with such a surety of words. I know the emotions behind them have had many years to find their level and place. I have been through harassment like this on several occasions but not sexually based. It undermines the very core of a person, and the tragedy is that many turn inward and keep eating at themselves even when the external actions have stopped. It is cruel and inhumane, and yet it happens again and again.

    Truly the greatest gift in the in the world is someone to turn to where things seem hopeless, and someone to support you through that feeling of hopelessness. Not all of us have it, and lack of it is heart-breaking. It will literally drive a person mentally ill. Compassion is one of humanity’s most god-filled gifts, and I hope all of us are both graced with it and grace others with it, too. The compassion and friendship I have had from some key people over my lifetime have probably preserved (most of) my sanity, healed many but not all scars, and possibly even saved my life. My heart fills and my eyes spill over when I think of what this has meant for me.

    Perhaps this is the NanoWrimo story to tell, Elizabeth?

  7. “It still makes me angry that I had to consider future escape routes when planning on my career due to the expectation that I might have to work with more men who could not control themselves properly.”–

    It makes me angry, as well. As a mother of a little girl, I feel all the time the pressure of teaching her to be a hopeful, confident person, in a world that over and over again tells us women can be treated as second rate. And joke about it. It isn’t a joke. The fact that women have to think about what you did, or even think about if it is safe to walk to their own car at night, or if our doors are locked when home alone… All of this is nothing men ever have to think about. I don’t think they can even imagine it, and so they joke and belittle our experience.

    Until men get on board with women’s rights– really on board– I think little will change. Women just look like bitches and complainers– or are made out to be so, to silence us. Change needs to come from men, like your superior in the Army, who had the chance to make real change and stand for your rights as a person.
    :)

  8. I was sexually harassed only once at work. It involved a doctor putting his hands on my breasts. I was horrified and shocked but did complain. Little happened until about six or seven years later when the doctor was finally stripped of his license. I was not the only one to complain. In fact when I told fellow staff members the doctor’s name they all had horror stories to tell me. He was well known as a sexual deviant, especially towards his patients.

    I am lucky to work in a workplace with lots of women, but that also brings it’s own kind of harassment. Women are not always kind to each other.

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