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!