Sexual Harassment is NEVER Okay.

Edited to Add: Click on the trackback in the comments to find a blog post with a comprehensive list of links to the original posts and to reactions posted.

For those of you not already aware, this year’s Readercon is at the center of a great deal of controversy. Beware, this post is gonna get long, and I’m not putting any of it behind a cut; it’s too important.

I first learned about what was going on yesterday, when an author whose work I enjoy posted that she would not be returning to Readercon. I had heard only good things about the con, and it was one I was actually considering attending some year, because it is affordable and small and on the same coast as I am. Curious, I followed her link to a post by Genevieve Valentine (which is the second in the series that starts here) as the reason why. (Ms. Valentine was being sexually harassed.) The post, an update to the previous link, is where she shares the verdict of the Readercon board after she reported her harassment. Readercon’s Official Statement is here. In addition to completely reversing my decision to ever go to Readercon, it cemented my decision to avoid all non-derby cons, because at least at derby cons, if something happens, I know the complaint will be taken seriously. Also, the post linked to this one, which is the account of the 2008 harassment incident at Readercon that was handled well, which Genevieve reported on behalf of the woman being harassed, and explaining why women don’t always (or even often) speak out. The following is a quote from that post which rang true for me:

It is also incredibly disorienting for somebody to breach the social contract; it’s so disorienting that inevitably, I think, the breached party wonders if the breach really happened, if maybe she just misunderstood the breach, or misunderstood the social contract, because surely nobody would actually breach the social contract, right? Especially brazenly and repeatedly?

This is *so* true. I know, because it happened to me. Brazenly, but not, thank everything good, repeatedly. I shared it there, and now I’m sharing it here; this is my story:

Between 2006 and 2009 I worked at an east coast grocery store chain-Wegman’s-in the Nature’s Marketplace department (essentially, a mini whole foods or trader joes within the store. all nature and/or organic products.) The incident took place either 2007 or 2008; I don’t remember exactly when, though I suspect it was 2008 because I don’t remember talking to the boy I was dating during part of that timeframe about it, and I would have if we were together. I was 26 or 27, and putting myself through college to get my undergraduate degree.

In our store, the tea department was almost a separate department from the rest of Nature’s; we tried to make like an oasis in the store, so it was enclosed by shelves on three sides, open on the fourth to the gourmet cheese counter. There were nested tables set up for displays near the open front, one set on each side about 1-3 feet away from the shelving units that formed the sides of the tea shop. (They were angled so the taller tables, farther back, were closer to the shelves than the lower tables. This is really detailed, I know, but it is relevant.) One afternoon I was stocking a shipment of teas. I was essentially alone; there were people in the cheese shop 6 feet away from the open front of the tea shop, but no other employees really near by. A customer came in and started browsing the herbal teas. When I stocked, I would take several boxes that were near each other and do them all together. I would place them on the floor near where they are on the shelf. I didn’t pay much attention to the customer; I had been around long enough that most of our regulars knew me, and would ask for help if they needed it, and the customers that didn’t need help usually displayed a certain body language that this guy was not.

I was putting away some teas farther into the shop, just past the corner of the tallest display table (only about 6 inches away from the corner), and the customer was browsing herbals to my right, on the other side of the corner, about 2 feet from me. I was almost finished when he squeezed past the corner of the tallest table, his hand sliding across my right butt cheek. He said “mmmm.” I had just put the last of the tea I had in my hand up, and went over to the other side of the tea department, trying to understand what had happened. Like you say above, it was baffling to think that that really happened, that I wasn’t misunderstanding something. Due to how close the table was, I thought maybe he didn’t even know he had touched me, and I had misheard him. But I couldn’t stay in the tea shop with him, so I went to the desk in the center of our department and sat there, trying to process what had just happened to me.

My manager walked up to me about 5 minutes later, wondering what I was doing. I told her “I think some guy just touched my butt.” I was feeling very detached from reality at this point, because of the disorientation of someone breaching the social contract. She immediately got her supervisor, and they asked me if I could describe the guy or what he was wearing. I remembered only khaki shorts, light, maybe pink polo, slightly heavy. They had security check with the cameras, but he had already left the store.

I had, up to this point, always believed that I would immediately start shouting and punching someone if they laid a hand on me without my permission; I didn’t count on how confusing it is to be violated in this way. I feel strongly that should this happen again, I will react more quickly, but he was counting on that disorientation and I never saw him at the store again, so he has maybe done it to other girls at other stores. I suspect that when I left the department he thought I was going straight to a boss and hightailed it out of there; I wish I had, or that I had stayed and called my manager from the department phone in the tea shop. My bosses handled things as best they could; I wish I had handled them better.



Filed under feminist, heavy shit, personal shit, political

6 responses to “Sexual Harassment is NEVER Okay.

  1. Pingback: Under the Beret » The Readercon Thing

  2. Really good post, Mels. I spent most of the morning following your links and the Readercon story. Wow! I can’t believe that in this day and age people are still basically making excuses for harrassers. “He didn’t realise what he was doing and now he feels sorry.” Bull! Even if someone else hadn’t sent them a letter confirming that this was a pattern for him, their policy was ‘zero-tolerance, equalling a lifetime suspension’. So they don’t get any points or slack from me.

    I’m glad that your management was supportive in your case, even they couldn’t do anything at that point and glad that you did react the way you should.

  3. Thank you for sharing, Mels.

    I had a couple similar things happen to me, mostly when I was in Scotland; the guys were always in their early 20s (I was maybe 26 at the time). The first time, I was so shocked I screamed at the kid and his friend, then (luckily) a very tall German tourist came out of the hotel we were walking by, and walked with me to the end of the road. The second time, I was walking at the top of Leith Walk and a group of four young guys were walking past me; when one of them slapped my ass I turned around and grabbed his arm and yanked on it hard and screamed WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU. (There were a lot more people around at the top of Leith Walk than had been during the first incident.) The look of shock/fear/freakout on the kid’s face was SO WORTH IT and I am to this day glad that I was able to react so quickly in that case. When I let his arm go, he and his friends ran off.

    I don’t know if you saw the Louis C.K. interview on the Daily Show a few days ago, but he mentioned how Daniel Tosh’s Rape-joke “gate” had made him go research things and read blogs and had ultimately opened his eyes to the fact that rape is something that polices women’s lives. In a different way, the same goes for sexual harassment. Good on you for speaking up at Wegman’s and good on your managers for being supportive.

    And good on you as well for bringing attention to the events at Readercon.

    • Thanks, Rachel! I wish I had been able to respond as quickly as you did! But as you and Sams point out, telling someone about what happened was a good way to react. The fact that I didn’t seek out someone to tell immediately is not so good, but when given the opportunity, I did tell someone and I should remember that, rather than simply being ashamed I didn’t do more.

      I took an Italian immersion course as an undergrad, and in one of the classes they taught us the informal Italian sign language, in the event that we ever go to Italy. The one thing that really stuck with me from that day was that there has to be a hand signal to indicate to men that you do not want their romantic/sexual attentions.

  4. Pingback: If you’ve been wondering… | Tasteful Diversions

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