I was harassed at an anti-harassment trainingThis spring, during an anti-harassment training, a man put his hand on my knee as he adjusted his chair. He made a playful comment about getting comfortable in his seat. Meanwhile, as a survivor of multiple accounts of sexual assault, my body—already on high alert—froze.
A dialogue ensued in my head amid my fight-or-flight response: Do I leave the room, or stay in my seat and breathe? I chose the latter. Minutes later, a facilitator announced a break. Having self-regulated back to calm, I felt relieved, until the man looked at me and winked. I made eye contact with a friend and colleague nearby. She walked with me to the hallway. I began to cry.
Hand on knee, playful wink. It might seem like an innocuous act. Yet we’d spent the whole day learning the difference between misconduct, harassment, and sexual assault, so it felt particularly egregious, especially given the fact that this man and I had never before met or spoken.
The unsolicited touch and wink by an unknown man in an anti-harassment training geared specifically for workplace conduct was all too ironic. I was livid, not only because I now get to add this incident to a litany of experiences I’ve had along the escalating rape culture continuum from street harassment, to bullying, to sexualized violence, but mostly—more than anything—because I’m tired of working overtime on behalf of the brokenness of masculinity and men.
Culprits show up at work-mandated anti-harassment trainings because they’re already in the room. Toxic masculinity long ago infested the leadership and nooks of our organizations. Imperialism, slavery, white supremacy, sexual terrorism — these ideologies built the United States. This country was founded on genocide. How can we possibly be surprised when the middle-aged white cisgender man in a position of power touches my knee and winks at me at the anti-harassment training? Nothing about it shocks me, even though my body’s instinctive response was to freeze.
No matter how normalized this kind of behavior has become, or how unobtrusive it may look, it is birthed from the same place as actual violence. For me, as a recipient, violent or not, it can feel so similar. Like this summer, when the President announced his nomination for the new Supreme Court justice, his oldest son Donald J. Trump Jr.’s Tweet shook me to my core:
“*Flash Flood Warning Tonight at 9PM EST* This is not a joke,” Trump Jr. tweeted. “Liberal tears will be flowing like Niagara Falls when #POTUS announces his second #SCOTUS pick. Please take all necessary precautions & bring an inner tube or boogie board to ride this blue wave.”
He followed it with three laughing tear-faced emojis, each interspersed with an American flag. This patronizing, belittling tweet from a powerful white man about another powerful white man, both of whom boast of being pro-life, both of whom reject the bodily autonomy of others, especially around reproductive rights. And this was months before Dr. Christine Blasey Ford came forward with allegations about Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulting her.
It is this kind of unmitigated celebration of manipulative, bullying aggression that ultimately leads to violence, harassment, assault, and rape. It gives permission; it allows people to think they can own each other each other’s bodies, choices…right knees. This ideology shapes our society and people in positions of power continue to try desperately hard to let it keep shaping our country. This toxicity built America.
But that is not the country in which I live. In my version of America, I speak up. I have been through too much trauma to let an unenlightened man re-shatter my bones. I have already worked overtime to heal.
When the anti-harassment training wrapped up, the man, whom I decided to confront, had already left. I told the lead trainer what happened and assured her I knew his behavior was the result of his own toxic masculinity, lest she worry that she, as a facilitator, did something to create an unsafe space. The safety she’d created in our session allowed me to come forward and speak.
Afterward, my friend and I walked to a nearby coffee shop. I gathered my thoughts. I took a breath. Then I found an email address for the man, having seen his name and organization on his nametag, and hit send:
…your behavior made me feel uncomfortable, specifically when you touched my knee and commented on it while adjusting your seat, as well as when you winked at me. I’m going to assume both actions were unintentional and well-meaning. In the context of today’s training…it felt especially out of line. I’m grateful to know you were there today with your colleagues, and I am more than happy to discuss this further if you have any questions and want to better understand what my experience might have been. I look forward to working in solidarity with you as we all work to create a safer community.
My email was generous. That I have been sharing my stories of survival for over 15 years is generous. But I’m tired of being generous. I want more men to work overtime with me. Merely showing up to a workplace anti-harassment training is clearly not enough.
I have been in plenty of therapy to heal from so much trauma and abuse. Living in my body is work, a body that still has so much access and privilege. I’m a white, able-bodied cisgender straight woman. People of color, queer folks, trans and nonbinary individuals, people with disabilities, and immigrant women are even more likely to experience misconduct, harassment, or assault. I reek of privilege and I still work overtime for this bullshit. Imagine the overtime folks with myriad marginalized group memberships face. The most marginalized among us have literally died trying to save their own and all of our lives.
The morning after the training, I felt so much grief for this man, which is a complicated thing to feel after being so pissed off and exhausted the night before. But that’s really what I felt: grief. Sadness that he has no awareness for or empathy towards how much power and privilege he really has. He lives in a world that teaches him he does not have to work on eliminating injustice that doesn’t directly impact him, or negotiate space with other bodies.
There’s a poem by Andrea Gibson called “Blue Blanket.” A friend who has made a career out of eliminating toxic masculinity emailed a recording of it to me in my senior year of college. I sat in a coffee shop on campus listening to the track. At the end of Gibson’s poem about sexualized violence, Gibson says, “Tonight she’s not asking you what you would tell your daughter / She’s life deep in the Hell—the slaughter / Has already died a thousand deaths with every unsteady breath / A thousand graves in every pore of her flesh /And she knows the war’s not over… /…She’s not asking what you’re gonna’ tell your daughter /She’s asking what you’re gonna’ teach your son.”
I fell over my laptop and wept. Then I walked to my off-campus house, put the track back on, fell into fetal position, and sobbed more. I listened to it over and over.
What you’re going to teach your son.
That line has stuck with me ever since. I keep watching so many sons, wondering when they’ll learn. Or, more important, unlearn. I’m over overtime. My body is exhausted. So is my voice.
I hesitated to write this piece. I called my sister and asked if I should even waste my time trying to get it published because I’m afraid people are going to be, like, This woman is always shouting and writing about misconduct, harassment, and assault. Except that’s the whole point. I’ve been shouting and writing about this for years because I’ve been experiencing this for years. Even though I’m tired of screaming, what else can I do?
The man, on the other hand, never responded to my email. He himself has yet to speak.
More articles by Category: Gender-based violence, Misogyny
More articles by Tag: Men, masculinity, Sexual harassment