My Experience with Workplace Harassment

I worked at a summer camp over summer break this year, and while I was able to create a fun and safe environment for my campers, I failed to do so for myself. Instead of taking action to end the situation when it started, I panicked and let things go too far before I did anything to try and stop them (For my own protection and privacy, no names will be used). 

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash

The summer began with a rocky start. I had to fight with my boss to get the help I required to better take care of the young campers I was assigned to watch. This was a frustrating process because my boss is the kind of man who unknowingly degrades women when he speaks and isn’t very willing to give his employees what they need. Not the kind of person who would ever be helpful in handling a case of workplace harassment. 

When the building janitor first started creeping me out, he would just cast long, yearning glances at my bare legs, lingering his gaze right where my shorts stopped. I started wearing leggings to work in the scorching summer heat so that I could maybe escape his wandering eyes. I thought covering up myself would work in my favor, especially so that if something despicable happened maybe it wouldn’t be labeled as me asking for it. I had the idea to ask my boss for a size up in the required work shorts but he denied my request as it apparently would’ve cost too much money for him to hand me extra shirts from a discarded pile behind his desk. 

The janitor at work is an old Vietnam vet who most definitely grew up with the generation of so-called “friendly” men who don’t understand that their unwanted advances and sexually charged comments make women uncomfortable. He started off talking to me by calling me some nickname along the lines of “baby” or “sweetheart” or “honey.” He would tell me to smile when I let my clear discomfort show in my facial expressions and would hand me a lollipop from the pocket of his dirty khaki cargo pants, telling me to think of him whenever I ate it, leaving me behind with a wink. He would go out of his way later on in the day to ask me how delicious I thought the treat was and whether or not I enjoyed it enough to think of him. 

The first time he touched me, he put his hand on the small of my back, a bit too far down, and kept it there for a bit too long. The next time he pinched my cheek and told me one day I would make a great mother, nodding to the child who was sobbing in my arms screaming for their own mother. I wanted to scream for mine. The next time after that he stood behind me and pressed himself against me, pinning me to the desk I was standing at and whispered “looking real good today, baby” in my ear, presenting me with yet another lollipop from the depths of one of his pockets. 

After I broke free of his grasp, I went to go find anyone who could help me figure out what to do. I found my co-counselor and I told her about what had been happening. She pushed me to tell one of the assistant camp directors, since she knew our boss wouldn’t have any help to offer. Naturally, I went to the female assistant director, who passed along the message to our boss, solidifying and validating my feelings by telling me the janitor had been acting somewhat similarly towards her. It comforted me a bit to know I wasn’t alone. However, I was also concerned that there was a possibility the janitor was also harassing the female preteens and young teenagers. 

My boss came to find me and asked me if what I said happened, had actually happened or if it was merely, “girl talk.” He wanted to know if it was true, or if I was, in his words, “exaggerating for the purpose of a story.” I told him it was true, and that the janitor made me feel uncomfortable and my boss told me he would talk to the janitor about it. I didn’t believe him. 

In the following weeks of summer camp and the during the beginning of the before and after school programs (shoutout to Drexel for starting so dang late and giving me more time to work at a place I hate), the janitor’s behavior towards me got worse. Every time he saw me he tried to talk to me or put his hand somewhere on my arm or back to trap me into a conversation with him. He would give me handfuls of candy and tell me I would look happier and prettier if I just smiled more. On the day of my last morning shift, he again forced a conversation with me, manspreading on a bench next to me as I was packing up my bag. His pants were unzipped and his body language told me he wanted me to notice it. I couldn’t figure out whether it would be better to turn my back or to just pick up my stuff and finish packing it up in the car, I just turned and grabbed my things and told him I had to go. I walked out before he could question me, or touch me, or hand me any more candy. 

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash

Thankfully for me, he wasn’t there during my actual last shift and I was able to work in peace for the first time in months. I wasn’t on the lookout for him looming over my shoulder, waiting to make some unwanted move at me and I felt like I could finally breathe at work. Sadly, my boss also wasn’t there so I couldn’t tell him how disappointed I was that he didn’t stand up for me and that he didn’t stay true to his word when he said he would speak to the janitor on my behalf; I don’t think he would’ve cared anyway.