Sexual harassment is a term that gets thrown around in lawsuits, politics (especially in relation to the current American president), TV shows, and social media, but what does it actually mean?
The Equality Act of 2010 defines sexual harassment as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.”
I didn’t know anything about sexual harassment or what this meant when I was 16. I had just started my first job working in a retail store that sold pyjamas, swimsuits, and lingerie. Unfortunately, I learned very quickly what it meant to be harassed in the workplace.
Is this just the way it is?
Harassment can come from the workplace environment itself, and there’s lots of educational resources available if that is the case. But what happens if that same harassment comes from customers or the public?
I didn’t know that my job as a sales associate came with strings attached. It was a Saturday afternoon and the store was swamped. A husband and wife approached me because the wife needed help finding a swimsuit, which was my speciality. I eagerly found swimsuits to fit her tastes and comfort, and showed her to a changeroom. She went inside and I waited to grab different sizes for her if need be, while her husband stood a few meters away. She hadn’t been inside for long before her husband started making small talk with me. We chatted for a few minutes and our conversation dwindled off. He then broke the silence by bluntly stating, “You have a very nice figure,” while looking me up and down as if he was staring through my clothes. My stomach sank. I felt violated for the first time (and not the last). I slipped away and made some excuse to try to diffuse the situation.
I don’t remember what happened after that. I probably told my family friend that worked with me and went into the break room to breathe and have some water. I avoided the couple until they left. That’s how these customer interactions usually went, anyway. My boss would’ve kicked him out or took over the situation if I had told her, and sometimes I did. But if I ran to her every time something like this happened to me, it would’ve been endless. At some point you just become numb, walk away, and keep going.
Things got a lot worse when our store started receiving strange, constant phone calls. An unknown man would call the store and immediately tell us all the repulsive, violent things he wanted to do to all of us on the team. We would block the number, and he would call from another, over and over. For months I couldn’t walk to my car alone at night, and if it was still light out when I left, my boss would stand by the door and watch until I got into my car. I stopped answering the phone all together. I almost had to quit my job. I’m thankful that the police eventually caught the caller, and he pleaded guilty to 32 of the 70 charges against him. But I will never forget how all of this made me feel.
How it changed me
I’m lucky that I had amazing bosses and managers that did their best to put the employees first in such a difficult circumstance. I could always go to the back and be off the sales floor to regroup myself, but it never fixed it. I’d go the rest of my shift with this sinking feeling in my stomach.
That’s when I asked myself: “Is this what it means to be a woman?”
Was I simply at the mercy of the men that walked into my place of work? They’re customers, and the customer is always right, right? What rights do I even have?
Then came the self-blame. Maybe if I smiled less, wore different clothes, put on minimal makeup, spoke quieter, or appeared less confident no one would bother me. Let me tell you, I tried all of those things multiple times and nothing worked.
It was the first time in my life that I questioned my deep and steadfast views of womanhood and femininity. Was I the strong, independent woman I was raised to be if I let men say and do these things to me? I knew this happened all the time to women around the world and it broke my heart to know that I was simply another statistic.
This is the same story for hostesses, waitresses, and other public service employees. They often experience the same chipping away at their femininity as I felt during my time at my job. This is all too common for too many women.
I choose to reflect on my time at my first job as a positive experience where I got to help women feel more comfortable in their skin, understand how fashion can change the perception of self, learn about myself, and most importantly lean on the sisterhood that comes with negative situations where objectification and misogyny are evident.
My first job absolutely changed how I perceive what it means to be a woman. I understand what we as women have to overcome simply because of our gender, but more than that, how unfair it is that I was simply doing my job when my femininity and womanhood felt weakend. This happens every day to so many women.
As hard as it is to voice these issues and concerns to others around you, I promise it will make the situation so much better. There are people around you who want to be there for you and support you through these situations. This could be a manager or a co-worker who can help you in the workspace, or a family member or a friend that can help you emotionally. If you can speak up and say what’s happening around you then somebody will be there to catch you.