A sexual harassment story
We are experiencing an interesting and refreshing cultural moment, in which sexual harassment has become a thing that we are talking about publicly. It’s remarkable; not only are we talking about it, but powerful men are being brought low by revelations that they’ve treated people (mostly women, but sometimes men) poorly. We’re finding out that powerful men from all walks of life — luminaries of the art world, successful businessmen, beloved politicians — have done awful, disgusting things with zero consequences. They’ve made degrading comments, they’ve touched and groped, they’ve exposed themselves, they’ve raped. They’ve wielded power to satisfy themselves and to make others feel small. They’ve been doing it for years, decades, centuries, but only now are we talking about it, or perhaps only now are we listening.
If you poke around the internet for even a few minutes, it becomes apparent that a lot of regular, non-famous, non-powerful men are surprised, even shocked, by these emerging stories of sexual harassment and abuse. I’m willing to bet, though, that not a single woman who has ever stepped foot outside her home is surprised or shocked by these stories. I am willing to bet that every woman has her own story (or, more likely, stories) of sexual harassment and/or abuse. These are stories that we don’t like to tell. They’re not fun. They’re embarrassing, even shameful. They make us feel stupid and small, looking back at how we were treated, how we let ourselves be talked to or touched. But now that people have started to bring these festering stories into the light, I think continuing to tell them is important. Exposure and momentum are important. And it can be cathartic to unburden yourself of some of the weight you’ve been lugging around by yourself.
But it’s also scary. I don’t want to be attacked for reporting what someone else did to me. And this is what happens, when people (especially women) speak up about being harassed. People who don’t want to believe them look for reasons to dismiss them, or silence them. Women who tell their stories are labeled as crazy, slutty, stupid, venal, asking for it. I don’t want to be accused of lying or profit-seeking, so when I tell my little sexual harassment story here, I won’t be identifying the man I’m talking about by name. It’s not worth it to me. But it is worth it to put the story itself out into the universe, even without the guy’s name. It’ll make me feel better, if nothing else. (Also, it would probably be REALLY easy to figure out who he is with basic internet research, but I’ll leave that to you, intrepid reader).
I’m sad to admit that I’ve been sexually harassed in some form in nearly every job I’ve had. Some of these instances were worse than others. Some I’ve probably forgotten. But the ones that really stick with me are the ones that happened to me early on, when I was just starting out in the working world.
A few months after I graduated college in 2005, I moved to São Paulo to take a job as a paralegal at an international law firm. I got the job through a Stanford alumnus who had somehow come across my resume. I’d already gotten into Harvard Law School but had decided to defer for a year, and this alum thought I’d be an asset to his firm’s Sao Paulo office. During the recruitment process, my future boss — let’s call him J — promised me a whole host of benefits: an apartment paid for by the firm, free meals, access to a car, fair pay. He set up a video interview for me with his bosses, the managing partners of the office. During the interview, one of the partners kept complaining that he couldn’t see my face clearly and wanted to know what I looked like. It was obvious from his repeated questions about my appearance during the interview that he wanted to make sure I was pretty. It made me squeamish, but I brushed it off, figuring this was the way of the world, especially in a Latin American outpost of a big firm. It wasn’t that bad, just a little uncomfortable.
After the video interview, I was offered the job and I accepted. I was giddy with excitement. I was willing to move to Brazil not knowing a single soul — I had never even met J, the guy who set up the job for me. It would be a grand adventure and a great learning opportunity. A few days before I was to depart for São Paulo, I contacted J, expecting him to let me know where my apartment would be and how I could access the car he’d promised me once I arrived. He informed me that I would be living with him until an apartment could be arranged. You might be thinking that this sounds highly inappropriate and unprofessional. It was. And it made me uncomfortable, just as the video interview had. But I felt there wasn’t much I could do. I was dependent on J to arrange everything for me. At that point, my Portuguese was rudimentary, I had never been to the city, I knew no one, and so felt I had no choice but to move in with J until he could sort out my living situation. I flew to São Paulo and took a taxi to J’s address. His cleaning lady let me in and showed me to the guest room. I was expecting I’d stay at J’s apartment for a couple of days, max. It turned out to be weeks. I felt so uncomfortable living there that I’d stay locked in my room, dreading coming out lest I run into my boss in his pajamas or worse.
I was miserable and asked about my apartment every day until finally, one was procured for me. However, J informed me, quite nonchalantly, that the firm would not be paying for my apartment after all. And the car? That wasn’t happening either. The meal vouchers he’d promised me? No, they couldn’t make that happen; sorry. And the fair pay? Also not going to happen. I was not paid enough to live on. My monthly rent consumed almost my entire paycheck, so I ended up with about $250 per month to live on in a very expensive city.
Here’s part of an email I wrote to my parents a few weeks after starting my job and moved into my own place:
The apartment is still more expensive than I had bargained for. Now I have to pay for my utilities, which J assures me is cheap (under 100 R a month) but STILL. I almost started crying when [the office manager] told me that — I didn’t though, don’t worry Dad — because honestly. One thing after another. PLUS they require a 1000 R deposit, which of course the office is deducting from my pay, so in August I will only get paid 600 R. Ummm yes. And I haven’t even gone grocery shopping yet or bought myself a towel for the gym, although the flat has some old ratty ones in the closet. I know we will be able to cover all this and I shouldn’t get so worked up about stuff but it really drives me nuts that [the firm] thinks it’s ok to not adjust my pay when they know I don’t have enough to live on. J said in the elevator just now that he would see what he could do, and he thought maybe [managing partner] might give me a raise later on if I proved myself to be a good worker. I guess we’ll see.
After being at the office for three months, I found out that my bosses were paying a male trainee (a similar position to mine) significantly more than me. I wrote my mom and told her about a conversation I’d had with the male trainee (let’s call him P):
P asked how much they were paying me, and I told him, and he was like, Wow, and I thought they paid ME nothing. So it turns out they paid him significantly more than me (I think like $2500 reais a month), for the same position. Should I bring this up assuming they decide to extend my contract? Because it seems entirely unfair that they should pay me so much less than they paid him for doing the same job… I am presuming it is because he is male. There is a very Boys Club attitude in the office, despite the fact that all the Brazilian lawyers here are female. There is no question that [managing partners] run the place, and they are very Old School with regards to gender, esp. [main managing partner]. Like remember when he interviewed me and was all put out that he couldn’t see me in the videoconference? Because it mattered to him what I looked like in his decision about whether or not to hire me! Anyway what do you think about the salary issue? It kinda pisses me off, esp. since I had a meeting with [office manager] the other day in which she informed me that I still “owe” the office and they won’t be paying me full salary till next month. Long story… oh and she tried to totally f*ck me over by saying that they were going to subtract my meal tickets from my salary, as if we hadn’t been over that before. I put my foot down with her and said that that was NOT the understanding, and she backed off and said, ok, ok, we’ll give you the meal vouchers. I mean, for Pete’s sake. I am trying not to obsess about money but I just feel like I am getting jerked around here. It’s a matter of principal more than of money at this point, because I understand that I am essentially paying for the experience of being here, but they shouldn’t be able to keep me as an indentured servant, you know?
My work life was miserable. I was constantly worried about money and my job performance. To try to save money, I would walk to and from work, over a mile along busy, sidewalk-less São Paulo streets. When a receptionist in the office found out I was doing this, she scolded me, saying that I could get robbed or even murdered and that I had to pay for a taxi instead, fim. I grudgingly agreed. Taxis were expensive and took forever in the brutal São Paulo traffic. I would watch the meter tick up and up and feel like I was watching my money trickle away.
I knew I was being treated unfairly but I was afraid to advocate for myself too strongly lest I be shipped back home, jobless. This was the headspace I was in when J started making inappropriate comments to me. One time, he asked me when I usually went to the gym. I told him I went in the morning. He said he would have to start going in the morning, too, so he could see me in workout clothes. “I bet you look really good in shorts,” he said. Gross. Another time, he said he was going to have a barbecue at his house and I could come, if I promised to wear my bikini.
Things got worse when one of my best friends came to visit me in Brazil. I was allowed to bring her as my guest to a fancy firm dinner, and we were excited to drink wine and eat steak with important lawyers from all over the firm. J made sure he sat next to my friend and hit on her mercilessly throughout the dinner. At one point, he told her, loudly enough for me to hear, “If you were my girlfriend, you’d eat steak every day.” She was 23; he was in his mid-thirties and divorced. Also, as a reminder: HE WAS MY BOSS. Later that night, J and another attorney invited themselves back to my apartment. The other attorney was married, and I saw him slip off his ring as he sat on my couch. They tried to make my friend and I dance with them. We were embarrassed and wanted them to leave. We finally got rid of them but not before the married guy tried to kiss my friend.
Then, my cousin came to visit. J invited us over to his apartment for a cocktail, and we went. While I stepped out of the room to go to the bathroom, my boss grabbed my cousin’s rear. When I came back into the room, she told me we needed to leave, right then, so we did. When she told me what he had done to her, I was livid. But I felt like I couldn’t say anything to him without risking my job, so I didn’t. Instead, I apologized to my cousin for putting her in that situation, and fumed privately, resenting him for being such a dickhead in every possible way while having so much power over my circumstances.
I worked in that office for nine months before I quit. I haven’t spoken to J in years. He is now pretty high up in the Virginia state government. Very accomplished. Very lauded. He ran for Virginia State Senate a few years back and lost (ha). I’m sure he’ll try again. I wonder how many of his female employees and volunteers and supporters he’s mistreated over the years. Probably a lot. And you know what? He’s just one small-fry example of this type of bullshit. He might not have the power of a Harvey Weinstein or a Roy Moore, but he certainly had a lot of sway over my life for the nine months that I was his (underpaid, harassed, fraudulently contracted) employee. The truth is, he’ll probably never face consequences for being a dirtbag. But I sure feel better for having written this.