Almost a year after the national wave of #MeToo stories in the United States, and almost two years after the release of the Donald Trump Access Hollywood tape, I’m still thinking about #MeTooAnthro. I’ve especially been reading and rereading the stories on metooanthro.org, Bianca Williams’ writing about fieldwork experience, the 2016 story Anthropologists Say No to Sexual Harassment, and since yesterday, a new, particularly overwhelming set of reports about sexual assault by male anthropologists at CUNY.
Anyway, here I just want to recount one incident that happened to me last decade. I haven’t seen a lot of nonwomen anthropologists writing about these sorts of workplace harassment stories. (The overwhelmingly predominant scenario is men harassing women, in any case.) I’m not trying to claim that my story is a remarkable one. But it does bring out some issues about power and abuse among precarious and temporary workers. And perhaps naively, I still think I have a right to write about my experience. It’s an older story now, and I changed all the names, since at this point, it’s not about anyone but me.
I had just graduated from college with an anthro BA degree. I was working as a temp receptionist for eleven dollars an hour at a big urban university. Next to me at the front desk sat a charismatic gay man; I found him cute; let’s call him M. (I was a bi, increasingly genderqueer boy.) We flirted a little at work, and one day on the way home from the office, we kissed on the sidewalk. M. was a lot older than me and had a lot more power, not to mention a permanent job, but the first time, the kiss was welcome. It was brief, and charged with a certain energy and anxiety, because our coworkers could have seen us and that would have been weird. We parted ways at the subway steps.
But after the kiss, the office rapidly became a miserable space for me, because M. began to hit on me constantly at work, and I didn’t like it, but didn’t know how to make him stop. He sat just beside me at a long counter, and whenever he thought he could get away with it, he would turn towards me and make these come-hither, sit-on-my-lap gestures. Two women also worked right alongside us, but they never seemed to notice anything whatsoever. I guess M. must have found it sexy and fun. I found it mortifying. I’m not sure if M. slightly enjoyed my discomfort, or my powerlessness. Maybe I frowned back at him sometimes, or wrinkled my brow.
This went on for a while, and I would go home at night and feel awful, like something was happening to me that I didn’t really understand, but that made me feel trapped. I remember that I began to doubt myself a lot — like maybe it was my fault, or I’d asked for it, or I was misunderstanding something. All of which are pretty classic feelings for workplace harassment situations, I gradually learned.
It was extra awkward to complain, because someone in my extended family had originally helped me get the job by putting me in touch with her friend, the HR person for that branch of the university, who in turn sent me to the temp agency. I didn’t seriously think about officially complaining.
One day we were in the elevator, and once the doors were shut, M. came up close and kissed me. “No, stop, M!” I protested out loud for once. It all happened quickly and he didn’t listen, or maybe he told himself I was just being coy. It was gross and jarring to be trapped in a closed space of unwanted sexual contact.
I was at my desk another day when an email came, offering me admission to an anthropology graduate program. Suddenly there was a different future to look forward to, a prospect of a different city.
After three weeks on reception duty, I got moved upstairs to a different temp worker task, filing enrollment records. It was a relief to be away from M. even though the new work was deathly boring, but he would still find excuses to stop by the file room to make sexual overtures. He even showed up and did it one time in front of my one friend in the office, a woman. It was validating to have someone else, for once, see how intense and gross it was. I’d started telling her about it, but I don’t think she really believed me until she saw it herself.
They don’t teach nonwomen about this stuff.
After six weeks, I quit, and in the exit interview, I told the temp agency I’d been sexually harassed. I remember having to get up my nerve to say anything to the manager, even there. This little moment of hesitation. The manager — not that much older than me, I think — was superficially sympathetic, and asked if they could contact the employer. He also proposed not sending any more male temps to that site, to keep them away from M., which struck me as a very sketchy solution. I did let them contact the employer, and the university HR person promptly asked me to come in and describe my experience. But she began to seem really skeptical once I said that the first kiss had been consensual. I left her office feeling shaken.
Temp workers are in an awful position in the workplace.
Later my friend told me that M. did get reprimanded after my complaint, and seemed very chastened.
A month later, M. reportedly still talked about me, saying: “I kind of miss him but he hates me.”
But I can’t bring myself to hate anyone in this story, not even the institution with all its bad responses, not even myself with my own lack of agency. It was an emotionally consuming situation at the time, but the feelings have long since faded.
But I did learn an important lesson about white-collar workplace life. HR exists, fundamentally, to protect the interests of the employer. And in my case, that’s exactly what they did.