Following in the footsteps of #MeToo, I want to recount an incident that happened to me last decade. I haven’t seen a lot of male or nonbinary people writing about these sorts of workplace harassment stories. The overwhelmingly frequent scenario is men harassing women, of course, but it’s not the only one. Mine was a queerer case.
But everything here is sadly unremarkable, aside from the gender and sexuality parameters. Workplace hierarchies and precarious gigs are ripe for abuse. Harassment is largely about enjoying power and transgressing other people’s boundaries. It exploits ambiguity and hides in plain sight.
These usual truths are all I have. I still think they’re worth hearing.
It’s an older story now, and I left out the names and places.
* * *
I had just graduated from college with an anthropology degree. I was bi and genderqueer, but not as out as I would get later. 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.
We flirted a little at work. It was a boring place to work. I felt so very awkward in my totally ill-fitting, unfashionable efforts to dress business casual.
Once as we were leaving work at the end of the day, we kissed on the sidewalk.
M. was a bunch older than me and had a permanent job. He wasn’t my boss, but there was an asymmetry. But let’s be clear, the first time, the kiss was welcome. It was very quick. It had a certain energy, an anxiety. Our coworkers could have seen us. That would have been so weird.
We parted ways at the subway.
Maybe a little later there was another one kiss like that. I think there might have been about two okay kisses. I wasn’t taking notes.
But then after the kiss, or two, the office became a miserable space for me.
* * *
It’s hard to explain how miserable it was. Miserable in this nothing is what it seems way. There was the normal part of office life, and then the other part, the part hidden right in front of everyone.
The succinct version doesn’t do it justice. M. started to hit on me constantly at work. It was only barely clandestine. I really didn’t like it, I didn’t respond positively, and I didn’t know how to make him stop.
He sat right beside me at a long counter, facing the public. Whenever he thought he could get away with it, he would turn towards me and make these come-hither, sit-on-my-lap gestures. I’m sure he found it sexy and fun. I found it mortifying.
The truth is, I suspect he enjoyed my discomfort, or my powerlessness. I frowned back at him sometimes, or wrinkled my brow. These desperate, little gestures.
Two women worked right alongside us — literally three, five feet from us. But they never noticed anything. There are always moments when someone is looking the other way, when they’re down the hall. You would never think anything like this could happen in such a well-lit, sterile office environment.
This went on for a while.
I would go home at night and feel awful, like something was happening to me that I didn’t really understand; I just knew I felt 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.
Sexual violence of this sort is mostly epistemic violence. Somehow your truth has become unhearable; you’re living something that is invisible; your version of the story is beyond subordinate, it might as well be nothing. All of these are pretty classic feelings for workplace harassment situations, I gather.
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 think much about complaining.
Meanwhile, some harassment scenarios might be unambiguous, but mine was awkward because there was a consensual part before it was non-consensual. That also made it harder to explain to anyone.
* * *
One day in the elevator, M. jumped me once the doors were shut. As he came up close and kissed me, I protested more directly than usual. “No, stop, M!” But it all happened quickly and he didn’t listen. The brief collision with an unwanted body. The elevator doors opened again soon.
Did he tell himself I was just being coy?
I don’t think he thought he was doing anything wrong. Not consciously.
But I also think he knew I didn’t like it, and that was part of the draw. They always say harassment is really about power — getting off mostly on power — but it only makes sense when you see it in person.
Meanwhile, I wouldn’t say it was capital t Traumatizing — to get kissed when I really did not want to get kissed — but it left me very rattled. At best, it was a really depressing boundary violation.
* * *
After three weeks on reception duty, I got moved upstairs to a different temp worker task, filing enrollment records.
Though the new work was deathly boring, it was a relief to be away from M.
But somehow, he kept finding excuses to stop by the file room to make sexual overtures. He even showed up and did it once in front of my one friend in the office, a woman.
It was hugely validating to have someone else see how egregious 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.
* * *
Anyway, after six weeks there, I quit. I had a new job lined up first.
In the exit interview, I told the temp agency I’d been sexually harassed.
I remember how hard it was to say anything, even then, when nothing professional was at stake. I remember having to get up my nerve. This little moment of hesitation.
The manager was superficially sympathetic. Should we only send women temps to that site, to keep them away from M? he wanted to know. (Which is a heinous cop-out.) Could we contact the employer?
I did let them contact the employer. The university HR person invited me to come describe my experience — to meet her, I had to sneak past M. at the front door of the building. But when I said that the first kiss had been consensual, she seemed really skeptical. I left her office feeling shaken. Frankly, the complaint process made me doubt myself even more.
* * *
My friend told me that M. did get reprimanded after I complained, and he seemed very chastened. This news didn’t really make me feel a lot better.
A month later, M. reportedly still talked about me, saying I kind of miss him* but he hates me.
[*my accepted pronouns at the time.]
He just never really got it, I guess.
Maybe most harassers just never get it. He just thought it was about “hating him” for some random interpersonal reason.
But I still don’t even hate him. I just hate the situation. And the lingering feelings that go with it. The feelings that maybe I am the bad person in the story, the broken one, the unreliable one, the queer subject who wanted something and then not what came next, the one who suffered through becoming an object.
It wasn’t a very bad harassment case. I had an exit. I didn’t suffer professionally. To be honest I don’t think about it most of the time. It was just something that happened.
Something that nevertheless should not have happened.
* * *
Why didn’t you protest more directly? someone might ask. But harassment is about constituting you as an object. And this process can be woefully effective.
When you end up spending so much time putting yourself in question, dealing with the confusions in your own psyche, it can feel like there’s no space to put anyone else in question.
And if you don’t know what harassment is, it’s hard to understand at first that it’s happening to you.
I wish I had been taught something about harassment beforehand. I wish everyone was taught that.
But would any amount of training really have prepared me?
I’m still not sure.
I just know how much I admire the courage of those who protest more successfully than I did.
This was written in 2018, but with some edits in 2020 to slightly improve the analysis.