By Samra Jones Bufkins
In the wake of the many sexual harassment allegations in a variety of industries, the social media hashtag #MeToo has gone viral. Women who have experienced workplace harassment or sexual assault are telling their stories, most after years, even decades of silence.
I’m one of them.
Some background: The term “sexual harassment” was first used in 1973 in a report to the president of MIT by the university’s ombudsperson, Mary Rowe. Although Dr. Rowe is reluctant to take credit for coining the term, her work on this subject led to MIT developing one of the first anti-harassment policies in the nation.
By the mid-1970s eight activists at Cornell University were using the term, but it didn’t see common usage until Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. In the late ’70s courts were recognizing a woman’s right to sue her employer for unwanted sexual advances, and the Supreme Court upheld these cases in the 1986 decision Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as:
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:
- Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or
condition of an individual’s employment, or
- Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a basis
for employment decisions affecting such individual, or
- Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an
individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or
offensive working environment.
The EEOC recognizes two main types of sexual harassment: Quid pro quo (“Do this if you want to keep your job.”) and ongoing hostile environment (Speech or conduct that is pervasive, offensive, and demeaning and affects the target’s ability to work.) The harassment can be from someone of the opposite sex or the same sex.
Why we waited
When I first experienced sexual harassment, in the 1970’s, it was just becoming an issue, and few talked about it. Women who complained were often labeled “whiners” and “troublemakers.” We believed we won’t be taken seriously. We fear retaliation, and often left a job because we felt nothing would be done. Most women suffer in silence.
It didn’t help that Phyllis Schlafly made statements like “sexual harassment on the job isn’t a problem for virtuous women.” She fed the flames of victim-blaming that still exist today.
Additionally, many of the incidences of harassment we endured weren’t exactly recognized as harassment until Anita Hill brought attention to the problem of offensive comments in the workplace. Many of us thought these guys were just jerks, and if they didn’t specifically ask for sex, or threaten us, we toughed it out.
Remember Lisa Olson? She was a sports reporter for the Boston Herald in 1990 when she was trying to conduct a locker room interview with members of the New England Patriots football team. When her complaint became public, the Patriots team owner called her a “classic bitch.” An investigation by the NFL resulted in three players and the team being fined. Olson was subjected to harassment by Patriots’ fans, death threats, and a home burglary. She was villified in the press and by comedians. Playboy asked her if she’d pose. After settling a lawsuit against the team, she relocated to Australia to continue her journalism career.
It’s because of treatment like Olson received, along with victim-blaming, that many women still don’t talk about their harassment.
What I put up with
Here’s my litany of squirm-worthy incidents, most of which I’ve never told anybody about until now.
University of Kentucky, about 1975: A male professor in my major constantly made comments about my “flat ass.” These comments were made in class and during departmental social activities, within earshot of other faculty and students.
WKYT-TV internship and summer job in 1976:
- The station’s sales manager would constantly come up to me, get way too close, and say “Take me to your ladder, I’ll see your leader later.” (I am six feet tall.) I usually rolled my eyes. What was I supposed to do? Ruin my career before I even graduated from college? That’s what would have happened in 1976.
- Production crew members constantly referred to local female commercial talent by the C-word, and in one case said of a pair of twins known for their ads: “They both go down like a submarine. I want a threesome.” This was all in my presence.
WTVQ-TV, first job after graduation in 1977. Multiple incidents.
- In the film editing room, where I worked, I was subjected to a day of watching pornographic film. My supervisor’s friend from Chicago was visiting, and showing off his work in the field.
- While working a night shift in the control room, one of the guys was making video copies of the film “Deep Throat.” I had no choice but to listen and see this film displayed on multiple monitors. I complained to the night director, who told me to grow up.
- The morning after the Deep Throat episode, I found the August issue of Hustler magazine, the one with the infamous scratch-n-sniff centerfold, open on my desk.
- While visiting two college friends, a brother and sister, and their mother out of town one weekend, we ran into the station’s general manager in a posh local restaurant. He came to our table (really an elegant booth) to chat. I introduced him to my friends and without warning, he said “God you look good” and leaned over the table to kiss and grope me. My male friend planted his hand in Charlie’s chest and pushed him away. All of us were mortified. When I returned to work on Monday I told my supervisor (yes, the guy with the pornographer friend) and he went to the manager’s boss. Soon I was in his office telling him what happened, and he seemed appalled. Later that day Charlie came in, shooed everybody out, and apologized, saying he was drunk. He sent handwritten apology letters to my friends, their mother, and my parents.
- After the incident in the restaurant, I started getting written up for petty infractions–things everybody else in the station got away with, like using the copier late at night (this TV station located the new copier in the women’s restroom), returning from lunch 5 minutes late, and so on. It was clear retaliation for reporting the manager, so what did I do? I found another job.
WTHR-TV: This was a larger station in a larger market, so I didn’t deal with as much of the abuse I did in my previous jobs, But there were some comments and dirty jokes. I also observed incidents with other female employees.
- One colleague was an extremly well-endowed woman. One of the new directors shouted “Bazooms!” the first time he met her in our office. That nickname followed her around the station until she left.
- Sex, male sexual prowess, and the goings-on of a married weather forecaster having an affair with a videographer were constantly discussed in the control room, hallways, and offices.
- The weather forecaster mentioned above was married to a reporter at the station. When word got out about the affair, the assignments editor constantly assigned the videographer to work with his girlfriend’s estranged husband. (Yes, I’d consider that an ongoing hostile environment.)
- When editing video programs in the master control room, union rules required the presence of an engineer to operate the recorder. More than once, while perched on my stool, I was brushed, patted, rubbed and other subtle but inappropriate touches. When I complained, I was told “oh, they’re just doing that because they like you.”
- Male co-workers made constant sexual comments about the women in the programs, female reporters, and female staff of the station, usually within earshot of women so they could enjoy our disgusted reactions.
- One videographer made a practice of asking any woman on camera (employees, public officials, guests being interviewed) to lick her lips as he set up the shot. He did it nicely, and if anybody asked “why?” he explained it away as a way to relax before going on air. Those shots of women licking their lips were edited together into a reel that made the rounds of the station, accompanied by crude comments. I was on that reel. I walked into a room and saw the guys watching it, and after that refused to lick my lips for any cameraman. When I complained I was told that was just harmless fun.
King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 1982-1985.
- Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I’m only listing it here because it is the only place I’ve worked (I was in the engineering office with only 2 other women) where I was treated with respect and dignity by all the men. When people find out I worked in Saudi Arabia, their first reaction is to say “oh, wasn’t that awful?” No, it was not.
Hermann Hospital, 1988–1990.
- My boss was the VP of development, and he had a habit of making sexual innuendos, including this comment about a sighing sound our photocopier made: “That sounds just like (my wife) Paula when we’re making love.
- He constantly said things like “Men make more money than women, get used to it.”
- When he fired his secretary (he wanted somebody better looking) she sent me an interoffice envelope containing the offer letter sent to a young male employee, just out of college, with no experience. It listed his starting salary at nearly $10,000 more than mine. By then I had tendered my resignation and went to the EEOC. That’s where I learned his comments and behaviors (and everything that came before) were sexual harassment. I received the difference between my pay and the new employee’s pay going back to when he was hired, and the VP of development was put on “special assignment” and never set foot in the hospital again.
I was extremely fortunate over the next few years to work in environments where sexual harassment seemed non-existent, at least to me. But then I went to work for Reliant Energy in the fall of 1999.
- One male co-worker had the disconcerting habit of staring at my chest whenever he talked–and he loved to hear himself talk. He did this to all women, and when challenged about it he said “that’s just where I focus, I’m not really looking.”
- One manager in a department we worked closely with made crude sexual remarks, which were dismissed as “oh, but that’s just Dan, he’s harmless.” The day he walked behind me while I was standing in my boss’ doorway and tucked my baggy blouse into the waistband of my shirt, I was speechless. My supervisor immediately got up and took him into our VP’s office. Nothing was done. When he retired, he said “thank you for putting up with all my transgressions.” Everybody laughed.
University of North Texas, Mayborn School of Journalism, 2009–2017.
Again, very fortunate to work in a place where sexual harassment, at least from my experience, was rare and not tolerated. We were required to watch training videos to help us identify and avoid behaviors that could be considered harassment.
- I had one male colleague who was a master at “mansplaining” the obvious.
- He also made sly comments under the guise of “I can’t say things like this anymore because I’m afraid of being accused of sexual harassment.” He would go on and on and on about how sad he was that he could no longer tell a female (colleague or student) that he liked her new haircut or outfit, and belabored the point ad nauseum.
- When a colleague was fighting a terminal illness, we made a get well video to pep him up. This guy began his comments with a joke about sexy nurses.
- I had one female student report to me that her boss at an internship had framed photos of nude women in his office. She overheard him say “I do it because I like to see their reactions.” We reported this firm (the boss in question was the owner) to the university’s career center and asked that they no longer be allowed to recruit on campus. A year later, their internship and job postings were back on all the job boards.
It was hard writing this, but it was also cathartic. I haven’t even told my husband about the stuff I endured before we were married. I also have a feeling I’ve left some incidents out.
To some, (men and women) many of the incidents cited can be considered inconsequential, and women reporting them are labeled as petty. But as Lady Gaga sings in “Till it happens to you,” you don’t know how it feels. Men particularly have no idea, and women who have not experienced it are often the worst of the victim-blamers. But I truly believe if the #MeToo movement gains traction, we might make some headway in erasing this blight from our culture.
Culture change takes time, however, and all you have to do is read comments on news articles and social media posts to know we still have some knuckle-dragging neanderthals everywhere we look. The problem of sexual harassment is much broader and deeper than being whistled at by construction workers or groped in the file room. It’s also not the fault of women, although we are the ones offered anti-rape classes and workshops. Where are the workshops and classes for men? (They exist, and are often treated as a joke.) When are men told to be aware of their surroundings and watch how they’re dressed?
We need more men proactively working to keep their peers from continuing this behavior. We need more women willing to report incidents in a timely manner. We need HR departments to take allegations seriously and not let the reporting process be intimidating.
We won’t end this plague overnight, but we can speak up and demand its cessation. Beginning now. Sexual harassment is everybody’s problem, and it’s high time men stepped up to the plate to call out their male colleagues’ behavior and support women’s right to dignity and respect in the workplace. I’d think they’d want nothing less for their daughters, sisters, mothers and wives.