Tuesday, November 1, 2016

It was more than just "being creepy"



As I was reading stories last week to add to my Friday links, I read this piece on Amber Tamblyn with heartache that she ever had to experience the kind of assault she did.  Then when I was reading part of her essay, this Mad Libs style paragraph smacked me upside the head...

I was at a ________, and a guy _________. I was _______ years old and the father of one of my friends __________. I was at work and my boss ___________. I was walking down the street and __________. I exist, therefore ___________ is bound to happen.
The line "I was at work and my boss ___________." made my heart skip a beat.  It brought back a situation I was in that I don't think about much but through her essay made me realize just how much I'd chalked up a situation that was clearly sexual abuse to a guy just being creepy.  Trust me when I tell you, there is a difference.

I worked for a large retail company back in the day, it's where the Mr and I met.  It was certainly not uncommon to have girls my age to mid-20's working their way through high school and college.  Our chain of command was a supervisor, above that were about 4 managers then the manager of the store.  The manager of the store was only brought in for major issues and dealt with behind the scenes stuff so it was the supervisors that we dealt with most and they reported to managers.  Managers varied from those who were people person's to power abusing pariahs that lived to make your life miserable.  When one man was transferred in, he was probably in his late 30's, early 40's.  He was a tall, slender, blonde haired, blue eyed bespectacled Scandinavian.  No, he was not hot despite the description.  My first impression was he was a tall, dorky dude that oozed confidence with nothing to back it up.

The first few months, he was quite endearing.  He was self deprecating, loose on the rules and encouraged us to take longer breaks if he was in the break room.  When we said it was time to go, he'd say "eh, they can do 5 more minutes without you.  If you get in trouble, send the supervisor to me."   I remember a few times hearing my employee id# being called over the loud speaker and sometimes he'd walk me over and say "sorry, it was my fault, she was helping me with something."  It wasn't long before he came to be known as one of the good managers because we'd worked with people who were utter asses in the past so we knew how it could be to have a manager have it out for you.  He was sweet and complimentary so it made you want to make him proud or go out of your way to prove yourself that his treating you like an adult and not a stupid kid was warranted.  I realize now that is what they call "grooming the victim."  They gain your trust in attempts to move in on that trust at a later date.

I worked in a department that was in the back of the store and got low to moderate traffic.  I was often out of eye shot of customers and employees especially if I was working on signs for the upcoming ads.  There were about 6 of us girls that were in rotation in this department that were in that 17-22 age range.  Two or three months after the manager started, I was working on ad signs when he strolled back.  He looked at the room I was in alone and stuck his hands in his pockets and just kind of was surveying everything.  I asked if he needed something and he said no that he had never really been back there and was just checking things out.  I joked about nothing to really see unless making signs is fun.  He moved close to me and put his hand on the back of the chair I was sitting in and looked at the ad and the sign I was working on and I didn't think anything of it.  Then he started asking questions about the numbers, which were above my head on a shelf on long sticker backing that we could pull down and peel off.  As he did so, the front of his body was against my back.  He said "oh excuse me!  Didn't mean to get so close."  I laughed and said it was fine because I thought it was an accident.

When this happened two or three times more, my immediate reaction was when I heard the half door open, I would pop up out of my seat so that I would not be in that situation.  It wasn't even at that time like I felt threatened by him but more that I didn't like that position of being trapped in a sitting position with him towering over me.  But the more times he just plain visited, the more uncomfortable I would get because you have to understand, managers at his level mingling with us peons was not normal.  He had duties he was supposed to be tending to but he seemed more interested in being a "dude" to the guys and flirting with the girls.

One time I was working with a girl whom I had a total girl crush on.  She was just gorgeous, funny and stood up for herself and was a few years older than me.  She was the kind of girl I wanted to be when I got a little older.  When I heard the half door open and no bell rang which told me it was an employee coming back, I didn't think anything of it because she was with me.  It was him.  He came back and asked what we were up to.  We said we were just making signs and she stood up as he started to approach and kind of looked at him like "what do you want?"  He came over and leaned over me slightly looking at the numbers again and pretended to look at stuff on the desk and then said "keep up the good work girls!" and left.  We smiled, bid him goodbye and I kind of finally exhaled and she said "I hate when he comes back here."  My eyes widened and I said "me too!!"  She said "does he lean over you and like practically dry hump your back?" and then demonstrated it.  I said "he's always leaning over me and a few times he has brushed against me but I thought it was an accident at first but I try not to let him catch me sitting."  "He leans over me at the register and he does it to Alicia too.  I wonder how many other girls he's doing it to??"  We talked for a good 30 minutes convinced that this "friend of the common folk" was no friend at all.

From that point on, I did everything I could to avoid him at all costs.  If I saw him walking down an aisle I was walking down, I rerouted my path to not run into him.  If he was in the break room, I would go into the bathroom where I knew he couldn't follow me and then immediately leave and take my break elsewhere.  If he came back to my area, I always made an excuse that I was doing something that needed me to be elsewhere.  One time, I was coming into work and he was waiting at the service desk talking to someone so I thought I was safe.  As I tried to dart past him, he stopped mid conversation and started walking with me and asked if I was avoiding him.  I laughed and said "no, I've just been crazy busy."  What was I going to say, yes?  I went back to relieve Alicia and she pulled me aside and said "Donna told me that the manager has been doing the same thing to you that he's been doing to us.  I talked to the other girls and he's doing it to them too.  I told him last week that I wanted him to stop leaning over me because it made me uncomfortable and this week my hours were cut."  (She only worked one or two days per week as it was)  She said they were thinking of saying something to upper management and would I go with them.  I said I supported them but I couldn't afford to have my hours cut and the last thing I wanted was some dude to have it in for me.  She told me to think about it and if I wanted to then we would all arrange to speak to HR the same day.

I managed to dodge him for a week and the following Saturday, I was pulled to work up front at the registers.  My shift ended mid-day and I hadn't seen him all day so I assumed he wasn't working.  When I went to do something at the end of my shift at the service desk, I leaned up against the counter in that kind of lazy way you do where your butt sticks out while I waited for the lady to help a customer.  All of a sudden, two arms are on either side of my arms on the counter and he is pressed up against my rear end.  And when I say he is pressed up against me, I mean his schlong is practically ground into my ass.  You could not have slipped a piece of paper between us.  I gasped and he said something like now I couldn't avoid him and there was nowhere to go and laughed.  He did this in plain sight of not only employees but customers and it was Saturday so it was busy.  The look of shock and terror on my face was apparent to the woman I was waiting on when she turned around to see what I gasped at.  She shot me a pitying look...and then turned back around.  Yep.  She turned her back when she saw him basically straddling me because she was one of the older workers and they were not known for sassing the boss.  I shot up straight and said "I told you I wasn't avoiding you.  I have somewhere to be" and practically ran back to my department where Donna was working and dealing with a long line of people.  I asked her if she needed me to hop on register with her and she said I could bag if I wanted, so I did.  "Alicia talked to me...something just happened up front.  I'm in.  You tell me when you're all able to talk to management and I'll be there."  She smiled and thanked me.

A week later, five girls stood in HR's office and all gave our sordid tales of being ground up on, leaned over, brushed up against with his chest, genitals and one girl even his butt.  He liked to bend over to check things low so his butt would rub her leg.  The woman in HR (in her late 50's) was giving us a look like this was no big deal.  Look...we're all school aged kids wearing smocks and pants and not interested in some middle age perv with a mission to grind every girl on staff.  We were told the matter would be addressed and they would talk to him.

Okay fine.

They talked to him and he, of course, was shocked that we all felt uncomfortable, he thought we were friends and would've felt comfortable saying something to him.  I think he may have even feigned social inadequacy due to his being foreign and she naively bought it.  Nothing was done initially.  What did happen is every guy on staff started giving all five of us girls stink eye.  Suddenly Mr Manager was taking solace in his "boys" and turned them all against us.  Some of them even said something to a few of us asking if he really did what people were talking about and "that's just him" or "he probably didn't mean anything by it and you're overreacting."  Um, pardon?  So yeah, that was fun to put up with and it all flowed like a script he'd likely gone through.  You do remember me saying he'd been transferred from another store?

Every time he saw me, he would give me these puppy dog eyes and kind of pout his lip and like an ass, I started to actually feel like maybe I'd made a mistake.  Maybe what he did wasn't so bad.  Then I talked to Alicia and said I kind of felt bad and she got angry at me and said "that's what he WANTS! He wants you to doubt yourself and to lessen what he did to you.  Another girl said he's doing the same things to her with the pouty attitude.  Don't you DARE start to back track!"  I left for the day but apparently, after I left, he came back and tried to talk to her and put his hands on her shoulders (not forcefully) and she went ballistic!  She locked the cash drawer, turned off the lights in the hallway, put a closed sign up and marched straight back to the store manager.  She told him that she'd just been cornered and he's turned the men against the girls who complained and threatened something.  I don't know if she said she was going to the police or call home office or what but she said she didn't feel safe at work.  (This was at a time when sexual harassment was just coming into our vocabulary but behavior like that was mostly dismissed as "boys will be boys.")

Before I knew it, it was announced he'd be gone...like within days.  On his last day, he was smiling like the cat that ate the canary.  He was not fired.  He was transferred and not only was he transferred but to a place he'd been talking about wanting to move.  So that bastard basically got rewarded for what he did and was bragging about what a turn of fortune he had!  Obviously this likely wouldn't fly these days from a company standpoint because having a serial creeper on your staff in the age of social media would get outed pretty quickly.

But I have no doubt that behavior like that is still going on.  Men thinking it's okay to grind their junk into a girl from behind when no such behavior was ever hinted at being anticipated much less welcomed.  It doesn't have to be a man in a position of power at work either.  How many times have you seen a dude just do that on a dance floor like it's normal or if you're on the dance floor, you should expect that's going to happen.  Um, why should we expect that??  Now yes, there are times where you're dancing with someone and you do that but there is a consent with that.   But men in general are not ever really taught that it's not okay to just act on their impulses.  It's excused and when someone relays the story, it's "oh he just copped a feel" or "he smacked her ass when he walked by" or some other thing that makes it sound like a woman is just there for a guy to get his jollies no matter how small they are.  I'm not saying guys who do that end up escalating into something worse but you don't really want to stick around to find out.  He doesn't respect women and you got no time for that.

If a man is doing something to make you uncomfortable or is doing something that if the clothes were removed would look pretty darn close to sex, then you need to say something.  Tell him no and if he thinks you're joking, make it very clear you're not.  If a man is using his position of power over you to keep you quiet or cutting your hours as a penalty for speaking up, that is illegal.  When it comes to a man touching your body in a way that you don't quite know if it's a line crosser...ask yourself how you would feel if they touched your grandmother or your youngest granchild/niece, etc that way.  If that makes you angry or uncomfortable...it's wrong.

Back then, there was not as much awareness as there is now on the lines between sexual harassment, abuse and assault.  It doesn't mean it necessarily is much better because women are still in a position of being shamed if they keep quiet or shamed if they say something.  I went through it.  It makes you doubt yourself but you can't.  I still wonder to this day if he was transferred to our store for doing that to girls elsewhere and how many girls he did it to when he left.  I can only hope he was fired or his wife found out and divorced him or something.  I hope he had some kind of consequence for what he put us through and the self doubt and loathing we went through as a result of our being violated!

Have you ever experienced sexual abuse and dismissed it as "boys being boys?"

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3 comments:

  1. I remember that period of time and I think it was happening after I had just left there to work for the next rung in my career ladder. I was so mad at my former co-workers for taking his side and not protecting the girls in that situation. I was also mad about the way that whole thing was handled. The law firm I was working for actually successfully sued that same retail establishment for allowing an elderly person to fall in an area that had not been properly "cautioned" when an employee had mopped up a spill. THAT got millions. Imagine what would have happened if the girls involved in this had gotten a lawyer. But instead you all tried to do the right thing and that place just swept it under the rug. It's maddening. And it happens all the time to this day I fear.

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  2. I had a horrible experience with a boss whose son I happened to go out with a couple of times. The family ran the business so I was with them all the time and it was just awful. The son kept it hidden about us going out and the father used me as a sounding board to tell me about all his marital problems. Given my background, I was convinced that there was something about *me* that brought this out in men. I never fully recovered from some of the things that happened and how *I* was vilified and nothing happened to him. My issues with the male gender were set in stone at that point and the concept of a healthy relationship without that kind of suspicion went out the window. Still creeps me out when it comes to my mind.

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  3. What's scary is how early we are trained to brush such things off. The comments start as soon as training bras come out. Sooner even. You're a prude if you complain and a slut if you participate. In middles school I'd avoid putting my instrument away with certain boys because I didn't want to be asked the status of my virginity or what sex acts I might be familiar with. It didn't have to happen every day. 2-3 times a year is enough to get the message. A boy hits you? He's not a violent prick. He probably just likes you. A teacher makes full body contact while looking at your microscope slide? He's not a perv taking advantage of his position. He just didn't realize he's that close. And my life has been relatively protected, given that I'm a quasi-hermit. The stories I've heard from other women over the years are appalling. The good thing about social media is we don't have to feel alone any more and the guys that would otherwise be willing to stand against the bad behavior can be armed and prepared to help stop it.

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