Harassment

Because I live in a city- no, scratch that: Because I’m a woman, sexual harassment is part of my everyday life. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

The first time I was ever sexually harassed (that I can recall), it was when I was doing my summer job during my college years, working as a tour guide. A group of teenage boys, led by their rabbi, came to the tourist attraction and at the end of the tour, used the public guest book to express that their favorite part of the tour was my chest (though they used decidedly cruder words than that.) I was humiliated, tore the page out of the book, destroyed it further, and threw it away. I didn’t say a word about it until a year later, when the boys came back and I begged to be taken off their tour (I was, by my horrified manager.)

When I was hired as a server at a restaurant with a bar, I absolutely expected to be sexually harassed. To my surprise, though my personal bubble was invaded once or twice, that didn’t happen. But when I was a hostess at a different restaurant (the one that fired me), I witnessed something very disturbing. The owner of the restaurant is quite famous in Philadelphia and New York, so when his relatives came to his restaurants, they were of course given the best treatment and service. I was only working at this restaurant for a month, but the owner’s father visited at least four times while I was there. He was given his choice booth, he and his guests were given their meal for free, and they were given the best server in the place… or rather, the best server in the place that was also a pretty young woman. Maybe the second time he came to visit, one of the managers actually said to my fellow hostess and me, “[Owner]’s father will sexually harass you. Just let it happen.” And while he didn’t really bother with us, I watched from across the restaurant as he flirted with and touched his waitress however and whenever he pleased, sometimes even following her over to the computer stand and putting his hand on the small of her back as she punched in his order. I never said anything, and I often wondered whether, if I had, I would have been fired.

The reason I was spurred to write this post is because this week has been fraught with harassment. After my first psychiatry appointment, it was nice out, so I decided to walk to work instead of take the subway. Within thirty seconds of leaving my doctor’s building, I had two guys catcall me, Two days later, I led a tour as usual. My group of eight happened to be comprised of very pretty girls, probably college age. As I was leading them around the city, we were shouted at at least four times, and I can honestly say this has never happened before, because I have never led a group of all young women.  It made me extremely uncomfortable, though my group didn’t seem fazed, which is good, I guess.

I like to think of myself as a strong woman and a feminist, and when I experience stuff like the above, or read about it on sites like Everyday Sexism, or see it happen on the streets. But am I really that strong or really a feminist if I can’t speak up when it happens? I know that part of the reason people harass others is to make themselves feel powerful and to bring humiliation upon their victim, but I wish I could rise above that humiliation and speak up. I’m not at that point yet, though, as evidenced by an incident a few weeks ago. I was sitting at the ticket table outside of the cafe with my female coworker. We’d already had an incident that day of non-sexual harassment, which was bad enough that one of the cafe employees came out to make sure we were okay, so we were already on edge. Then this homeless man came up to us and asked my coworker if she had a light. She said no. He was standing behind my chair and decided to ask me if I had one… very far into my personal bubble. I shook my head and pulled my book closer to my face. “You don’t got one?” he asked, leaning in closer. His hands weren’t on me, but they might as well have been. “No,” my coworker said sharply. “She doesn’t.” He got even closer, mumbling about how he wanted “a piece of that.” “Thank you,” my coworker snapped. “Move along.” In true harasser style, the man started reaming out my coworker for being strong and standing up, and I felt terrible; she was taking the flak for me because I couldn’t do it myself. I just felt terrible about every aspect of the experience, and I hope I’ll act differently next time.

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