The thing that you’re never taught is that the galling part isn’t the harassment itself; it’s that when it happens you’re not surprised by it. This, you tell yourself, is the price you have to pay to survive. You tell yourself things like if I had thin skin I wouldn’t be doing this job and the ends will justify the means. The job will be worth it. In public, you try to wear a mask. Try to tell everyone how wonderful life is at the moment. Take the book with your name in it and set it high on your shelf in a place of honor.
If inside you’re crumbling, you tell yourself that it’s your fault, and to grow up and deal with it. You’re a modern American woman; if it stops at just words, you’re lucky. You know enough women to know that it could be worse. Mentally, psychologically, you’re a mess, but physically you’re unharmed, so you should just shut up about it, because after all, who’s going to believe you, anyway?
You remember what your family once told you: you’re from a long line of strong women. They all had to be strong, back in the old country, to survive. You think about what they must have gone through, pogroms and the Tsar, and if you cry it’s only because you think you’re too weak. They had the courage to move half a world away with little more than the clothes on their back. After that, how can you complain?
This is, after all, your dream. This is what you’ve told yourself you wanted to do for the rest of your life, every day since you were 12 years old and told your parents not to worry, that you weren’t going to go as crazy for baseball as you did basketball and hockey (oops). Your parents wanted a doctor or an investment banker, but for you the passion and the glory was in baseball. They’d ask What do you want to be when you grow up? and you’d answer A sportswriter!
Back then, you never thought about being a woman in the industry. It was the 90s after all; feminism was over because women had full legal equality in the US, and if you were campaigning for women’s rights you did so for the likes of women in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. You never thought about women not being allowed in the press box until the 1970s, because you were born in the 1980s and thus the 70s might as well have been the 1400s. You never really thought about what a toxic work environment might feel like because the possibility simply doesn’t occur to a girl who’s taught that equality is good and inequality is bad.
Eventually, though, you grow up. You learn that people will argue about whether or not a referee is acceptable just because she’s female. That according to the Super Bowl ads that football is, well, a man’s game and if you happen to be a woman who likes it, well that just makes you weird. That Michael Vick can serve two years for dogfighting and be considered the scum of humanity, but when Ben Roethlisberger gets accused of sexual assault (something that’s happened more than once), charges never get filed. The abuse of dogs, it seems, is more reprehensible than the abuse of women.
When the harassment first starts you refuse to believe it. So what if he’s made some slightly inappropriate remarks? After all, you’re the one who’s got f— and s— coming out of her mouth every other word. You laugh at the way ballplayers relentlessly adjust themselves, so, you figure, you don’t really have solid ground to stand on here. At the moment you should be running away, fast as you can, you stay perfectly still.
It goes downhill quickly. No matter how hard you try to explain that the advances are unwelcome, that romantic relationships with your boss aren’t really your thing, the demand to say I love you is unceasing. Day after day, night after night it continues, but you’ve already put your notice in at your old job so you can’t turn away. There’s the line of questioning about what gets you off and even though you’re sobbing, there’s the accusation that there’s something wrong with you because you’re not comfortable talking about it. There’s the demand for a date, even though you’re most definitely not interested and he’s most definitely not available.
You put up with this, though. You enable it because it’s your ticket to your dream, because you tell yourself at heart he’s a good guy, he just doesn’t know where to draw the line. Everyone makes sacrifices for their dreams, right? So your sacrifice might be your dignity as opposed to your time or potential salary elsewhere, but everyone makes sacrifices so why should you be any different? You don’t tell anyone about it because, you figure, in the end who’s going to believe you? If it comes down to you or him, you’re not going to win. He’s a respected voice. You are not. Ultimately, that’s all that matters.
The ultimate blow, the one you should have, but didn’t, expect from the outset, is when he tells you he hired you because he wanted to do something nice for you, but not because of your innate abilities. All of your pride, all of your dignity tied up in this job was due to your belief you earned on behalf of your writing abilities—and nothing else. Naïve though you may be, you know that it’s not a job you can survive at if you’re no good at it. Indeed, a week after he leaves, you’re gone, too.
There are so many stories I’ve heard. The women who tell them aren’t crazy. They could be your sister, your daughter, your cousin, your aunt, your mother. Margaret Atwood, whose novel The Handmaid’s Tale might be more applicable now than when it was first published in the 1980s, states it rather succinctly:
A woman’s worst nightmare? That’s pretty easy. Novelist Margaret Atwood writes that when she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women, he answered, “They are afraid women will laugh at them.” When she asked a group of women why they feel threatened by men, they said, “We’re afraid of being killed.”
After all, we live in a society where Sandra Fluke is called a slut for taking a medication that you take because a ruptured ovarian cyst can be a life threatening medical emergency. We live in a society where actual, but unreported, rapes far outnumber false rape allegations, where the fake dead girlfriend of a university football player gets more coverage than what happened to an actual student who dared to report her rape. We live in a society where ‘don’t get raped’ is taught instead of ‘don’t rape’, where if a woman gets assaulted it’s her fault for letting it happen.