ANYWHERE, USA*–Looking back, I realize why I felt so conflicted at the time. I was working for a reputable corporation doing a job I loved and at which I excelled. My work-life balance allowed me the freedom to have an engaging social life and I’d even saved enough to buy my first home. In some ways, I was living the life of my dreams.
But I was also being sexually harassed at my job. I reported it, but management did little to make it stop. Eventually, I realized this wasn’t going to end, so I quit. I also recognized the corporate environment wouldn’t change unless women like me took a stand. That’s when I lawyered up and sued.
What followed was an intense, emotionally-challenging two years of my life. I endured an eight-hour deposition in which the defendant’s lawyers asked me explicit questions about my sexuality and sexual history. I was also asked intentionally provoking questions like, “Do you think you’re pretty?” (Realizing if I fired off a sarcastic retort I’d be playing right into their hands, I took a breath and said, “I think I’m beautiful on the inside and outside.”)
A former male colleague, who had witnessed my harassment and volunteered to testify backed out weeks later claiming, “If your case is solid, you won’t need my testimony.” I dropped a potential female witness after she asked if she would be financially compensated if she testified. Each of these developments felt devastating. I never imagined how draining trial prep could be.
In the end, I decided to settle eight days before the start of my trial. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made, but it was the right choice for my situation. Due to the terms of my settlement, I can’t talk about this experience directly. So, I’m writing this article anonymously in hopes that someone being sexually harassed at work, or someone who knows a friend being harassed, will benefit from what I’ve learned.
Keep a log of the harassment. Write down what was said or done, by whom, on what day and time, and who else was present. Forward relevant emails to your personal email account so they don’t get destroyed if you leave your job. If you live in the United States, research the “one party consent rule” for your state to see if you can record conversations at your workplace. Note that if you’re recording a phone call you’ll need to look up the law for the state where the other person is located.
Take screenshots of any text messages exchanged. Although, if possible, avoid communicating with work colleagues via texts entirely. Because I had texted a few colleagues, the corporation’s law firm threatened to subpoena all my phone records. This meant they would have access to all of my texts with any family, friends, or boyfriends during that period. It’s a great intimidation tactic, as the accuser now feels extremely exposed. Better just to avoid texting coworkers completely.
I did a lot of self-medicating before I sought professional help. Some of it was relatively productive, like traveling and spending time with close friends so that I could keep an even perspective during this trying time. But I also drank heavily to escape the depression of feeling objectified and victimized at my workplace, and later to stop feeling overwhelmed by the intensity of this lawsuit and my fears about its effect on my future life. Unfortunately, drinking led to problems of its own.
After seeking help from a professional counselor, I found out that many survivors of sexual trauma drink to excess – which unfortunately makes us susceptible to even more potentially dangerous situations. Do a google search to find a local women’s support hotline. Get a counselor. You’re a badass, but you don’t have to do this alone. Seek help.
Get legal advice.
Contact a lawyer specializing in sexual harassment right away and explain your situation – before leaving your job. You want to get advice from someone knowledgeable in this specific field. Family and friends are well-intentioned, but when it comes to something like this they’ll most likely be just as clueless as you are. Also, you don’t need to sign on with the lawyer to get relevant advice on what you should be doing. Talk to a lawyer (or better yet, reach out to a couple of different lawyers so you’re not just adhering to one professional’s perspective) and become informed about the circumstances that apply to your specific situation.
Tap into your support network.
Regardless of whether you determine to litigate, sexual harassment is a hurtful experience that has deeply impacted many people. One of the positive results of the #metoo movement is that more and more people are coming forward to acknowledge and raise public awareness about being sexually harassed in the workplace. Consider opening up to trusted family and friends to gain supportive allies during this complicated and trying time. You are much more than the sum of your experiences. Surround yourself by a network of friends to serve as a tangible reminder of this.
I now recognize that while I was enduring this abhorrent behavior at the workplace, I feared the stigma of being perceived as a victim of sexual harassment. As a result, I isolated myself and did not seek the emotional and psychological support I needed.
I’m moving on to the next chapter of my life wiser and in a better position to advocate for myself and others. I’m writing this in the hopes that you may gain from my experience. If this happens to you, or already is happening, I hope these words will help arm you to fight back. Because we’re not victims, we’re survivors.
Due to the sensitive nature of the story, the author wishes to remain anonymous. We respect her right to do so.