The first (but not the last) time I experienced serious sexual harassment was in the early 1990’s. I graduated from university with a First Class Honours Degree in History in 1991. Australia was in the middle of the “recession we had to have” and the unemployment rate topped 15% in Western Australia. I remember feeling overwhelmed with hopelessness and despair when I read that headline in the West Australian newspaper.
I was living with my then fiancé in a small unit in a nice enough area of Perth. After graduating I worked researching a history of Fremantle but the project finished and subsequent research jobs disappeared through lack of funding. My fiancé was a mature age student studying at a technical college and received a small government stipend. I was working for a nursing agency and cleaning houses.
After a bad week in which I bounced a rent cheque (“all over the city” according to our leasing agent) I decided to do a Graduate Diploma in Education. This depressed me because I had zero desire to be a high school teacher and no way to fund a year of studying. A teacher friend suggested I obtain work from a tutoring agency to fund my studies the following year.
I sent copies of my resume to every tutoring agency in Perth-I can’t remember how many copies this would have been but it was at least 50. In 1992 I owned an Amstrad computer and daisy wheel printer. The Internet and the manner in which it can connect potential entrepreneurs to their customers was a distant dream. I found the agencies in the Yellow Pages. A few weeks later I had received 2 replies. One was from a Christian agency that wanted to send me all the way to Kwinana- an industrial suburb on the outskirts of Perth every Saturday morning. The job would have cost me more in petrol than I would earn.
The second reply was more promising. This potential employer (let’s call him Bob) offered me a position working in his office and a bit of tutoring. He seemed surprised someone with my academic record was interested in tutoring work and agreed I could change to part time if I did a Graduate Diploma. I can see now he was a little too accommodating. The job interview was scheduled to be held at his business premises on the other side of Perth. I was unfamiliar with the area so found myself horribly lost. I was an hour late to the interview and in the days before mobile phones, had no way of letting Bob know. I expected to be castigated for my unreliability but he seemed delighted to meet me. Maybe a little too delighted. After the interview, at which I accepted the position, I happened to turn around before leaving and glanced back into the building. He was sitting on the top of the staircase, his head in his hands, staring after me dreamily. It was weird.
I was due to start the following Monday. My fiancé and I were so delighted with my new job at a decent salary we spent the entire weekend making plans to move out of our awful apartment into a lovely, older house where the owner was willing to let us have our dog in return for some gardening. My new job would pay the higher rent. How young and naive we were!
When I arrived the following Monday the atmosphere in the office was oddly tense. I was working with a lot of young people who had just finished doing their university entrance exams and had been hired (no doubt cheaply) to work in the office with me and do some Maths tutoring. I would do the Humanities subjects. I can’t remember what prompted me to ask one of my young colleagues why everyone was behaving strangely towards me but I did eventually. He responded that my status as “Bob’s new girlfriend” had upset the staff as they liked his old girlfriend and did not know “Bob” had broken up with her until I arrived at work that morning.
Well! This was a surprise. With a bit more questioning I learned Bob had announced to everyone he employed I was his new girlfriend in the hour before I arrived. He had even called his actual girlfriend and broken things off with her, mentioning my name in the process. I was dumbfounded. The previous week I had been out with my mother and sister to buy my wedding dress, a task that did not seem so ludicrous now I had a full time job. I should have walked straight out the door but was reluctant to do so. I needed the job and was sick of scraping by. I was getting married for God’s sake! Bob waited until half way through the morning to ask me if he could “Woo me away” from my fiance and “win” me for himself. I responded I simply wanted a job on the terms we agreed to and threatened to take legal action if he did not tell the rest of the staff I was not his girlfriend and continued to harass me.
He promised to respect my wishes and leave me alone but he broke this promise within a few days. He harassed me constantly- caressing the back of my neck when I was calling clients, asking me out, sending me flowers, poems and making excuses for me to work late. This was all done in front of the young male employees who by now knew the truth of the situation and were angry on my behalf. One afternoon he asked me to fetch something from his car, which he then forced me into after creeping up behind me. He drove at high speed through the streets to frighten me and then locked me in a warehouse with him until 1am the next morning. I managed to talk my way out of the situation by promising to marry him and managed to get home. My fiancé was frantic.
The next day I called a friend who worked for a government agency to make a complaint. She didn’t care. In fact, she was quite rude. She said it was my word against his and the fact he had prepared the ground by telling his employees we were in a relationship muddied the waters. Furthermore, if I went back to work for him and he stopped harassing me, they would consider the situation resolved and no action would be taken. I called the police and received a similar but more sympathetic response. I was devastated by the lack of support from the authorities and could not accept being told to “go back to work” and “forget about it.”
Obviously this story could continue, because a lot more happened, but I have made my point. For the most part, sexual harassment is not, as some Internet pundits state, “nuanced”, “subtle” or a “question of interpretation.” People are not stupid. Mature adults are capable of dealing with colleagues who respectfully show a romantic interest. Many relationships start in the workplace. Nor is the workplace full of nubile seducers with nothing better to do than trap an unsuspecting man or woman solely for the “fun” of claiming sexual harassment and receiving “compensation”. Over the years I have encountered many people who were sexually harassed and discriminated against in the workplace. All were blameless, powerless and mortified by their experience. They received little or no support from their workplaces or relevant agencies.
Sexual harassers are predators, skilled at what they do and good at covering their tracks. They choose victims carefully- individuals who cannot afford to leave their employment or have few allies in the organisation. Witnesses to harassment are often in the same situation as the victim and unwilling to get involved for fear of repercussions. Harassers may take measures to ensure their behaviour is not witnessed or involve others in the victimisation- setting up colleagues to take some of the blame if a complaint is made. Reporting sexual harassment is often pointless and traumatic for the victim. The perpetrator is protected and the victim is blamed, their reputation trashed and their professional competence questioned. This needs to change.