What constitutes sexual harrassment? Confessions of a woman who can finally admit that she experienced it

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I don't ask people to agree with my assessment of what constitutes sexual harassment, only to consider in any situation at work, what is the intention behind their words? Is it to demean or make someone uncomfortable? Is it to put someone in their place? Is it to curry favor, or diminish?

I'm curious to know other forms of harassment, or ways we experience silent hands, pushing us down. We are so familiar with the sadly-stereotypical hand-on-the-thigh-type incidents that we don't recognize some of the more insidious forms of harrassment. I welcome your comments and plan to follow-up with another piece integrating the stories I hear.

Here's my story: I had a colleague several years ago that I liked some of the time. During down times at the office I learned that he was passionate about surfing and extreme sports. He was renovating his house, and he had worked his way up the ladder to a management position by sheer savvy. He had a talent with customers and could craft solutions on the fly. When he liked your idea he bragged about you to everyone in the company. And when he liked your outfit, he said, "you look great!" in a way that was non-sexual. He appreciated style.

For a long time I tried to remember this side of my former colleague, but what really sticks in my mind are the negatives--he often went AWOL on business trips and no one could call or email him--he simply disappeared. When he felt pressure at the office he laid in to you, or "lost it". He often pitted colleagues against each other, sharing with one that someone else was going to get canned, or that someone had fallen on his bad side, and you had an unspoken choice of being on his side or experiencing a similar wrath. Our team was off-balance, torn between confiding in each other or the possibility of losing our jobs.

All of these things in themselves are lousy attributes in a leader, but the incident that cemented my terminal dislike occurred on a business trip, when I was out to dinner with three male colleagues including him. Our group assistant, a woman, had gone over the heads of the two male department heads and asked about getting a promotion. I later spoke to this woman and learned that, while her actions were clumsy, she didn't feel like she had a choice. She had been promised a promotion before the two male heads had been hired to lead the department, and the woman she implored, who was their boss, had been with the company long enough to know about this promise.

Instead of supporting our assistant, the female executive told the two male heads, in effect, her henchmen, about the conversation. Both of them were livid and full of piss and vinegar during our dinner.

I felt torn: I believed that our assistant deserved a promotion and was bravely trying to salvage what was promised her. I didn't agree with my male colleagues but couldn't quite defend her, either.

"What she did was stupid, but don't fire her for it." I said.

Almost immediately the maelstrom of anger was turned on me. Looking back, I think it was a combination of my colleague's hurt pride and the glasses of expensive wine we were all drinking. But suddenly I was asked if I wanted my job. I realized things were coming to a point of potentially permanent damage, but I felt strongly about how poorly this woman was being treated.

I don't remember exactly how I responded, but I said something to the effect of "If you're about to fire me, then so be it." At this comment my colleague was really enraged. He then said something so completely out of the blue that it brought tears to my eyes. I can't even remember the exact wording because of how sexually violent and humiliating it was. Something about how he could be asking me to perform fellacio on my male colleague (the poor, uncomfortable peer of mine sitting to my left) if he wanted to, but, bless his soul, he didn't ask those things of me, and, yet, I had the nerve to question him? Of course it didn't quite come out this clinically.

The poor guy who's anatomy was unceremoniously brought into the conversation walked me back to my hotel, embarrassed that he had even witnessed this humiliation--his and mine. He had kept his mouth shut the whole time, and I don't blame him for this. We both had felt sideswiped and confused.

All of the dramatics from that night were supposedly forgotten. I kept my job, which was a smart move by these folks. But I pondered whether I was selling myself out by keeping it. I was still trying to define what had happened.

"You were sexually harrassed," a female co-worker I'd confided in said to me. Hearing her say this I wanted to shut her up. "Sexual harassment" is a term I'd applied to women who received advances from colleages, not screamed insults using the male C-word. Just adding the word "sexual" to the abuse made me feel like a Cassandra, a whistle-blower, even though I hadn't reported the incident. I was more afraid of what that term, if the incident were made public, would invoke in the minds of colleagues: that I'd asked for this treatment? That I couldn't handle a few remarks? That I couldn't be treated like one of the guys?

In the past, I'd heard of these more nebulous forms of sexual harassment--fawning from a male peer, a dirty joke told in the presence of female colleagues, the mention of a pubic hair on a Coke can--and thought, it's nice to know that women in the workplace have rights, but c'mon! Get over it! We can't make men feel like prisoners in a PC cage. But after the dinner incident I saw a flipside to the debate: Sure some of these incidents are harmless, but my colleague had used this language as a substitute for violence. He used such a crass image to verbally smack me in the mouth. To shut me up. I suppose he referred to my other colleague's private parts to prevent any possible accusation that he'd suggested sexual acts done on him. He changed the rules of engagement to a place where I couldn't go, so that he could ultimately win the argument. Granted, it was a cheap win, but it was a win in that he stopped me cold.

Now that I manage mostly women in an organization for women, the thought of what transpired, and what I put up with, makes me physically ill. The thought of this former colleague possibly calling me, while maybe a friendly act, made me ill. I think of the language I use in the office, with male and female colleagues, and edit myself not for political correctness but for intention.

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