Speak Softly and Carry a Big StickPosted: August 15, 2013
I’m the kind of person that tries to block out painful, embarrassing memories. Recent media attention on sexual assault and violence against women made me realize that victim blaming runs deep in our societies – and within ourselves. After hearing many women give voice to their awkward, strange, or traumatic experiences, I felt compelled to share my own story of what I call “politeness gone wrong.”
My mother lives by the mantra, speak softly and carry a big stick. She once followed a man and berated him for cutting her off and driving dangerously, ripping into him further when she saw his child with him in the car. Yet, she implored her children to be kind, caring people in our daily lives — but to know when to use that stick.
Despite this grounded upbringing, I found myself confused and upset when a middle-aged cop who frequented my workplace decided that he wanted to date me.
My job as teacher’s assistant mostly entailed making copies and cutting out pictures and alphabets. I spent a lot of time in the copy room, which was generally free of traffic.
It was there where I first met this guy. He jokingly pushed away another teacher who was trying to talk to me. I didn’t interpret it as a warning sign, but I definitely didn’t forget it.
We would engage in friendly, superficial conversation most mornings, but he’d quickly push the topic of my dating life. I nervously evaded his questions. Now, when I think back, I mentally slap myself on the forehead for never saying, “That’s none of your business.” Instead, I decided this was the time and place to be honest and tell him that no, I did not have a boyfriend.
At first, it was nice to have a friendly conversation at a school where most of the staff looked like they would rather jump off a cliff than smile. Still, I began to actively avoid this man after weeks of him hinting that we should go on a date. It didn’t stop there. He constantly asked where I lived and who I went out with.
I started to feel uncomfortable in his presence.
One day, he found me in the staff workroom where I was robotically cutting laminated pictures. He greeted me with a weird side-hug that I didn’t return.
“So when are you going to give me a ride in your car?” he suddenly asked.
I froze, panicking as he specified the model. He had watched me without my knowledge. But then, I rationalized that maybe he had just seen me once and that my car had left an impression on him. He didn’t mean to sound like a stalker did, he? After about thirty seconds, I came up with the following winning response:
“Well, it’s not my car…”
“You drive it, don’t you?” he reasoned. “You can do what you want with it.”
He leaned towards me while I did my best to ignore him. I don’t remember if I even made the effort to move away. He left eventually when the foot traffic in the room increased.
I decided a line had been crossed. I reported his behavior to the teacher I assisted. Her reaction? She shook her head and issued a familiar acknowledgement of his “flirty” habits, which some of the female staff apparently enjoyed. Others did not appreciate his behavior but felt no need to make an official complaint. The teacher was genuinely upset on my behalf and recognized his actions an inappropriate.
She later vaguely informed me that the principal had thoroughly berated the cop, who was now on thin ice with his job
Why didn’t I go to the higher ups instead of the teacher I helped? Part of me felt that maybe it was my fault, maybe I should have been firmer when he asked invasive questions rather than using passive nonverbal reactions like frowning or moving away when things got weird. Secondly, I only had two weeks left in the position, and my supervisors had already done so much to transfer me to a school better suited to the program.
But I also felt that these things didn’t seem to be happening to anyone else, so there must be something wrong with me.
Looking back, I realize that my reaction and internal dialogues pointed to “blaming the victim” — instincts I thought I could never possess. My fear convinced me that I sounded like an annoying complainer; I didn’t want to be someone who couldn’t handle things on my own. It’s jarring to that think that such instincts tainted an educated, self aware image of my feminist self. However, it is important to recognize that many women have stumbled on their own insecurities in similar situations.
I was not the one who should have felt any embarrassment. I should have stood tall the way my mother taught me and remembered that I was not alone. A simple web search reveals that that sexual harassment is prevalent and a significant amount of workplace harassment is unreported. This experienced made me fear for my safety; it wasn’t something I imagined.
Recently, a female co-worker expressed to me her concern about how some men treated her at her job. I didn’t hesitate to give her advice I should have given myself: Keep that big, invisible stick handy. Trust yourself, and speak up, because you never know who else may be suffering and can draw from your strength.
The writer is a nonprofit professional passionate about human rights, writing, and literature.