When people think of sexual harassment, they think about egregious behavior (I mean it has to be egregious to be valid, right?) exhibited by men at work. Then they often wonder if the woman is lying or exaggerating and nowadays, we hear a lot about the lack of due process for the accused. But what people really aren’t talking about is how sexual harassment in the workplace affects the woman and how much her self-esteem is shattered when something like this happens at work.
I have worked in many high-pressure environments in several big cities and (like many women) have been sexually harassed more than just once at work. Sexual harassment is not just confusing nor frustrating nor sickening (all of which are true), but it is also insidious and cuts right at the heart of a woman’s self-worth. Even though you did nothing, you somehow start to feel responsible.
When this happened to me at work, I not only felt helpless and totally stressed out, but I also started to question everything about myself. I wondered if maybe I was too friendly and maybe not assertive enough. I was always a conscientious student and maybe was just giving too much at work and not setting clear boundaries. And I started to question the way I dressed (too stylish? Too sexy?) and my interactions with others, especially men.
Sexual harassment is also very distracting. Essentially, you just wait for the next incident to happen. It’s normal to start questioning your abilities and every word that is put into an email. There is also the lingering sense of dread of being summoned into the boss’s office.
Struggling with personal relationships is also normal. I didn’t feel like I could talk to many people about this, and the on the rare occasions I did, no one really seemed to understand. It’s kind of like losing a parent – until it happens to you, you just don’t get it. And there was no way I could talk to my boyfriend about this. I honestly felt at that time that he would either see me as some radical feminist or think that this was an overreaction.
It was a very lonely time.
Finally, the last time it happened (this time it was really bad because it was the CEO) there was simply nowhere to go at all. He had all the power as well as the respect of the company and the community. No one would believe me which only perpetuated my self-doubt and further eroded my self- confidence.
I dreaded the incessant emails (during the day, the night and on weekends) and felt totally helpless every single day. I lost weight, smoked cigarettes and drank too much wine. That’s the thing about losing your mental health, eventually, it takes a toll on your physical health as well. At my wits end, I finally got a lawyer to advise me. I never thought about pursuing a lawsuit, but I needed sound professional advice. And then, before you know it, you are on a “retainer” with a lawyer and told you have a compelling case.
I never wanted the protracted negotiations — and not even the settlement. Honestly, I just wanted my job. And the respect of my colleagues (who invariably found out everything and treated me like a Superfund toxic waste site) – most of which never talk to me to this day.
I was fortunate to have a strong support system – but still needed a lot help after it was all over. My self-esteem was completely gone, and I worried my career might be over. I went to therapy and secured a great job. I do not think about that time period much anymore and have come to a place of happiness.
In fact, after the dust settled, a lot of good came out of it. I started writing more and publishing articles and helping other women at work.
And now I just hope to help other women going through it. It will get better. Believe in yourself still. You have it now as you always have.
This guest post was authored by Esme Oliver
Esme Oliver is the author of Smoke, Drink F*#K — an acclaimed romance novel that has been featured in Bustle, the Huffington Post and NPR. She has worked as an attorney, a health-care lobbyist, and a legislative director for two US Senators; work which sharpened her left brain but didn’t quite fulfill her soul. Esme eventually left DC for her native Midwest, where she now writes grants (for money) and stories (for fun). She enjoys lots of travel and a long list of other activities that pair well with a nice Pinot.