“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” -Alice Walker
Power can be taken, but not given. The process of the taking is empowerment in itself. -Gloria Steinem
Trigger warning: This blog details incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault, which may be triggering to some readers.
June 21, 2019, 8:03 a.m.
A couple hours before I was supposed to meet my colleague, Debby, I sent her a text to reschedule.
“Debby, I am very sorry to have to do this…but I need to reschedule our coffee. In short, I was sexually harassed yesterday and need to meet with my boss this morning to discuss next steps. Thank you for understanding.”
Debby responded immediately. “Why don’t you go get this settled and then shoot me some dates that you have that would work for you? I am so sorry that you have to deal with this. Dammit!”
I met with my boss at my day-job on that morning in June 2019 and walked him through the incident that had occurred at the harasser’s office. He asked how I wanted to handle it.
“I don’t want to see him again, I don’t want him to contact me, and I want off his subcommittee,” I started. “I also want to write him an email explaining why he is no longer permitted to contact me anymore in any setting, and then I am going to block his email address from my Outlook.”
He asked if there was anything else.
At this point, the only emotion I had shown was anger, which my male boss reciprocated in solidarity. The harasser’s behavior was inexcusable on so many levels. It would have been unthinkable to have not been pissed and disgusted. I turned my head, trying to maintain the hard exterior I was conditioned to believe led to success. I paused to the point of discomfort—not because I was trying to develop additional conditions—but because the last point was the hardest for me.
“Yes,” I said. I had to stop to clear the lump in my throat and blink away the tears that had formed. “It’s not right that people like him stay in positions of power. If he sexually harassed me—someone who let him know very clearly what my boundaries were more than once—imagine what he’s done to the people he’s supposedly serving, who are a lot more vulnerable than I am.” And then, my final condition: “I want him off the leadership team and committee entirely.” My boss agreed.
I shut my office door for the rest of the day, communicating only with my boss, the office manager who screened my calls to ensure that the harasser didn’t make it through to me, and my two female friends on staff who affirmed that the harasser’s behavior was, indeed, sexual harassment. And then I did what Quality Improvement Practitioners who are Type-A Virgos with a background in research, writing, and advocacy do: I set my emotions aside for the moment so I could clearly and objectively document every interaction I had had with the harasser leading up to the incident. With it, I tucked away the knowledge that one day, I was going to make this shit public in a meaningful, productive way. I just had to be patient and ready for when the opportunity arose.
April 27, 2021, 10:22 p.m.
My phone lit up on my nightstand as my husband and I watched the Mary Tyler Moore Show in bed. The message from a friend was an image of a Facebook post from a woman I didn’t know. The post concisely detailed her achievement of getting a man kicked off the Board of a nonprofit I was familiar with. I sat up in bed, startling my husband.
I shared the post with him. The harasser wasn’t named, but he didn’t have to be; I knew exactly who it was. “This happened before he harassed me,” I said, “which means I was right. He just keeps doing this, and he keeps getting away with it.”
I sent the woman a friend-request, and she accepted within minutes. Without going into detail, I shared that I, too, had been sexually harassed by this man, and thanked her: “I’m sharing this because I never felt safe doing so before because of how many ‘leaders’ laud him and allow him to be in positions of power. Thank you for being open about this so others (like myself) can be too.” We exchanged messages offline, and I learned that her name was Rachel.
Receiving the screenshot and connecting with Rachel was no coincidence. I’d had a nagging feeling the previous week that I needed to ‘get ready.’ Ready for what exactly, I wasn’t entirely sure, but I contacted human resources and requested the file regarding the sexual-harassment incident almost two years prior. Without additional thought, I saved the files and checked the task off my to-do list. I didn’t know it, but I was getting ready for the work that Rachel I were about to do. Her post was the link I had been waiting for and would become the bridge to sharing my story in a way I could help others.
On Process and Power
Meeting Rachel Richardson for the first time instantly felt like community. We learned that we’re both writers, feminists, and solution-focused advocates, so it didn’t take long for us to go from sharing stories about the harasser to putting together a plan. The outcome we desired was simple: disgrace for the harasser.
My background as a Quality Improvement Practitioner kicked in. The kind of work I do at my day-job, and in my life-coaching business, MillenniAlign, uses frameworks to systematically improve outcomes by stabilizing processes and reducing variation. I brought up how disgrace for the harasser wasn’t enough of an outcome for me: I wanted to share with others how they could overcome sexual harassers in positions of power using the process we’d develop. I figured that, if we were going to go through the trouble—that is, the risk—of creating a process to challenge the status quo, we could use this as a quality-improvement opportunity, community-wide. Rachel agreed, entertaining my excitable nerd-musings on the importance of things like ‘operational definitions.’ We decided to blog about what we were doing (the old ‘build-the-plane-as-we-fly-it’ approach) and develop an easy-to-follow guide of sorts for what is likely a not-so-simple process.
In the six weeks we’ve been meeting—and particularly after I read the first draft of Rachel’s blog that kicked off our On Drowning Rats series—I’ve been flooded with memories that I thought I had tucked away years ago. Sexual harassment is not just a single incident that can be isolated when seeking healing. For me, it’s a weighty backpack of the various traumas I carry with me daily, without the privilege of pockets to sort the acts of sexual harassment from the acts of sexism from the acts of sexual assault, and so on.
…It’s the male restaurant owner who, when I put in my two-week notice, told me that I was just going to “drop out of high school and get pregnant like every other girl” my age. (I was fifteen and an honors student. [And I did stay to finish my two weeks, for some reason.])
…It’s the male doctor who performed his ‘updated’ version of a scoliosis test on me when I was finally old enough to drive to my annual checkups without my mom.
…It’s the boyfriend who wanted to take things further than I did.
…It’s the male coworker who would come up behind me unsuspectingly on the retail floor to whisper sexual things he wanted to do to me.
…It’s the male friend who began stalking me when I became single.
…It’s the male boss who told me to “flirt” with one of my client’s account reps so I could deepen ‘our’ relationship with the company. It’s that same male boss who told me that he was giving me an account because the account rep “likes pretty girls.”
…It’s the male coworker who was shocked to learn that he had gotten so drunk at the Christmas party the night before that he left bruises on my ass from smacking it while calling me a “cock-sucking whore.” (He kept his job, by the way.)
…It’s the group of boys in school who sexually assaulted me, and I was too scared of the social consequences if I admitted the truth. (So, I lied when asked what happened.)
…It’s the adult male coworkers who referred to me as “jailbait” when I was a minor, and I had to ask someone what that meant.
…It’s the married male trainee who invited me to sit on his lap while I fixed his computer.
…It’s the three large males who descended on me at a club when I was in a hallway by myself, two of them restraining me until I fought my way out of their grasp.
…It’s the male manager who revealed the serious acts of sexual harassment happening against me, lies that had been spread to literally dozens of male coworkers and customers, only after his own reputation was in question.
…It’s the male customer who cornered me on one of his visits to show me a photo of his pierced penis.
…It’s the male friend who, just days after I confided in him about sexual harassment I had experienced and he asked how he could “do better” as an ally, sent me a contextless message of an anus made of punctuation marks and a cringey movie clip of two children ‘turning on’ an adult woman in a chat room by talking about anal acts. (This alleged ‘friend’ assumed the role of ‘gaslighter’ after I expressed shock and subsequently blocked me.)
It’s these accumulated attempts to devalue me as a woman—as an executive, as a leader, as an employee, as an advocate, as a creative, as a community member, as a patient, and even just as a human—by those who are in positions of power, whether those ‘power’ positions are real or perceived.
When I asked an older female mentor why women are still having these conversations, her response hit me hard: “Power doesn’t want to let go of power.” The incidents that I have experienced, including the incident by the harasser who will be the subject of the On Drowning Rats series, were never about sex. They were always about power, the brand of power that is used over people rather than with them.
As a point of clarity though, this blog series will be focused exclusively on sexual harassment and how we can push back on this version of ‘power over.’ We won’t spend much, if any, time on incidents of sexual assault or violence, or discrete acts of sexism. This will help us stay in scope with our desired outcome, and should not be interpreted as minimizing the messy, unpredictable trauma that occurs when harassment breaches into the territory of assault. Should you decide to follow Rachel’s and my journey through On Drowning Rats, we invite you to take care of yourself along the way. Reach out to your support system and/or consider therapy if you feel triggered. You are valuable, and your worth is so, so far greater than the backpack of trauma you, too, carry. Thank you for supporting this mission of taking on, and reclaiming, power.
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Thank you for reading!
Cami Roth Szirotnyak is a writer and intersectional feminist, and is the owner of MillenniAlign, a life-coaching business for millennials. She publishes postmodern fiction under the name candy broth. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram at @millennialign and @candybroth.