When I was 16 years old an assistant manager walked out from behind the counter at Wendy’s, delivered my friends and me a round of free French fries (Wendy’s had just changed their formula to try and compete with McDonald’s), and then offered me a job. He brought me the application and I filled it out then and there.
I loved working at Wendy’s. Because I could do perfect arithmetic in my head I was the semi-permanent drive-through cashier, spared from messier jobs with less prestige. No cooking chili or scrubbing pots for me. No white-red-green sandwich making. No digging layers of salted grease out from underneath my fingernails after an eight-hour shift making French fries. I made college friends and enough money to start my own bank account, and I was no longer the only one among my friends without a real job.
I was such a good girl, spoiled by my smart-and-pretty-white-girl privilege, on the path to the great American work ethic.
One day in the drive-through the assistant manager who hired me gave me a small manila envelope.
Open it, he said, go ahead.
Inside were two $50 bills. I slid them half out, and then jammed them back in as fast as I could. I had no idea what he was going to say next, but the money felt radioactive.
That’s what you’ll get if you’ll be my girlfriend, he said.
He didn’t stop there. He waited until the current of car customers ebbed and my sandwich-maker went to the bathroom, then approached me again. He slid into my personal space. He reached out for my breasts, his thumb and pointer finger grasping the zipper of my ridiculous striped uniform. He pulled my zipper down, past the top of my bra, past the bottom of my bra, almost to my belly button.
I still remember the white moons of his fingernails – skeevy-long, perfectly manicured, and very, very deliberate.
He moved away quickly when he heard the walk-in freezer door bang open. He did not continue to harass me – I only had to tell him once I didn’t want to be his girlfriend. I tried not to be alone with him again, but that wasn’t really necessary.
Because he cut my hours. Over the course of a month I went from working 20 hours a week to working 12. And then eight. And finally, four.
If you can’t schedule me for more hours, I told him, I’m going to quit. Four hours a week isn’t worth working.
He shook his head sadly, smiled mysteriously, and said nothing.
Two weeks later I had a new job at a movie theater, the easiest I’ve ever done – I worked hard for 30 minutes every two hours, read fantasy novels or did homework the rest of the time, got to see every new release free at Wednesday-night staff screenings, and never smelled like fast food again.
When my mother reads this she’s going to ask me why I didn’t tell her about my manager’s harassment so she could do something about it. All I have are half-assed answers.
It only happened once.
I suffered no trauma.
I was unhurt, either short or long term.
It was embarrassing.
I didn’t want her to make a fuss.
How many other women were harassed by that assistant manager? Were some of them single parents or dead-broke scholarship students who needed their jobs much more than I needed mine? Could I have stopped that harassment if I’d reported him, or at the very least, told the general manager why I was leaving?
Maybe at 16 my only responsibility was to escape. I was still a child under the spell of authority, after all.
But what about the dozens of adult women who over the last 30 years (or more) were (allegedly) harassed, molested, assaulted, or raped by Harvey Weinstein? Even celebrated Hollywood actresses waited years to take their stories public.
I’ve thought about this a lot, trying to decide how much responsibility these actresses should have taken on. How much responsibility I had, way back when.
But power is a dense structure, squatting over our heads like a gargoyle guarding its honored sons. We accept it without question. Lacking dynamite, how can you challenge stone itself? Instead, we negotiate our way among the sharp rocks, dark corners, and tar pits of power. We don’t seek to make a new path, but choose to move as elegantly as possible out of harm’s way.
“How do I get out of the room as fast as possible without alienating Harvey Weinstein?” Ashley Judd told the New York Times what went through her head when confronted with Weinstein in public. We’ve all been there, even men – avoiding the lech, the creep, the handsy bastard who works for a friend or lover, who is blessed by the gargoyle with money, power, or access.
And the law doesn’t help us. Despite a complicated-but-scantily-enforced network of labor laws to protect employees from labor abuses, including sexual harassment from employers, instead of criminal prosecution we turn to out-of-court settlements and nondisclosure agreements that prohibit public speech about harassment. The law itself seems to encourage this settlement process. Shut up little girl, the law seems to say.
Thus the hulking gargoyle casts an even bigger shadow. The system is rigged from the top down, and so we take what we can get and get the fuck out.
I’ve always felt that manly worry about false accusations was horse shit. Who would choose to go through the grim and demeaning legal scrutiny of our bodies, our closets, our friends, and our lovers we are subjected to after claiming assault? Who wants to be called a slut and blamed for their own rape?
Many years ago, a dear friend of mine, a community leader, did extensive public relations and marketing work for a woman who was also a community leader. She paid him only a small percentage of the cost of the supplies, ignoring his hourly wage completely, and they argued bitterly. He asked for meditation. She refused. And then she accused him of making unwanted sexual advances and started asking for him to be banned from community events.
Time was on his side – the accuser turned out to be a troubled and unstable personality. It turns out that, when we are talking about rape claims, most false accusers are either adolescents trying to avoid getting in trouble or the mentally ill.
And while that’s not much consolation to my friend, who was an innocent man, if you have the perception that false accusations are rampant, you’re wrong. They’re very, very rare. And they almost never result in criminal charges.
Biting your tongue when inappropriate touching happens, sometimes again and again and again, now that happens all the fucking time.
Women Are Different; Let’s Exclude Them
Mostly in my life my gender has been of great benefit to me. I love navigating the world in a woman’s body, especially in a day and age when women play soccer, ride motorcycles, build their own houses, and take out the trash.
But I have been excluded because I was a woman among men. Workouts, golf games, beers-after-work, casual events turned imperative when committees were formed, decisions were made, and careers hurtled upward.
Some of the men who attended and benefited from those events I am dear friends with. Some of them I still depend on to advance my career.
The trauma I’ve suffered from unwanted sexual advances in my lifetime is microscopic. The resentment of being excluded because my gender made men uncomfortable, or they thought I was incapable – that’s heavy. That’s huge.
It’s poisonous, and it’s something I’m still trying to forgive. And to overcome.