Disclaimer: FEM does not encourage anonymous contributions, but we have decided to publish this piece anonymously in order to protect the identity of the author, considering the danger when victims of sexual harassment speak out about their experiences.
You can call me J. I’m a UCLA student who also works on campus. I identify as female. To remain anonymous, I will withhold the finer details of my job, but I work for UCLA Recreation. My boss is a few years older than me. He frequently teases me for being a feminist and brings up controversial topics because it amuses him to see me get flustered and upset. As a co-worker put it, he’s just a bigger kid in charge of all the other kids.
That same co-worker once wondered aloud why anyone makes white chairs.
“I mean, they just get dirty so fast. Like, what even is the point?” he asks my boss, “Like, what do girls do?”
I roll my eyes at him. Ha-ha, period jokes. I turn back to my work and hear my boss’s voice.
“We can ask J,” he says. I almost drop the things in my hands. I wasn’t supposed to hear that, I wasn’t supposed to hear that, I was not supposed to hear that but I did and my heart is pounding and I’m angry.
“Ask me what?” I ask. No one responds to me. I ask again, louder.
“I’m just complaining that the seats are white,” my coworker says after a few rushed looks at my boss. I go back to work. Maybe they won’t harass me just for being a girl again.
A month or so later, my female coworker answers the phone. She’s an English language learner, and it’s a pretty big step for her to volunteer to answer phone calls. I listen to her while I sweep the floors. She gets more and more flustered, unsure of the answer to the customer’s question. She stammers a few times and asks if she can call back. She asks our boss for the answer, collects herself, and calls the customer back. When she hangs up and turns back to us, my boss is standing right behind her.
“You need to practice answering phone calls. I don’t really know how to say this, but you sound really stupid when you talk like that,” he says. I keep my mouth shut. I want to comfort her, but he never leaves us alone together. A few days later, a boy answers the phone and doesn’t know the answer to a question.
“Uh, um… ah… give—give me a second here,” he stammers, frantically waving our boss over to take the call for him. I wait. My boss doesn’t call him stupid.
A few weeks later, my boss accidentally breaks something we’re working on. He gives me a devastated look.
“Hey, it’s like a unicycle,” I say, trying to cheer my boss up. It’s a rod sticking out of some wheels.
“Yeah but who can ride it?” he asks, gesturing to the lack of seat. He gives me a look and smirks, “you can ride it.”
I open and close my mouth. A goldfish out of its tank. I text my boyfriend about it later.
“Just tell him to shove it up his ass,” my boyfriend responds. I stare blankly at my phone. I don’t know how to explain it to him, to anyone, that it doesn’t carry the same weight. That it seems like I’m joking and think what he said is okay if I just tell him to go fuck himself. That the suggestion that I could shove a metal rod in my vagina is a serious one, but everyone knows I don’t actually mean for my boss to shove something in his anus. That he holds power over me, that he can fire me, that there is a weight to his comments that I cannot name. That when I hurt his feelings it’s a workplace violation, but if he hurts mine it’s to be expected.
I wonder if I’m being overly sensitive. Maybe it’s because we all had to take an online course about sexual harassment this weekend that I’m interpreting things poorly. It’s not like this is the first time this has happened. I remember the time my boss rushed to convince me that I wasn’t sexually harassed by my coworkers at the beginning of the year and I start to feel sick. The next time I have a shift at work, I come home crying. This is happening to me, I tell myself. This is real.
I feel more and more like a goldfish in a tank at work. Constantly watched with nowhere to go. I start dropping things more frequently and doubting myself at every turn. I stop being able to complete tasks. I start to have panic attacks when my shifts end. My boss tells me I talk too much, so I stop talking at all when I’m working. Misogyny is internalized—I am sure he doesn’t mean to single out his female employees, but this is what ends up happening.
I know what I’m supposed to do. I should tell our manager, who is so frequently busy that she never sees this happening to me. I should report it to the Title IX office at UCLA. I should quit, make a fuss, and scream.
But I love my job. I love my coworkers and I love what I do. I’ve never had this much fun while working. But lately I feel myself slipping. I don’t talk to them anymore. My boss used to complain about my coworkers to me the second they left the building, and lately he watches me leave before turning away. I can’t help but think he’s telling them about me now.
Why does it take us so long to complain about sexual harassment at work?
It’s not my job to be hassled or constantly defend myself. I’m not paid to do these things.
In one study, 54% of employees experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. Some people don’t report because they are unaware of resources that are available to them. Some people, like me, fear the stigma of being the one who reported. Some people simply can’t afford to lose their jobs.
I am not sure where the solutions lay. More than anything, I am starting to lose hope, because I always thought I was The Girl Who Would Not Let This Happen. It is far messier than I thought to complain about sexual harassment. UCLA is currently under investigation for failing to comply with Title IX policies, so I don’t expect that any complaints I could make would make a difference.
For now what I will do is wait. When it becomes unbearable, I will quit without complaint and walk away with my tail between my legs. I do not know what unbearable will be, but I am sure it is coming. And I am sure I won’t be ready.