Every part of the moment is as clear as can be. His hand rested on my shoulder for only a second before his fingers twisted in my wavy hair. He leaned down, hovering over me along my neck, as his breath filled my nostrils. There was nowhere for me to go and no one to see. I was a student teacher, and there was another hour before students started to arrive. It felt like our classroom was a million miles from all the others.
So I let it happen. It was relatively innocent — an eventual kiss on the lips and a hug that lasted and lingered a bit too long for anyone’s comfort. But it was just the beginning.
For the remainder of my student teaching assignment, I allowed an almost pseudo-relationship to develop. When I did try to bring up my serious boyfriend or make a pointed “joke” about our situation, he would bring up his grades, his recommendations to future employers, his standing in the teaching community, etc.
I never recovered. Three months later, I moved on to another school and a better supervisory experience.
And though my new teaching mentor helped me regain a bit of my love of teaching and my confidence working with others, I knew then it was over for me. I only lasted a year in the profession before I had a mental breakdown and switched careers, taking a pay cut and losing out on the investment in my college along the way.
It’s been 10 years, and I admit that I had managed to push this experience deep down into my subconscious. I told very few people in my inner circle, including my husband. And it was one of those confidants that first checked in with me when the #MeToo movement began.
“I’m sorry,” her text read. “I didn’t believe you then. I do now. You want to talk?”
I did then, and I do now.
What Is the #MeToo Movement?
Today, my #MeToo story is one of the thousands echoing through social media. However, #MeToo has been around a lot longer than most give it credit. Formed in 2006 by Tarana Burke, the movement began with an emphasis on addressing sexual harassment in minority and low-income communities.
Her early work was quiet and grassroots. However, the cause went viral with the exposure of infamous, serial sexual harassers. As the testimonials of survivors, both in the press and in the courtroom, flooded the press and social media, everyday people like me stepped up behind the hashtag to share their own stories of sexual harassment and inappropriate work experiences.
The Stats on Sexual Harassment
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines workplace sexual harassment as, “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature . . . [that] it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).”
Businesses with more than 15 employees are required to comply with the sexual harassment clauses found in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yet in 2015 alone, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reported 90,000 cases of harassment. However, the report further states that three out of four employees will not report their abusers to a supervisor, human resource report, or union representative.
With as many as eight in 10 women experience abuse according to the EEOC, there are many theories on why so many choose to remain silent.
Most, if not all, point to economic and financial reasoning. The conclusion being that workplace sexual harassment isn’t just an uncomfortable and violating experience. It also affects a woman’s earnings and financial stability.
The Financial Effects of Sexual Harassment
Looking back at my own experience, I can practically visualize my dollars dripping away with every veiled threat my harasser had made. He knew his power, and he knew I understood it, too. It was the reason why he had a waiting list of young, impressionable student teachers like me lined up for a chance to work with him. He was a kingmaker.
This is especially damning in careers where mentorship and having an “in” are especially important, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Without a mentor or a “reputation,” survivors may be passed over for promotions, research funding, professional talks, and tenure.
For those who work in the service industry, especially workers relying on tips, the financial effect is almost always immediate. Not acquiescing to a request for sexual favors or putting up with inappropriate advances can destroy earnings. The EEOC and the Restaurant Opportunity Centers both show that tip earners are nearly twice as likely to experience sexual harassment than salary earners. Because these employees rely so heavily on tips, tolerating sexual harassment and violence is practically normalized.
Kelly A’s #MeToo Story
Today’s culture also asks the victim to “get over it.”
Kelly A, who wished not to use her full name, recalls that her supervisor told her to “move on” after a coworker corned her in a darkened hallway during a power outage.
“After that, I couldn’t get him out of my head,” she says, “and then having to see him every weekday after that . . . I still cannot believe my boss said that to me.”
It all caught up to her when she spent an entire afternoon sobbing in the same hallway until a security officer escorted her out of her workplace.
“I drove straight to the hospital and checked myself into the mental health ward,” Kelly recounts. “It was the best $10,000 I ever spent.”
Several psychological studies, including a 2001 report by Kimberly T. Schneider, Joe Tomaka, and Rebecca Palacios, demonstrate that experiencing sexual harassment and then confronting the abuse on a daily basis can have substantial negative effects on cardiovascular and mental health, both of which are financially risky to leave unaddressed. Add to that, they're a financial disaster to treat long-term.
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The Effects on Survivors’ Careers
Still, survivors tend to stay put despite it all. A 2018 survey by Edison Research found that while 55 percent of survivors of sexual harassment say their experience has negatively affected their career, men were more likely than women to quickly change careers, while female victims would move within two years.
Leaving isn’t an easy answer, and circumstances or a desire to persevere through it all may supersede moving on.
How to Report Sexual Harassment
For victims who wish to remain where they are, Amy M. Toepper, attorney and founder of Legal in a Box and business and employment law expert, encourages speaking up to a supervisor or representative as soon as possible. Incidents of workplace sexual harassment must be reported within 365 days of the incident.
When deciding to report, documentation is especially important. Emails and other forms of online communication are helpful to save, as they help to automatically track the dates of incidents.
In addition, keeping a backup of any evidence that could help your case is a must. For those situations that happened behind closed doors, share them with an outside person as soon as possible and revisit or recap your conversation in an email that can be saved for later.
Toepper also suggests checking in on yourself first and foremost. “Take care of yourself, make sure you’re safe, and make sure the alleged harasser doesn’t have any opportunity to continue his or her behavior,” she says. In the mess of abuse and harassment, it can be easy to forget that safety is the number one concern.
Because of safety and self-care needs, Kelly and I both eventually switched jobs and fields. Kelly left her job as a registered nurse to run her family’s horse business full-time.
Meanwhile, I left teaching and performing to pursue administrative work. Even now, I struggle to calculate how this has financially affected me.
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The Effects of Sharing Our #MeToo Stories
It may shock you to read that, despite all this, I am grateful. No, not thankful for my abuser or the system that allowed him to prey on me so easily. Rather, I’m thankful for the men and women who were able to stand up in court, on the job, in the media, and on social media pages, and tell their truths.
Their bravery and persistence have given me both inspiration and healing. And while the circumstances required me to walk through hell and back, I am proud to tell my #MeToo story in hope that, as a society, we can collectively tackle workplace harassment and fight for financial stability for survivors and their families.