A long time ago, the day after I got my hair cut into a 1920s style bob, a male colleague asked me if my boyfriend gave me a pearl necklace to go with my hairstyle.
I didn’t know what he meant. Idiotically, I told him I did have a pearl necklace but I wouldn’t wear it to work.
Cue much hilarity as him and my other male colleague fell about laughing at my naiveté.
(if, like me, you don’t know what a pearl necklace is, here’s the Urban Dictionary definition which I then looked up)
I’m telling you this because of #MeToo, and because women sharing men’s inappropriate behaviour in the workplace got me considering the inappropriate comments I experienced in the workplace when I was younger, and my relationship with those comments, and my feelings of self-blame and complicity.
But first I need to explain: I didn't endure sexual harassment in the workplace. This comment, and the other incidents I’ll share, were one-offs over a period of time. The colleague wasn’t predatory and I didn’t feel threatened. Embarrassed, pissed off, but not threatened. I appreciate and respect other women have other definitions and boundaries of what sexual harassment is and looks like, and I would never presume to police them.
The pearl necklace comment was very early on in that job.
Another occasion — I’ve always been ‘out’ about my gay family, because why wouldn't I be? So my colleague knew my mum is gay. One evening he stood up and started rubbing his torso and making kissing faces, saying my mum had made these gestures and actions to him, telling him she wanted him. Another colleague chipped in: ‘X you could be the one to turn her’.
I was furious. I was embarrassed. I also didn’t know what to say, how to react, because I was so shocked. I think I mustered a ‘glad you think my mum being gay is so hilarious’ but they were laughing and so I don’t think they heard me.
When I told my staunchly feminist friend about this, she said it was homophobic and sexist harassment and I should complain. I remember thinking about the tight friendship group between the men in my team (in the end, I did say something).
That was around the time I first started to consider leaving the job.
Another incident — I was walking back to my desk and the team had had some good news. My colleague and another one sandwiched me between them and started jumping me up and down.
It’s hard to explain the action — they literally squashed me between their bodies and jiggled me up and down.
I started yelling at them to get off. I wasn't playing along with the joke, I was panicking. I wanted them to get off me. I feel like I started screaming.
They stopped in the end, they’re sarcastic ‘all rights’ heavy with disapproval at my ‘overreaction’.
I remember thinking at the time that I’ve never been raped or severely assaulted, but if I had been then something like that could be horribly triggering.
I left not long after this. There were plenty more reasons for leaving, but a general ennui about this kind of behaviour was a factor in that decision. I also brought up the second of these three incidents in my exit interview.
When I told someone outside of work about that final incident, and about how I reacted, they laughed. They said it was my fault they jumped me up and down, because I let on how much it bothered me to be touched, and so they just do it more.
If they know it bothers you then of course they’ll do it more, to wind you up.
Those weren’t the only things that happened but they are the three I remember.
When I was younger, I used to try and position myself as one of the boys. I tried to be the Cool Girl, which never worked because I was also an angry feminist who was always going on about women’s issues. I tried to be the Cool Girl because I wanted to be liked. I cared desperately about being liked.
So when the pearl necklace joke happened, and I deciphered its meaning, I didn’t complain. I had to tell myself the reason he said that to me was because I could take it, because really I was one of the boys.
After all, on other occasions I was rewarded for being one of the boys. For getting it. That’s important, in thinking about structures and power and what’s expected of women.
The other option, that he was saying it not because I *got* it, but because I was a woman, a young woman — that I didn’t want to consider.
I don’t blame myself for propping up that sort of low-level workplace sexism, as I understand why I did it.
I do however question how complicit I was, particularly when I was younger. And how in that complicity, it made it harder to feel I had a right to my anger and discomfort later on. Writing this, I still worry that I’m overreacting, that I’m over sensitive, that another woman in my place would have got the joke and made one back.
There’s this battle: I was upset and embarrassed by the pearl necklace comment at the time, but I didn't say anything and I laughed it off. I proved my status as one of the guys, I proved I could *take* it. And yet I was embarrassed and offended. However my lack of vocalising that offence made it difficult to feel I had (and, consequently, have) a *right* to those feelings of upset.
(this is something that I think about a lot, and struggle with a lot, in various aspects of my life)
I am frustrated, also, in case my early complicity then made it harder for women who came after to me to complain, if they needed to or wanted to.
So there is this sense of self-blame and self-recrimination, and guilt at my self-perceived oversensitivity: even though on another level I know there was little I could do, as a young woman starting a new job.
Even though I know, and knew then, that jokes about a man ejaculating on my neck are not appropriate for the workplace ever, in any context, at any point.