When someone grabs your ass at work.
My first experience with sexual harassment in the workplace happened when I was 17. I was waitressing part time at a swanky restaurant in Pretoria and served a table of rowdy, rich, drunken businessmen – all friends with the owner of the establishment.
In short, every woman’s nightmare.
The entire evening was a long, unpleasant dance of sorts which certain men enjoy and almost all women hate. The uncalled for personal compliments. The comments and jokes about the sexual prowess of redheads. That thing gross men do where they refuse to move out of the way so that you are forced to squeeze past them and they take the opportunity to brush against you. Something made infinitely worse when your hands are out of play because you’re carrying trays and plates and bottles.
Look, I love a bit of flirting as much as the next girl, but not when I’m working. Not when I’m outnumbered 8 to 1. Not when I am in a position of subservience since I am literally serving you. And especially, ESPECIALLY not when I haven’t shown even the slightest flicker of reciprocal interest.
As I leaned over the table to fill up wine glasses, one of the men put his hand on my ass and murmured something suggestive. I can’t remember what he said, but I remember it being vulgar enough that the man sitting next to him actually looked a bit shocked.
I did nothing, of course. Well, not strictly nothing. I blushed, I walked away, I probably muttered something under my breath. Hell, I might even have cried in the bathroom afterwards, but to be perfectly honest? I don’t really remember. Seventeen was such a long time ago.
Later I was furious with myself. Why didn’t I slap him? Why didn’t I throw a glass of red wine in his face like in the movies? Why didn’t I accidentally on purpose spill an entire cup of hot coffee in his lap?
The answer is easy. Because even at the tender age of 17 I had enough experience of this type of behaviour to have learnt that doing nothing is often safest.
I didn’t want to get slapped back. I didn’t want to get ridiculed further. I didn’t want to get fired. I felt humiliated enough that I didn’t want to have to explain the backstory. I didn’t want to get told that I asked for it, or that it was because I have a nice bum, or wore a tight skirt, or that it was just the way men were. Or that it wasn’t such a big deal or any of the bloody nonsense that women have to go through when they are the victims of sexual harassment or violence.
The thing about taking the safest route though, is that it doesn’t affect change.
I did nothing, but I am extremely thankful to the brave women and men who do speak out, who do fight the fight, and who take incidences of sexual harassment all the way to the High Court to make it easier for the rest of us.
It’s almost two decades later, and there are far better avenues of recourse to take when sexual harassment happens in the workplace. It’s still not easy. There is still a culture of blame and ridicule and no one wants to be THAT girl or guy who “couldn’t take a joke”.
But it’s getting better.