DEFINING THE DEBATE-The first time I remember being sexually harassed at work was at my second job ever, working at a bookstore. There was a man there who always tried to work sexual innuendo into every conversation we had.
He’d find excuses to touch my back or arm, and try to give me massages in the breakroom. He was constantly winking at me, licking his lips. He would bring a gym bag to work, and sometimes, when we were in the breakroom together, he’d unpack the bag like he was organizing it. He’d talk to me about his workout routine, how important it was for him to stay in shape so he could maintain his sexual prowess. Then he’d bring out a bottle of KY Jelly, and he’d slowly and deliberately place it on the table. Staring at me.
Sometimes managers would be in the room, pretending not to hear. Occasionally a manager would shake their head at him and tsk tsk, like he was a naughty child. He was not a child. He was 32. I, on the other hand, was a child. I was 17.
I had spent most of yesterday thinking of this recent flood of public sexual harassment allegations against rich and powerful men. While so many talked of the downfall of these men, either in shock at their depravity or in sympathy for their careers now sidelined, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much of my professional life had been spent navigating gender discrimination and sexual harassment. I thought about all the women (and some men, and gender non-conforming folx) that these men harmed, who would never get in-depth profiles discussing the tragedy of what they lost, exploring what they could have been if not for these men and the system that enabled them and so many other abusers to torment their victims with such ease.
But now, with only a small handful of high-profile men finally facing some repercussions after years of abuse, there is already an effort to slow down. Is this becoming a witch hunt? Is this becoming a sex panic? Are innocent men at risk of being wrongly accused? Today’s headlines seem to be either dominated by the men who’ve been flaunting their abuse of women for years, even decades, with explicit details of all of the horrors they were allowed to inflict upon women — or about the men who might be at risk for being “unfairly” accused. The men who are now “scared to even talk to women” lest they be accused of sexual harassment. And the women…the women are forgotten completely.
I was in the middle of such ruminations when I got an email from someone at USA Today, offering a writing assignment.
“The Editorial Board plans to publish a piece arguing that the reckoning on sexual harassment is healthy and overdue, but every case is different and the accused deserve due process. If you are interested, we would love to have you write the opposing view,” they said.
The opposing view. I furrowed my brow trying to understand what they were asking. An opposing view to whether a reckoning on sexual harassment was healthy and overdue? An opposing view on whether each case is different and the accused deserve due process? I replied with a request to discuss further via phone.
I’d never interacted with USA Today before, so while waiting, I looked up the representative who had contacted me. She appeared to be a low-level employee who was tasked with putting stories together. It was unusual, as I’d almost always been contacted by editors directly when they wanted me to write a piece.
She called just a few minutes after I sent the email. I asked her to please give me more details about the editorial that they wanted me to rebut. “We are going to write about how we think it is a very good thing that women are going forward,” she began and basically repeated the same thing she had said in her email: individual cases...due process…etc. “Would you be willing to write the rebuttal to that?”
I paused for a second, thinking of how to best reply.
“No, I can’t write a rebuttal to that because of course I believe in due process,” I answered, deciding not to delve into the side discussion of how due process is a legal term that doesn’t usually apply to private employment, “But I’d be happy to write a response.”
I told her that I’d be happy to write about how the fixation on “due process” for these men was an attempt to re-center the concerns of men. How the question itself was absurd, because if there’s anything these stories show, it’s that these men in their years of open abuse were given more than just due process — but the women, many of whom had tried bringing this abuse to those in authority years before, were given no process at all. I said I’d love to write about the countless women whose careers were ended by coming forward with the abuse they faced, about the countless women whose careers were never able to get off of the ground because of abuse and gender discrimination. Due process. Women would love ANY process. They would love to even be heard.
The woman from USA Today said she would take my ideas to the editorial board and get back to me.
While waiting for her to call back I thought about a coworker of mine from years back, when I worked in marketing. She was smart, hard-working, funny, stylish, and social. She had been at the company longer than I had, but I was promoted past her in a few years. I remember talking to one of my mentors, an older man, about my frustration over her seemingly stalled career.
“She’ll never get promoted because she’s all tits and ass,” he said. “All the guys talk about it. People can’t take her seriously. You, you prefer to be known for your brain. That’s why you get promoted.”
He said this in an almost fatherly way, like I was supposed to be proud. But I knew my friend showed up to work every day with the intention of being known for her brain, just like I did. I just had different fashion sense and social anxiety.
A few months later, my mentor and I were traveling for a work conference. We’d had a long dinner at the hotel restaurant and I’d thoroughly enjoyed nerding out over marketing strategies with someone I looked up to. Suddenly, while I was in the middle of talking about an ad campaign, I felt a hand on my knee. My mentor was staring at me with a look I’d never seen before. I stopped speaking, stunned.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
He stared at me for a second longer and then removed his hand.
“I should call it a night,” he said, and left to his hotel room.
His words from a few weeks earlier rang through my head.
“You prefer to be known for your brain.”
I started to become excited about the opportunity to write this piece for USA Today. To shift the focus of this conversation on a large national platform back to the women who’ve been harmed. To be able to directly counter the efforts of so many news panels and op-eds to stop women from coming forward before too many men are held accountable for their actions.
USA Today called me back about five minutes later.
“I ran your idea past them,” she said, “But what they really want is to write that they believe that it’s great that these women are coming forward but that they believe in due process, and they want you to write that you don’t. They want a piece that says that you don’t believe in due process and that if a few innocent men lose their jobs it’s worth it to protect women. Is that something you can do?”
I almost couldn’t get a reply out; I was stunned by how blatant their request was.
“No,” I said, “No, it’s not.”
We ended the call and I just sat frozen in my chair for a few minutes. Did this really just happen? Was I seriously just asked by the third largest paper in the nation to write their “feminazi” narrative to counter their “reasoned and compassionate” editorial? Was I just asked to be one of the excuses for why this whole “me too” moment needed to be shut down? Was I just asked to be their strawman?
I remembered one tech job I’d held that was particularly saturated in sexual harassment. Where engineers would literally high-five each other after propositioning a woman in an elevator. I remembered how the women who went to HR were forever labeled “humorless bitches” by the men who faced no further consequences for their actions than a quick meeting telling them to “cool it down.” I remember accepting lunch with a coworker only to discover that this had somehow meant that I’d accepted a date. At 1 p.m. on a Wednesday. Over Chipotle.
On my last day there I had an exit interview with HR, as was standard process. The HR manager didn’t ask me if I’d faced any harassment or discrimination in my role, even though I personally knew of at least five female employees who had come to her with complaints of sexual harassment.
Instead, she looked at me and asked, “Do you think you deserved your last promotion? Or do you think you were given it because you are a black woman?”
When I left the meeting, a manager nervously walked up to me.
“Are you leaving because I sexually harassed you?” he asked.
I blinked for a moment. Stunned. I remembered the engineer who used to come by my cubicle almost every evening after almost all the other employees were gone, while I was working late. I was very pregnant at the time and had gotten the job while in early pregnancy, and enough managers had hinted that they were sure I was just working there to get insurance coverage and maternity leave. Once I’d duped the company out of three months of half pay while I bonded with my new baby, they were pretty sure I’d never be seen again, having scammed them all into paying for my reproduction.
So, I worked late every night, even though I was a single parent with a little boy at daycare waiting for me, in order to prove that I deserved to be taken seriously. And once 6:00 p.m. rolled around, this engineer would saunter over. One night, after telling me once again how he’d slept with enough women over the years to make Wilt Chamberlain jealous, he leaned in closer and peered down at my pregnant belly.
“So….” he asked with a sly pause, “Are you planning on delivering vaginally?”
So, on my last day, I stared at this manager. A man I’d considered safe. An ally. Even a friend. A man who was now asking if I was leaving because he’d sexually harassed me.
And I answered, “Honestly, the way things are here, I didn’t realize that’s what you’d been doing this whole time.” And I tried not to cry.
But yesterday, I was asked to write that I do not believe in due process. I was asked to write that I believe we should just immediately fire all men accused of sexual harassment. I was asked to write that if a few men are harmed to protect women, it’s worth it. As if that’s a real threat. As if that’s a valid fear. As if, in this world, a power shift of that magnitude is even within the realm of possibility. As if a lack of due process wouldn’t first come for women, trans people, and people of color. As if due process isn’t the one thing so many men and their enablers in this society are working so hard to avoid.
And all I could say was, “No, no I can’t.” And even in that, in my financial ability to say no and risk burning that bridge, I’m one of the lucky ones.
USA Today ran their editorial last night. I found it this morning. At the bottom of the piece they have a note in italics:
“USA TODAY’s editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.”
But so far, for this piece, they don’t seem to have an opposing view to publish. At least not the one they wanted. Without it, without their extreme feminist scapegoat to compare themselves to, their editorial looks anemic, lackluster. It looks as weak and pointless as it is, if not as manipulative as it attempted to be. This time, they failed.
But I can’t help but wonder how many have succeeded? How manipulated this broader, international conversation on sexual harassment has been in order to so quickly shift the conversation to protecting men from the consequences of their actions, before the names of the women they’ve harmed are even known? I can’t help but look at the profession I’ve chosen and love and wonder how much of it, like every other job I’ve found myself in since I was a teenager, is actively working to harm women and protect those who harm women?
How often are we manipulated into prioritizing the abuser over the abused? How often are we being suckered into a side of a debate that we shouldn’t even be having?
These last two days, I was able to see one of the ways that this manipulation works in a shockingly brazen display. I don’t know if it’s because they had so little respect for my work or my intellect, or for my integrity — or if they just thought that as a feminist I’d jump at the chance to flush “due process” down the toilet. How often is this happening in ways that we aren’t able to so easily see?
I hope to be able to continue to write in a way that focuses on those harmed by abuses of power and privilege. I hope to continue to write with integrity and honesty. And I hope that we all can try to read with the same focus and the same integrity. And that we can all work together to be more aware of how we are being manipulated and distracted and misrepresented and shamed into believing that we do not deserve to be centered in conversations on our oppression. That we do not deserve to be heard. That we do not deserve justice. That we do not deserve “due process.”
Due process is long overdue.
(Ijeoma Oluo is a writer whose work appears on her website TheEstablishment.co where this was first posted. Follow her on Twitter @IjeomaOluo.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.