Mark has no idea he is harassing me. I’m sure of it. I’m fairly sure of it. I think I’m sure of it. We have an awkward relationship.
At work, I possess more power than he does, a better job, a bigger space on the floor; the floor is set up with hundreds of cubicles. I sit in a 12 X 12 cubicle and he sits in a 6 X 6. Cubicle size designates power in this environment.
Mark is a big man to be placed in such a small space. He is well over six feet and husky. I’m a small woman by comparison, 5’5”, and thin, sinewy. Female power, male lack of power — we turn the traditional power struggle on its head. Not that we think in those terms at the time. Such thoughts come years after knowing him, with reflection and age.
I don’t remember how my “friendship” with Mark starts. He’s a gregarious guy, maybe he just struck up a conversation one day.We share smiles and hellos as we walk past each other in the aisles or as we stand in the elevator. We do small talk — Have you read XXX? No, I haven’t. You should. Thank you for the recommendation — he fashions himself an intellectual, making it all the sadder that he is saddled with a shitty job in a small cubicle. I fashion myself a writer, so I am equally pathetic. Just so you know I know. Our company is where people who can’t find creative work go — I have met fine arts painters, writers, teachers, intellectuals, poets, all sitting in these little fabric cubicle boxes doing work that we can’t explain to anyone outside of the company, because this work we do, this lingo we speak, makes no sense at all.
By the time Mark crosses the line, it seems a year or more has passed since we met. Some small level of trust exists between us. I want him to beg off and back off because I have enjoyed his friendship for the most part. I don’t need this issue – should I turn him in or not turn him in? Sometimes we have lunch together and it’s been okay. For a time, I think he is gay, which makes it easier to befriend him, but it becomes apparent that his is heterosexual.
Somewhat surprised by Mark’s behavior, the harassment begins. For a week or more, Mark knocks on my cubicle wall each afternoon, and not wanting to be rude, I say, “Come on in.” Not only is my cubicle bigger than his, but it has six-foot walls and affords a measure of visual privacy. I’m not sure why Mark keeps visiting except to chit-chat on his break, although somewhere in my depths, I feel an escalation of something going on between us or emanating from him, more precisley. I can’t articulate this. I just watch the proceedings, feel something in my gut twinge, wonder what comes next.
And then “next” comes.
I sit at my desk and he moves closer. Closer and closer. Too close. I think. I’m not sure.
He isn’t talking about anything lewd. Maybe he is saying, “This weekend, I’m planning to…” or “Did you see that film, XXX?” and I’m nodding, and possibly a little bored by him when it happens. He places his hand on my leg, near my knee. This isn’t a sexual advance, I say to myself. Is it? He tells me, perhaps, “Today at lunch, I….” and his hand moves up a few inches to mid-thigh. His palm is touching my mid-thigh? Is this the region where it crosses a line? “My brother says,” he continues, and his hand moves as close to the top of my thigh, and as close to my crotch as possible, while it still remains minutely possible that he has not just crossed a line into sexual harassment.
I get up abruptly, say, “I need to get back to work.” Mark smiles an innocent, dumb smile, and says, “Okay.” This scenario is played out at least three more times over the next week.
I should turn him in. I should tell him to stop. I don’t know how to do either. That big, dumb smile makes me think he doesn’t realize he is crossing a line. Work is hard to come by, and I don’t want to be responsible for him losing his job. It’s strange, too, because I’m the one that is at the higher job level. This isn’t a boss harassing me. While he isn’t an underling either, he’s not quite a peer. Shouldn’t I know how to handle this? I’ve been though the sexual harassment training. Sexual harassment is subjective. If a person feels he or she is being harassed, then it’s usually considered harassment. A potentially innocent touch from Mark can be defined as harassment if it offends me or makes me uncomfortable. And this does make me uncomfortable. Technically, I have been sexually harassed.
I decide not to turn Mark in. Instead, I find a way to wiggle my way out of this situation and eventually, out of our friendship. The end of the friendship happens a few years later, actually, when I have left the division and he emails me to tell me he found a wonderful cleansing program for his colon, and all I can think of is Mark shitting all over the place. At that point I tell him I think he is being inappropriate, something I am never able to say to him when he touches me inappropriately. Instead I say, “Mark, I think it’s not a great idea to visit me in my cubicle…You could get in trouble for spending so much time away from your desk,” never mind so much time so close to my crotch.
Eventually, Mark becomes the victim of a corporate layoff and so the problem solves itself, in a sense. I finally tell his former supervisor what happened a few years back and she says, “You should have told me!” Maybe I should have, but sexual harassment can be so confusing.
Although I have written this post in present tense as if it is a current event, this occurred a decade ago. I remember mentioning the incident to my new girlfriend at the time, asking “Is this sexual harassment?” And she nodded her head vigorously and said, “Of course it is!” As with the first post on sexual harassment, I was not traumatized by this incident so I feel fortunate. Still, it was annoying and a more confusing incident than when I was 19, because I didn’t have someone walk right up to me and pin me against a wall. Could Mark have just meant to be friendly? I’ll never know. Yet, I would like to know your experiences, if any, that you care to share regarding sexual harassment, in the workplace or elsewhere.