by Shavon L. McKinstry

My first ever “real-tax-paying” job was in college. Being able to provide for myself was something that I so desperately wanted, it was a level of independence I hadn’t known, it was another step into adulthood. Unfortunately, after crossing this important milestone, I found myself forced into an unofficial milestone for many working women: being sexually harassed.

Each year in the United States, 15,000 sexual harassment complaints are filed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While people who aren’t women are often victims of abuse in the workplace, the majority of these complaints are women being harassed by men. On top of that, most of those women are harassed by their supervisors. Looking beyond work, a sample survey executed by the American Association of University Women Foundation found that 83% of girls and 60% of boys experienced sexual harassment in their schools. These stats, while already intimidating and disturbing, cannot account for the numerous unreported cases of sexual harassment.

When I was sexually harassed by my boss, it wasn’t just one incident. It started out in the form of uncomfortable questions, followed by inappropriate touching, and continued to spiral out of control until I finally spoke out to Human Resources. I wasn’t the only one affected by my boss’s harassment: in our workplace, the majority of my colleagues were other women, and we would talk about his behavior as a way to relieve our own anxiety. But for several months no one reported a thing. The general consensus was that it was unfortunate, but as long as no one felt like it would turn to something “more serious” like full out molestation or rape, it was harmless. When our boss wasn’t being inappropriate, he was genial and got along with everyone. Nobody wanted to be the “tattletale” and look bad. I know now that that mentality is both dangerous and wrong.

Often talks of victim-blaming are used exclusively in cases of rape. However, victim-blaming and self-blame are very important concepts in other forms of abuse, such as sexual harassment. reports that only about 5% to 15% of victims of harassment report the actual incident(s) (which means with EEOC reports at around 15,000, actual workplace harassment cases range from 100,000 to 300,000 a year in the US).  The most common reasons for not reporting include fear of judgement, shame, retaliation, including victims losing their jobs. While the EEOC protects against retaliation, not all employees are covered: unpaid interns, freelancers, contract workers, and people at businesses with fewer than 15 employees are not protected.  And like so many other acts of sexually-based crimes, harassment thrives in our culture that tells victims and women that they have done something wrong to receive this unwanted attention or that they’re overreacting to something normal.

All that adds up to this: the anxiety, and sometimes the consequences, around reporting workplace harassment are very real. Workplace sexual harassment thrives when employees aren’t protected from retaliation and when harassing behaviors are considered normal or par for the course. The correct response should always be that it’s the perpetrator’s fault one hundred percent of the time. Regardless of if you’re a student, new graduate, or have been a full-time employee for years, nobody is “asking for” workplace harassment: not you, not your co-worker, not your friend. “Mixed signals” and “blurred lines” are never an excuse for such behavior.

But even though I knew all that and that I was protected by the EEOC,  and despite the amazing support I have amongst my SPARK sisters and friends and family, I was blaming myself. Spending more time at work doing overtime in hopes of being able to afford groceries and clothes meant spending more one-on-one time with my boss. I told myself that it was my fault for not quitting, that I was the one electing to work with him. Even with all of my knowledge of empowerment and equal rights, I was scared. I felt like an embarrassment to my cause for not being able to confront my boss in a way that would make him stop. In my mind, since no one else was speaking up to the higher-ups, I must have been overreacting.

These are excuses that are not special; they’re unfortunately common. Even after I finally gathered up the gumption to make a formal report, I was scared at every turn. But my fears turned out to be unfounded when I sat down at the Human Resources office to speak with a representative. The HR worker I talked to was kind and supportive. She told me that my boss’s actions were completely inexcusable and that it was important that I filed the complaint. She helped me through the process and ensured that my identity would be protected. I was lucky to have such an encouraging person to help me through the situation.

I would like to be able to say that I watched my jerk of a boss pack up a small box of his belongings and be unceremoniously fired for harassing myself, my colleagues, and my friends. However, things didn’t work out that way. In my case, my job, along with the jobs of my boss and coworkers were terminated due to underfunding of the program. Though, in the weeks before being laid off and after filing reports and having interview after interview, I was able to have some solace. When HR informed him of the investigation, my boss got scared. He tried to pry information from myself and my peers, and when no one would budge, he froze up and stopped his harmful actions. The circumstances of my situation prevented me from enjoying the satisfaction of seeing actual action being taken out against him, but it did provide me with the opportunity to see the fear on his face that I’d had just weeks before every time I had to be alone with him or was called into his office.

My experience with sexual harassment is not unique by any means. So many others in this world are victims of abuse in their workplace and schools, but either lack the resources, ability, or encouragement to talk about their experiences in a meaningful way. If you or someone you know is currently feeling victimized, it’s important you understand that you’re not alone. Harassment happens much too often, and it won’t magically stop on its own. Your safety and well being are worth protecting, which means speaking up to the best of your ability. Tell your friends, family, teachers, supervisors, and administration. Find out who is the most appropriate contact for the situation you’ve been put into. Your wellness is important, and no one has the right to take it away from you. I wish that I could’ve seen my boss punished for his harassment, but I got something out of it. I hope that if you’re reading this right now, and you need to report an incident to someone, that you get the full satisfaction I was denied.