Kate Burke and Maureen Haeger

Creating an Audience: Sexual Harassment and Abuse in the Workplace

Kate Burke and Maureen Haeger address the prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse in our society, and how we need to adjust our responses from victim blaming to empathy.


Recently, a friend of mine had her bike stolen. When she told people what happened, they were quick to sympathize. It’s a terrible feeling knowing someone was in your space and, worse, losing something of value. Her friends did not ask her where she lives (it’s an area with high property crime) or if she had left her garage door unlocked (she had). Their first concern was not determining her role in her own violation, but rather empathy and support. For any victim, that should be the primary response. Unfortunately, victims of sexual harassment and abuse aren’t always met with such an empathetic audience. The survivor of the Stanford rape case fought to be heard. She spent the last year of her life fighting for her own voice, as well as the voices of women who have been sexually assaulted or made to feel uncomfortable by a predator.

The survivor of the Stanford rape will spend the rest of her life as a survivor of sexual assault. This sentence was laid down by her rapist, Brock Turner, and it is a sentence shared by 1 in 6 women in the United States. His six-month jail sentence pales in comparison.

Sexual harassment happens so frequently that it is impossible to discuss every incident. It happens in public, shouted at us on the street and through open car windows. Strangers whisper assessments of our bodies as they walk past and demand to know what our problem is when we ignore it. It doesn’t feel complimentary, but rather like a quick reminder that eyes are on us at all times. Most of the time, this is merely rude. Sometimes, it is threatening. Sometimes, it is violent. But sometimes, it is deadly, like it was on January 22nd for Jenese Talton-Jackson. The Pittsburgh native was shot in the chest by a man at a bar when she turned to walk away.

There is a sexual assault every 107 seconds in the U.S. 47% of rapes are committed by someone the victims know. In light of these statistics, can you blame women for being a little wary of our male coworkers? Yes, nice guys, even you.

He asked if he could come over to my house to see my new place. He was about 30 years my senior and someone I respected professionally. I said, “Sure.” He knew I had no roommates and would be alone.

Women are socialized to be polite, to defer to authority. In the workplace, this can mean putting up with off-color jokes in order to be seen as a good sport, or gracefully deflecting come-ons without outright rejecting them. After all, maybe he didn’t mean it that way. And even if he did, surely you don’t want to seem frigid.

I was unpacking when he knocked. We sat at the kitchen table amongst the clutter.  When the small talk wound down, I wondered how long he would stay. “Do you trust me?” he asked. I didn’t know how to respond, but I was immediately uneasy. I cautiously said, “Yes.” He asked me if I wanted to cuddle. I froze. It was completely unexpected, but I knew that if I made it a big deal he wouldn’t leave right away, and in that moment that’s all I wanted. So I just said, no, I had to unpack, and hoped he would take the hint and go.

When women report harassment, they open themselves up to a new line of scrutiny. They are often asked if they are sure the harasser was doing it on purpose, or if they might have been sending mixed messages. They are asked if they are overreacting. Getting fired for sexual harassment is a nebulous experience as well. Unless there’s clear evidence of repeated behavior, it can be difficult to remove a predatory person from the workplace.

I tried to forget about it, but I was uncomfortable around him after that. But because he didn’t try to actually touch me, I didn’t say anything. He was later fired from his job for sexual harassment. There were no details available.

This is a national problem, but it is also happening in our community. And since it can be hard to pin down when someone crosses the line between friendly flirting and uninvited sexual attention, it is hard to prove. Women are told that they misunderstood their harasser’s intentions, or that they must have given mixed signals.

“You’re single and friendly. Aren’t you used to this sort of thing?”

Sometimes we hear that because women’s voices are being heard, we live in a post-feminist world. The trouble is that when women speak about our experiences, our stories do not reach an audience that knows how to listen. A report of sexual harassment or abuse is often met with immediate criticism rather than support, and this is unacceptable.

For those of us in fields that rely heavily on strong interpersonal skills, connection is key. We have to cultivate professional relationships, and we cannot be responsible for the feelings of every person who might misconstrue our professionalism for complacency. To the people who find this dynamic confusing, we say this: in case you were unclear, it is never okay to exploit your position of power in an attempt to force an unwanted relationship. Never. And to folks who have experienced this, we encourage you to speak up. You deserve an audience. Share your story with your bosses and coworkers, and if they judge you instead of listening to you, then please tell us. We will be your audience, and together we can foster a community of support. kate.mo.listen@gmail.com.




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