Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Sexual Harassment

Yesterday I wrote a blog post about misreading signals from men. It seems innocent and frivolous.
Today, it feels much more like the railroad crossing gate didn't come down, and I'm blaming myself for getting hit by a train.
My stomach was churning when I woke up at 5:30. I could feel my student's big arms struggling to wrap around me as I pushed against him and said, "No! That isn't appropriate. No!"
My hands pushed ineffectually at the rough material of his cotton coat as my eyes searched the empty hallway beyond the door,  hoping someone would be outside.
As the professor, I had the power in the classroom situation, yet his physical strength trumped whatever authority I might have.
Still, politeness prevented me from calling out for help or screaming at him. I didn't kick him or hit him. I maintained my civility, as I'd been taught. And when he stepped away, I held my hand out to shake his, showing him the proper way to indicate appreciation for a professor.
I called my husband on the phone before I stepped out into the darkness of the parking lot, and I didn't confide how shaken I felt by the encounter.

I had written yesterday's blog post in class. After an initial lecture, I gave students the opportunity to catch up on their work before the final exam next week. I'd graded all their papers. As students worked, they asked questions or requested that I help them with an assignment, and slowly they finished, packed up their things and left. Except for the one student who'd made me uncomfortable all semester.
Wondering whether I was making more of his comments than I should, I wrote the blog post "Subtle Signs." I published it before the final encounter, the forced hug, the deliberate disdain for my words that said: "Stop!"
When I got home, I edited my blog, adding the section about the student grabbing me and hugging me against my will. But it's there in the middle. It's importance hidden like a Russian nesting doll.
My body let me know this morning that his actions do matter.
Instead of writing at 5:30 a.m. I went for a walk, hoping activity would calm the sick feeling that fluttered through my middle. I bought a white mocha, comfort food, but it tasted bitter as I trudged home over the ice-covered sidewalks.
I got dressed for work and thought carefully about what I would wear. I planned to talk to the Dean. I didn't want him to think I dressed in a provocative way that might have encouraged the student. I slipped my wedding ring on my finger, another talisman to ward against evil.
Halfway through dressing, I realized that I'd fallen into the societal judgment of women, that something I had done, some way I had dressed, some jewelry I had worn, might have caused the incident.
At the back of my throat, I felt the dryness that arrives right before vomit fills my mouth. I swallowed and urged my body to get a grip.
I planned to talk to the dean after I'd finished teaching for the day, but when I had a break, I grabbed my phone and called him. I thought reporting the incident might settle the queasiness in my stomach. It didn't.
The dean responded suitably. He talked about the student growing up in another culture, but agreed it was no excuse. The dean assured me that he and another faculty member would talk to the student to let him know his action was inappropriate, and that he couldn't continue at school if he didn't change his behavior.
I should have felt relief, but my heart continued to skip within my chest -- those arms coming tightly around my shoulders, my hands pushing against his shoulders to get him away.
I grabbed my bag and walked to the cafeteria. I ordered fries and doused them in ketchup.
After my other classes, I took a quick trip to Trader Joe's. On the way, I called my friend Janine and told her all I was feeling. We talked about how society has taught us to respond by wondering what we did wrong. "You didn't do anything wrong," she reassured me, and I felt better. I bought a small hyacinth plant to cheer me, and some chocolates. Nothing seemed to calm me.
I worked out at the gym, lifting weights, throwing my shoulders and stomach into the rowing machine as I leaned back then pulled forward again.
Finally I came home to write this.
I'm still surprised how big this felt, and truthfully, it was nothing compared to what other women go through.
I guess I didn't expect to feel so helpless. I'm a strong woman. I'm an older woman. I feel secure in myself, but it only took that one incident to reduce me to a quivering Victorian woman reaching for her smelling salts.
But if it happens again, I hope I'm ready to yell, to curse, to fight, and not worry about being polite. And I need to teach my daughter, and all those other young women who feel strong, but might react with politeness when they should react with fierceness -- creating the world we want, not the one we inherited.


Just Me said...

Oh my gosh what a good post. I'm so sorry about the whole situation. For what it's worth, Your description, struggling and working through this has really helped me.

Linda said...

That guy needs some help. I wonder if it is because he comes from another country or if he is just a predator. It's such a sick feeling, I know. I had a guy expose himself to me on the bus and I beat him on the head with a rolled up poster I was carrying. I'd be upset too. I hope something is done.

Paulita said...

Just Me, Thanks for making me feel like my words matter.
Linda, That's awful. I'm so proud of you for responding in a strong way and hitting the guy! My regret is that I didn't take more action.

Samantha said...

Oh I'm so sorry that this happened to you! What a jerk. I don't care if he is from another culture, some things are universal and hugging a woman when she doesn't want to be is wrong in any land. I also really understand how women are taught to be so polite. It is so hard for me to stop being like that and speak up for myself. I'm proud of you saying "No" and informing your dean. This is a wake up call to all women to take control and have the power to yell and say no!!!

Paulita said...

Samantha, I agree. That's what shocked me the most, that I didn't respond more strongly. The college let me know today that this is a Title IX violation and he won't be in my class for the final. What a relief!

Unknown said...

Paulita, I'm so sorry. Don't be hard on yourself. You are a strong woman; it's just hard to be prepared for something like this.

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