Most professional women I know have experienced sexual harassment. So have I — a few times — and I never talked about it until now. If that seems surprising, it shouldn’t be. I’ve always considered myself a strong woman, not afraid to stand up for myself, but in the face of sexual harassment I was silent. As the issue takes a prominent place in the headlines today, I sometimes feel guilty about my trepidation. Perhaps I could have moved the conversation forward if I had come forth. But when I had those experiences I was young and afraid to speak out. I had no real power, and I was worried that people would blame me or consider me a troublemaker. Sound familiar?
The first incident came when I was nearing the end of my term as Miss America. I was thrilled to schedule a meeting with a top TV executive in New York who promised to help me gain entrée to the business. He called a bunch of shows and sang my praises, and then he took me out to dinner. Afterward we got into his car and he gave the driver the address of the friend I was staying with. As we sat in the backseat, he suddenly threw himself on top of me and stuck his tongue down my throat. I pulled away from him, horrified. As we reached my friend’s apartment building, I jumped out of the car and fled. When I got upstairs I started crying. I thought I had done something wrong.
It happened again a few months later in L.A., where I was meeting with a top public relations executive who had promised to help me parlay my Miss America experience into a news media career. He suggested we get some dinner. After I got into the passenger seat of his car, he abruptly put his hand on the back of my head and shoved my face into his crotch. Sickened, I yanked myself up, horrified and upset.
After each incident, I spent sleepless nights wondering what I should do next. Should I tell someone? But whom could I tell? In my heart I knew that I wouldn’t be believed. These men were powerful, and I had no power. So I stayed silent.
A third incident happened at my first job as a reporter for a news station in Richmond Virginia. One day, the station’s cameraman and I were out doing a story in a rural area. Before the interview, he helped me attach my microphone, reaching up under my blouse to hook it to my bra. This was a normal routine, and I didn’t think anything of it. But on the drive back to the station he started talking about how much he’d enjoyed touching my breasts. It wasn’t just creepy; it was scary. I pressed my body against the passenger-side window, and for a brief moment imagined myself rolling out of the car onto the highway to escape from him. Fortunately, we made it back to the station. This incident had a different ending because when my boss saw my face, he pressed me until I told him what had happened. It turned out there were other issues with the cameraman, and the station let him go. But I felt terrible about the whole situation. I didn’t want anyone to know about it lest they start whispering about me and speculating about what really happened. Like so many young women who are the victims of harassment, I worried for months that I had invited his advances in some way, or worse, that people would think I had. I hadn’t done anything wrong, but still I felt shame.
That was almost twenty-five years ago, but today young women are experiencing the same dread of revealing sexual harassment. To be honest, if a young professional woman were to ask my advice about what to do if she were sexually harassed, I might hesitate. It’s well and good to say, “Expose the harassers,” but even with laws and HR departments, we’re unfortunately not at a place where we can say absolutely that a woman who is harassed will be protected from repercussions if she tells. Those repercussions aren’t just the obvious trauma of being publicly involved in a scandal. They can be more insidious — an aura of doubt about her reliability, her stability and her toughness that could have an impact on her career growth. No wonder most women just prefer to move on and not tell.
So what can we do?
First, we have to stop blaming the victim. Too often the narrative about sexual harassment is that women bring it on themselves by the way they dress, act or look. Harassers get a pass in our culture, and it’s clear to me that we have to speak with one voice on this matter and say it’s wrong and we aren’t going to stand for it. Even when I was harassed, I always knew that my brains and talent were responsible for my success, not my looks. Unfortunately, I still have to put up with the constant drumbeat of “lookism.” People think it’s okay to refer to a professional woman as a “blonde bimbo.” We should refuse to tolerate this attitude when it occurs.
Second, we can never let the fact that sexual harassment exists hold women back. Recently it was revealed that some male members of Congress will not be alone with female staffers for fear of the appearance of impropriety. As a result women in these offices are excluded from important opportunities. I can’t imagine progressing in one’s career in Washington without being able to have private conversations with your boss or drive alone in a car with him. No wonder there are no female chiefs of staff in the offices that have this policy. In the guise of protecting the reputation of males, women are being relegated to the second tier, and this is just wrong.
Third, I believe that sexual harassment training should be mandatory for all businesses and organizations. Take the issue off the back burner and demand compliance in making the work environment safe for women to excel. My hope is that with more women in executive positions we can provide a support system for young women so they’re less frightened of speaking up when they’ve experienced abuse.
Finally, we have to stop thinking of sexual harassment as only a women’s issue. It comes down to how we raise our children, including our sons. It’s not enough to tell our daughters to stand up for themselves. Part of putting an end to harassment involves educating boys to be completely accepting of women, both at home and at work, so that harassment becomes a relic of the past.