I thought I knew what this was. As young as nine I was watching Chrissy fend off the unwanted advances of a boss on Three’s Company. She said her boss was sexually harassing her; staring at her boobs, asking her for dates, chasing her around his desk. Ah, if it always came in such an obvious, toupeed package. I will confess something to you, dear readers: I have sexually harassed in the workplace. To define, sexual harassment in the workplace is the unwanted or unwelcome sexual attention from a client or co-worker that hinders the target from performing his or her job in a safe and productive environment. So basically everyone who punches a time clock is harassed multiple times a day. But this is about one specific incident, over fifteen years ago, when I ventured over to the dark side, to leave behind the constant cloak of harassee and don the robes of workplace terrorizer.
There is a fine line between practical jokester and sexual harasser. I saw that once it was pointed out to me, but I grew up in a family where my siblings thought it was quite funny to lock me outside in my underwear, take pictures of me naked in the tub or shower or toilet. There’s a famous one with me in a pretty red dress (I was probably about three), my naked posterior turned to the camera, bending over with a taffy stick protruding from my ass. I think my dad snapped this charmer. He’d be in jail by today’s standards. But back then it was in the family photo album and everyone laughed at it. My brother Drew, at six years old, fell asleep in the tub, holding his privates. Polaroid moment. In my family funny and naked went together; never pass up an opportunity to be both.
I never liked Michael Damian (this may seem like an unlikely and bizarre segue, but stick with me please). Through the early ’80’s Rick Springfield was my crush of choice and I bought any and every magazine I could get my hands (and allowance) on and hung his pin-ups all over my room. I made scrapbooks (oh, of course I still have them, lovelies) and played his records and even though he was closer in age to my mother (still is) I vowed to marry him. Now sharing space with Rick in one magazine in particular (Tiger Beat and sister publication Tiger Beat Star) was a soap star by the name of Michael Damian. Sharing? MD took up about half the magazine. If Rick had two pin-ups, MD had four. Several articles. Contests to meet him, win his record, a tissue he sneezed into: I swear, he must have owned stock. I’d never heard of Michael Damian; after several issues of Tiger Beat, I knew him better than a big bowl of half-eaten spaghetti. Back then he was on The Young and the Restless. He dabbled in singing, movies, big hair. Recently I caught him on a Facts of Life rerun and couldn’t tell the difference between him and Nancy McKeon. Like the glossies of Leif Garrett before him, I defiled Michael Damian. I drew on his face, I cut out his teeth. I began ripping out his pin-ups and terrorizing my older sister Lani with them. I put them in her medicine cabinet. I placed them on her pillow. I taped them to the inside of her closet. Sometimes I would put notes on them, “Lani, why don’t you love me?” “I’m waiting for you.” My favorite was one I left in her husband Dale’s unlocked car while Lani was pregnant with Jess: “The baby is mine.”
So now we have come to the perfect origin of my experience with sexual harassment in the workplace. I was in my mid-twenties, working at a shoe store. There was a mother and daughter on staff and on this night I was working with the daughter, about fifteen. She was a sweet, smart, shy type and I liked both her and her mother. She went out into the mall on her break and came back to tell me her favorite star was on the cover of Playgirl Magazine. She asked if I would go buy it for her. I knew her mother was pretty cool, but still: maybe she wouldn’t like my buying such filth for her daughter. We made a deal: she would read the article on her guy and throw the mag in the mall trash can outside our store. We’d never tell her mom, she’d never see naked magazine penis, she’d learn more about her favorite star. Seemed okay to me. She gave me the money and I went to buy the mag. Back in the store, I turned to the page of the article she wanted to read. She read it at the counter while I attended to customers; she could have sneeked a peek, I trusted she didn’t. The store remained at a steady pace, so we put the mag in the back room, on the desk, to keep it out of the sight of customers, yet in plain sight for us to remember to toss it in the garbage.
The store closed at nine-thirty. She ran the vacuum and straightened displays while I sat at the desk and settled the sales and prepared the deposit. The magazine taunted me. So I flipped through it. Hilarious. All those pouty lips, greased and shaved bodies, perfectly coiffed hair, Vaseline-slicked shlongs resting against thighs or peeking out of half-zipped jeans. No wonder it caught on more with gay men than straight women. It was so comical I wanted to spread the joy. I ripped out the best shots and tucked them in the file cabinet. I slid them between the pages of the inventory count clipboard. I put one on the back door of the bathroom. I put one in the binder marked THIS WEEK’S AD. I couldn’t wait for my next shift; everyone would be laughing so hard. Ha ha ha.
I came in at one the following afternoon. The sense of mirth I had been expecting to find was not present; instead everyone on the floor was quiet, moving robotically. They nodded politely at my “good afternoon” salutation. I went into the back room to unload my stuff. My boss was on the phone. She looked upset. She told the person on the other end of the line that I was there, she would call back.
“Rachel,” she said, gripping my arm. “I have something to discuss with you.”
I am thinking she didn’t appreciate my joke and I am about to be given a come back to Jesus talk when the conversation goes somewhere completely unexpected. She is under the impression a former employee came in after hours and planted these pictures to terrorize us. She is thinking of pressing charges. She is scared. The person on the phone was the owner of our chain of stores. I am now severely crapping my pants as I can feel the handcuffs clinking on my wrists, the cops leading me out of the store and through the mall past Expressly Portraits where my flirtation Dave works.
I hold my hand up and quickly run through my story, buying the magazine and wouldn’t it be funny if . . . . She does not think this is funny. She is horrified. She is looking at me like I had hoped no boss would ever look at me. Not a female one, anyway. She thinks I am depraved, demented, sick and twisted.
She tells me the pictures she found and leaves me alone in the back room to clear out any others. She has missed at least five. Months later I will find one I missed and laugh my ass off. When I go out onto the floor I can tell the other ladies know. They hide their laughter and I feel a lot better when one of them–the girl’s mother–tells me she thinks it’s hilarious, but that our boss doesn’t have that kind of humor. Another co-worker tells me that she too thought it was funny, but offers a valuable lesson: it is sexual harassment, and if I wasn’t so well-liked and valued as a member of the sales team, I could have been fired and have the incident listed on my permanent work record. It was a major enlightenment: I had no idea this could be considered sexual harassment. Don’t men hang girlie pictures all over their offices? One software company I worked at had a cluster of men who hung Victoria’s Secret catalog pictures all over their cubicles. The definition of harasser, in my opinion, is the intent to titilate; my intent was to share a moment with my girls. To laugh. Which brings me to a little closing story:
I shared this Playgirl harassment experience with another co-worker at a subsequent job. I had just completed my story when one of the elderly gentlemen in the company wearing ball hugging pants walked by. “See! Now there you go: talk about sexual harassment!” I fumed in mid-rant, to which she pointed out, “You just proved your point: even if something is hilarious, it can still harass you.” Indeed.