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Harassment How Far We've Come

January 12, 2001
Related Topics: Harassment, Featured Article

can remember exactly what I was wearing when I was assaulted the first time:hiking boots with thick wool socks over navy-blue knee-socks, underclothes, andmy father's very old 3/4-length light-blue plaid wool bathrobe, wrapped tightly.I was doing my laundry. My hair was still up, but the hours I'd spent in theairstream of the huge ventilation ducts had made it scraggly. 

    It was the first week of the first job, other thanbabysitting, I'd had. I was 20 years old. 

   I didn't see him until I turned from the washing machine to leave. He blockedthe door of the small space, then pushed me back against the dryer. He was 35,maybe 40 years older than I, and it took me a moment to imagine what he had inmind; it was way beyond my everyday comprehension. 

   His hands moved like a fighter -- while I was watching his left, his right camearound the other side. In my boots, I was as tall as he was, and I pushed himoff to one side so I could make it out the door. 

   I was sailing as an auxiliary Third Assistant Engineer on an oil tanker runningbetween Baytown, Texas, and the Eastern Seaboard. The man who assaulted me wasthe Chief Engineer. My cabin was just around the corner from his and I had toeat three meals a day at the same table with him in the officers' mess. He alsohad the keys to every single compartment of the vessel, including my room. 

   There was no place to run -- we were at sea -- and no place to hide. I sleptevery night with a metal chair shoved at an angle under the doorknob. 

   I didn't sleep well. 

Alot of people felt I had it coming when I took the job.
 As it turned out, that was only my first assault: There was a physical one onthe same vessel about a month later, by the Second Assistant Engineer, and athird, an attempted rape, about five years later, by a First Assistant onanother vessel. Those two were in the presence of witnesses. A few years afterthat, a grossly overweight captain chased me around his desk a few times when Iwent in to sign for my pay, and just before I quit for good, another chiefengineer almost dislocated my arm. 

   So what happened to these men? Did they lose their jobs? Were they demoted? DidI sue my employer, a major-league oil company? 

   No, no, no, and no. 

   This happened 20, 25 years ago, back when there were no laws against sexualharassment or creating a hostile work environment. A lot of people felt I had itcoming when I took the job; I don't know how many times I was told that womendon't belong on ships. 

   Times have changed. 

   Though things like this still happen, it's been a long time since I talked toanybody who was experiencing anything like what I went through for so manyyears. Large companies have developed extensive training programs to make surethat all employees are aware of both the letter and the spirit of lawsprotecting employees from sexual harassment and hostile work environments. Hugelawsuits have been filed and won on behalf of employees, and upper-levelmanagers are well aware of the dangers of ignoring complaints -- both to theircompanies' bottom lines, and to their own careers. 

   Occasionally, people, usually men, have been wrongfully accused of violatingthese laws, which is a travesty that damages innocent employees while it weakensjustified claims. 

   But given the acceptance and prevalence of this type of bad-boy behavior not somany years ago, and how vastly improved the work environment has become for mostemployees, I think it's a price that had to be paid.

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