A new report from the Young Women’s Trust found that 23% of women aged 16-30 have been sexually harassed at work - but only 8% report it. Here, one woman tells Stylist’s digital commissioning editor, Sarah Biddlecombe, why she won’t be reporting her colleague’s sexual abuse.
February 2012 marked one year since I’d started my first proper job after graduating from university. I was working at a media company in London and, one evening, found myself out for work drinks with some colleagues. I was new to the city and felt an immense pressure to be out all the time. I had also recently had my heart broken, so I was a bit depressed.
I was waiting at the bar to order drinks when, out of nowhere, our event director suddenly started feeling me up. I didn’t know him very well, though I knew he was married, and I tried to make a joke of it. But he was insistent, and kept telling me that he couldn’t help himself, and that he really fancied me. He kissed me and, as ridiculous as it sounds, I was flattered – I felt sexy and desirable.
We went to the shops together and he pushed me up against the wall and continued kissing me. He was older than me and much more senior at work, and it kind of just happened. At this point it was consensual, and we didn’t sleep together that night. For the next few months we were texting and talking on the phone almost constantly and then, three months after he first kissed me, we slept together.
Our affair continued for six months, and I think I let it happen because I was a bit all over the place – my grandma was really sick, and I have struggled with feelings of depression and anxiety in the past. But I felt bad, because I’m a feminist who supports other women and I felt really guilty that I was doing that to his wife. I spoke to my best friend about it and she was appalled, and then I found out that he was trying to have a baby with his wife, and I just thought, no. The affair fizzled out and, a few months later, I left the company to start a new role elsewhere.
But after about 18 months into my new job, I got offered a more senior role at my original company. I had been with my new boyfriend for a few months and things were going really well, so I thought it would be fine.
And at first, it was. He’d had a baby with his wife, and she had seen some of our messages on his phone, so I thought his behaviour would have changed. But then we had to go away on a residential trip to Canada, just the two of us, for a week.
He was overly flirty and insistent for the whole trip, despite my protests, even coming into my hotel room to borrow my phone adaptor and then pushing me onto the bed and pretending to have sex with me. I tried to laugh it off because I didn’t want to offend him, and I’d only just returned back to the company. Plus, I didn’t want anyone to know about our previous affair. It felt surreal that it had even happened. But then, on the plane home, he tried to finger me. I was wearing a blanket and he was stroking my leg, and then he put his hand under the blanket and tried to get into my trousers. I pushed him off but he did it a few times.
He asked if I’d had sex on a plane before and tried to get me to go to the bathroom with him, then every time I needed the toilet he would follow me. He tried to kiss me. I wished we hadn’t had to sit next to each other.
I didn’t know what to do. I felt completely disposable in the company, and everyone thought he was such a great guy and this amazing father figure. Plus, he’s really good friends with my boss, and I was worried if I said anything he’d turn it around and say I’d come onto him.
There was also a massive amount of guilt on my part – I felt bad saying no to him, because I’d said yes in the past. So I let the groping and inappropriate behaviour slide on that trip, because I felt guilty that I wouldn’t give him what he wanted.
For the next few months, I managed to avoid seeing him too much around the office, but then we were sent away on another trip. The first day was taken up by a conference, and then there was a big dinner in the evening. We were heading back to our rooms, which were about four doors apart, to get ready for the dinner when my room key suddenly stopped working. We were ages away from reception so he offered for me to borrow the phone in his room to ring the front desk and get a new key sent up.
I went in and, as soon as I picked up the phone, he began aggressively groping me from behind, touching my boobs and putting his hand up my skirt. I was too scared of what might happen if I hung up the phone, so I stayed on hold, desperately trying to shrug him off me. I sat on the edge of his bed and crossed my legs and tried to curl up so there was less of me on show, but he was putting his hands inside my underwear, and pushing me backwards on the bed. It was the first time that I’d felt truly out of control with him, and I was scared. I just wanted him to get his hands off my body.
I was telling him to “f**k off” and physically trying to push him off, but I’m only five foot four and he was much bigger than me, and taller, broader and heavier. He got on top of me and pinned me to the bed, trying to finger me and undress me. He was being insistent and kept saying, “Come on”. Somehow I managed to push him off me and started racing around the room, which was massive, trying to find my bag and my phone. He stripped off all his clothes and came towards me, trying to get me to touch him sexually and telling me to take a shower with him.
I ran out of the room and into a maid, who was in the corridor. I think she could sense what had happened – my clothes were half off. She used her key to let me into my room and in a frenzied state I got ready for dinner, even though I was physically shaking and felt like I was going to be sick. I saw him at the dinner, of course, and he said, “Hiya, you alright?” as though nothing had happened. I completely shut down and went into autopilot – I think I even asked him how his shower was.
While I’d managed to shrug off everything that had happened before, this time I knew without doubt that he had assaulted me. A few of my colleagues could tell something was wrong, and when I spoke to them about it, they agreed that he could get a bit “handsy” sometimes. But I didn’t want to say anything – I knew he’d make out that he was this great, innocent family man and I was just some girl who had seduced him. Plus, we’d had sex before, so I didn’t think anyone would take my accusations seriously. I just wanted to forget it.
Now, with the Harvey Weinstein case and more and more people speaking out against sexual abuse, I feel like a rubbish woman, and a rubbish feminist, for not wanting to report it. All the women who have come forward are so brave, and with the #MeToo movement people are finally starting to realise the enormity of the issue. I’d be hard pushed to find any girl that hasn’t been felt up in a club, or whistled at in the street, or told to “cheer up”. I’ve experienced these things, as I imagine most women have, since I was about 14. It’s become almost normal. So I believe the movement is good, but you shouldn’t be shamed if you don’t want to say anything, either.
I do want people to know that this happened though. I think I need validation that it is a big deal, because you’re so ingrained as a woman to shrug these things off as men being drunk, or just men being men. We’re so conditioned as women to just say, “Oh it’s just lads, it’s just banter”.
I think the main reason I don’t want to report it at work is because I’m terrified they’ll just give him a disciplinary, or a warning. The worst thing that could happen for my mental health would be for me to report it, and have it undermined. I’ve spent the last two years trying to validate that it was a big deal, and worked hard to come to a comfortable understanding that it was wrong, and that I was a victim. It would be awful to have to face him at work every day after that, and see him still there working in a position of power.
My overarching feeling about all of the allegations of sexual abuse that have come out in the past year is one of sadness. It’s such a large-scale problem – it’s not just me, it’s not just my work, it’s not just London. It’s everywhere.
But I want to share my story to help other women who have been in my position, or are in it right now. My message to them is that they shouldn’t feel guilty, and that even if you have made a different decision before, it is always OK to say no.
After all, no means no. I don’t know what needs to happen next to change these behaviours for good, but I do know that men need to know it’s not OK – and that the more of us who tell our stories, anonymously or not, the better chance this message has of being heard.
This article was originally published on 9 November 2017
Images: iStock / Rex Features