As an 18-year-old, Sarah didn’t necessarily see the over-friendly behaviour of her much-older boss as sexual harassment.
Looking back now, many years later, she is still not sure what was going through his mind.
She knows it was inappropriate, that it made her feel uncomfortable and that if it happened to her now she would put a stop to it.
But as an inexperienced young woman who had been taught to trust and respect the adults in her life, she says she didn’t know how to respond.
At the time, she was working as an office assistant at a small firm. The boss, who she remembers was old enough to be her father, had a couch in his office and he would invite her to sit with him whenever there was any business to discuss.
“After a while, he started to put his hand on my knee when we talked,” said Sarah (not her real name).
“I didn’t tell him to remove it. That’s what I would do now, but I was 18 and he was an authority figure and it didn’t occur to me to do that.”
Instead, she changed her own behaviour, shifting her body position and starting to wear pants to work. The man was not aggressive or rude. He smiled a lot and was friendly and reassuring much of the time.
When he spoke to her at her desk he would put a hand on her shoulder or lean against her a little too long as he demonstrated something on the computer. When they were alone in his office he continued to put his hands on her knee and, occasionally, to stroke her hair and tell her she was beautiful.
“My childish reaction was to say, ‘I am going to cut it off’. I didn’t say stop or I don’t want you to do that. I said I’m going to cut it off. I didn’t intend to do it, it was just a reflex reaction.”
She remembers the man tried to reassure her, telling her she had gorgeous hair and she should not cut it. The behaviour didn’t escalate any further and she left the company after around six months for unrelated reasons.
“To this day I don’t know if he intended what he was doing to be sexual in nature,” she said.
“I never confronted him, I never said I was uncomfortable, I never even classified it myself as sexual harassment. It is only now when I look back on it with the life experience I have had since then that I think about it like that.”
She says she wasn’t scared particularly, though it had crossed her mind that there would be little to stop him from doing anything more serious when they were alone in the office.
Learning how to say no
She believes she was naïve, at the time, about what sexual harassment or assault involved.
“I think from television and media, your understanding is you can get assaulted in a dark alley. I don’t remember ever learning that the people that are most likely to assault you are the people that have access to you – people that you trust or believe you can trust.”
Sarah said she was never really given any sex education in school or at home and had been brought up to be “polite” to adults. She thinks times have changed a little since then and today’s children are being taught they can say no to a hug without being disrespectful.
That kind of upbringing, she believes, is essential to teach young people how to say no.
“You are being taught to trust people and there is nothing wrong with that. Respect your teacher, respect your elders, respect your boss. But I think that has to come with a caution that some people may abuse that trust and respect.”
Over time, she says she has learned how to firmly deflect unwanted attention and advances.
“If that happened to me now, I would say right away, ‘Please don’t touch me’.”
She believes that as a society, we need to get more comfortable with telling people what we want and, more importantly, what we don’t want.
“We have to normalise that and worry less about someone else’s feelings,” she said.
“Women don’t need to feel apologetic about saying no.”
Throughout June, the Cayman Compass Issues section is shining a light on the problem of sexual harassment in Cayman. We are providing a forum for women and men impacted by the issue to tell their stories, and examining possible solutions to make the islands a safer place to live and work. Join the conversation at www.caymancompass.com/issues/ or email Issues Editor James Whittaker on [email protected]