Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My male co-worker was recently promoted and now he’s my boss. Since taking the position, his whole attitude has changed. He kisses up to all the C-level folks he used to trash talk and is delegating more and more of his work to me and the rest of his staff so he can take long boozy lunches, come in late and leave early. A few weeks ago, when his boss asked him to take on a big project, naturally he asked for my help. To get it done, the two of us had to stay at the office until almost 10pm. As we were finishing up, we celebrated with a quick beer in his office. It was then that he informed me that he’d been having sex dreams about me, and that every time he sees me in the office, he’s reminded of his dreams and gets really turned on. He didn’t try to touch me, he didn’t threaten me, but he did make me extremely uncomfortable. I tried to cover up my nervousness by laughing, but I left really upset thinking about what’s been on his mind all this time. I don’t know how this affects my career, if at all, or if I should even say anything to his boss. I’m just not sure it qualifies as harassment and I don’t want to make a big deal out of nothing. What do you think?
Was I Just Harassed?
Dear Was I Just Harassed,
You were just harassed.
I completely understand your impulse to minimize your boss’ comments. It was late, you were drinking beer, he told you about a dream he had, he expressed sexual interest in you, you laughed but you then, afterwards, when you were alone, safe, and able to fully experience your feelings without fear of reprisal, you became upset. Very upset. But now it’s been a few weeks, maybe it wasn’t a big deal. Maybe you’re just being silly.
It would be so much more convenient if you, in fact, were making a big deal out of nothing. It would cause less stress and anguish for your boss, for your boss’ boss, for your HR department, for that part of your mind that worries about the future and your job security and wants everything to stay the same. It would be very convenient for the status quo if you did nothing about this incident. You see, the status quo wants you stay silent. It wants you to appease the rude behavior of powerful men. It wants you to carry the burden of being harassed within yourself, silently. It wants you, the victim, to pay the price for your boss’ monstrous behavior. It wants you to swallow, and digest, and absorb your boss’ sickness. It wants him to get larger while you get smaller. It wants only the appearance of normalcy. It wants your pain to stay silent.
Here are four true things, which I’m going to write in all caps:
MOST WOMEN HAVE BEEN GROOMED ALL OF OUR LIVES TO LET SEXUAL HARASSMENT SLIDE. Did you listen to the “Five Women” episode of This American Life? If not, stop reading this and go listen to it. The entire episode deals with how women react to being harassed from a young age up until adulthood. What do we do when we grow breasts and then men notice? Do we withdraw? Do we start to act older than we are? Do we find the attention warming? Do we capitulate to the attention to make it easier for all parties involved? The truth is, once girls begin to look like women we’re not seen as people anymore — we become objects, something to be acquired. So, by the time we reach adulthood and an office environment we’re already familiar with that clammy-skin feeling caused by unwanted attention. We know what it is to be cornered by a smile that wants more than you’re willing to give. We know that they’re going to push us, see if they can take it just another step further, and we know that it’s our job to get out of there but in a way that’s still nice, and polite, and doesn’t make the man who already doesn’t see us as human also want to hurt us. We’re groomed to defer to men. We’re groomed to laugh it off. We’re groomed to think it’s our fault.
Your boss, the man who is your direct supervisor at your job should never, EVER let you know that he wants to have sex with you. Also, also, ALSO, that line that he gave you about the sex dream is THE WORST, it’s such a crock of shit that it just clogged my toilet. First off all, he did not have a sex dream about you, and even if he did no one on this fucking planet ever wants to hear about another person’s boring ass pervy dreams. Honestly, his assumption that you would give even the tiniest of fucks about his dream journal or how much blood in his penis at a given moment almost pisses me off more than the fact that this man is in a position of power over you and is using that position to engage with you sexually. He is entitled and boorish and completely out of line. Also, between drinking at work, never being on time, and not doing any actual work, and ALSO sexually harassing his subordinates, he is definitely winning the “WORST BOSS EVER” Olympics.
The thing that kills me is that you’re not just debating whether to report his behavior, but you’re debating whether or not the way that his behavior made you feel — small, weak, scared, unimportant, silly — is valid. THE WAY YOU FEEL IS COMPLETELY VALID AND YOU SHOULD ALSO REPORT HIS ASS TO HR. Because, here’s the thing: He is wrong. Totally, wholly, completely, and utterly wrong. Whenever you start wondering if he’s wrong, take yourself out of it. Pretend that it happened to someone else, a friend, a total stranger. Would it be OK if your boss talked that way to a total stranger? No? Then there’s no way it’s OK that he talked that way to you.
REMEMBER THAT IT’S NEVER JUST YOU. You know that thing that your boss did? Wait until you were alone, together, at night, in the office? You know how he gave you a beer to loosen you up and only mentioned the fact that he would love to sleep with you after you had drank most of it? You know how he didn’t actually say that he wants to sleep you, not really, but instead told you that he’s vividly imagined sleeping with you and it was so good that now when he sees you he gets turned on remember his own dream? That shit is master-level harassment behavior and you don’t get masterful at sexual harassment without harassing a lot of people. He is practiced at this, he has rehearsed, and he’s not going to stop.
Read this article that goes into the psychology of why people don’t report sexual harassment and then read this which outlines what your HR department is required to do. Do not go to your boss’ boss — go to HR. This is not a management issue, this is a STOP DOING ILLEGAL SHIT issue.
Your boss is the worst, I’m so sorry this happened to you, and you have every right to be upset about it. Please know that his desire to somehow make you responsible for his boner does not in any conceivable way outweigh your legal right to be comfortable at work. He’s in the wrong morally, he’s in the wrong ethically, and he’s in the wrong legally. Write down what happened, go to HR, report it and, if they don’t take swift and effective action, or if there is even a whiff of reprisal, hire an employment lawyer. This was not nothing. This was harassment. And you don’t have to let it slide.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.