What I wish I knew when I was harassed for the first time

“Boys will be boys” was a phrase that got tossed around a lot throughout my childhood. When boys teased you at recess. Pulled your scrunchie (yes a scrunchie!) out of your hair and ran away with it. If they called you ugly causing you to burst into tears. And I will say that by and large, the typical immature behavior I experienced at the hands of adolescent boys was harmless. But as I grew older and started working part time jobs, going off to college and preparing for the “real world” I noticed that phrase—and variations of it—seemed to be getting a lot more mileage. And it was no longer harmless.

Numerous times as I was entering young adulthood, if I described an instance of unwanted attention, I was most often told to “be flattered” or that it wasn’t really a big deal. But we all have gut instincts that set off the red alert as needed, and I know now not to second guess that innate feeling of “something is really wrong here.” So for everyone younger than I am—or really any age—I’d like to share what I wish I knew, so that my experiences do not become yours and we can all learn from this together.

Being made to feel uncomfortable is enough of a reason to report an incident

Often I felt that because someone hadn’t physically laid a hand on me or started an altercation of some kind, that I would be overreacting if I reported comments or behavior that made me feel ill at ease. When I was a teenager, an older man made sexually suggestive remarks to me on a regular basis and when I mentioned it to a co-worker, she dismissed it with the explanation “oh that’s what he’s like with everyone.” A revamped “boys will be boys” that I was supposed to accept even though I tensed up and actively looked for any way possible not to interact with him at work. His mere presence made me uncomfortable and his words made me feel powerless and nervous. And guess what? That’s NOT okay! But I didn’t feel confident that my feelings were reason enough to explain to an authoritative figure and try to put an end to it. And I should have. I wish I could tell my younger self “your feelings are valid! And someone shouldn’t be allowed to make you feel this way.”

There is a big difference between a compliment and harassment

Another tactic within the broad “boys will be boys” brush off is the insistence that certain comments should be taken as a compliment. There is a HUGE difference between compliments and harassment. A genuine compliment makes you smile, say thank you and feel pretty good about yourself. So simply declaring something as a compliment doesn’t make it so. I once worked with a man who told me that wearing my engagement ring gave the wrong idea to clients as to my relationship status, and in the same breath stated that I should never wear pants to work because I had great legs. When I blanched, he chided me to “calm down” he was just complimenting my “assets” and how I looked in a skirt.

Your clothing does not invite harassment

The attitude this man projected was that since I had worn a skirt and (gasp!) shown my legs, I deserved to be subjected to his opinion and his comments of approval about my choice. Our wardrobe choices are for us and us alone. Do we have to adhere to dress codes at various times? Yes, of course. But no skirt, no swimsuit, no crop top comes with a stamp of permission for harassment. When I was younger, I was told on more than one occasion that if I didn’t want someone to say something about my attire, then I should not have worn it. And this is completely ludicrous. My outfit choices do not need to revolve around the idea that I shouldn’t instigate sexist or lewd comments. No one should be making those kinds of comments.

You don’t need to be afraid to speak up

Human Resources exists specifically to handle the well-being of employees within a company. Not in a professional setting? Seek out a teacher, a parent, a trusted authority figure in the capacity to assist you. For too many incidences, I remained quiet. Out of fear of jeopardizing my job, being viewed differently by senior management, being labeled “difficult” by others in my office. If you don’t speak up for yourself in these situations, it’s likely no one else will. If you confront the person harassing you and they attempt to dismiss your discomfort with any of the previously mentioned excuses, you have every right to report what you’re being subjected to. And if you’re too frightened to confront the actual person, you still have the right to report what they are doing. You have the right to go to work or go to school or simply EXIST in a harassment free zone and you can use your voice to ensure that right.

Harassment isn’t just towards a female from a male. It spans all genders, races and orientations. But it is never okay in any form, no matter the culprit.

I wish I had spoken up more years ago, but I was afraid to confide in my parents. Afraid that I would tell most people and they wouldn’t take my side. But I know now that so many people feel the way that I did and we need to put a stop to it.

And also? Maybe we can do away with saying “boys will be boys” to justify bad behavior and nip this thing in the bud. Being a boy doesn’t grant immunity from acting like a decent human being and that’s an important lesson to teach kids today about respecting each other.

[Image via iStock]