11.11.11

A Flood of Harassment Horror Stories After the Herman Cain Allegations

The Herman Cain furor has prompted many women to share their long-suppressed sexual-harassment stories. Lauren Ashburn on why they’re still angry.

The floodgates burst open.

Moments after publishing a story on how I’d been repeatedly sexually harassed at work—and didn’t do anything about it—an onslaught of emails about unwanted workplace advances began pouring into my inbox. These women, like me, made a decision not to report their abusers.

But they remain angry, even years later, their stories a hornet’s nest of head-shakingly disgusting behavior.

A woman who has since left the media business says: “Working as the 5:30 p.m. producer at an NBC affiliate, I was all of 22 years old. The senior staff was in an editorial meeting. There were no more chairs in the room when I arrived. I said: ‘I don’t have anywhere to sit; I’ll go get a chair.’ The editorial director, in front of everyone, turned to me and said, ‘As long as I have a face, you have a place to sit.’ ”

It soon became clear that Herman Cain’s accusers had struck a chord. A stay-at-home mom who once worked for a corporation told me her boss had said: “You are dressed like a monk today. Don’t come talk to me unless I want to sleep with you.” She described the boss inviting her “to various places around the world in the guise of business. The compliments were unreal and the pressure brutal.” And she spoke of an “eating disorder and crying every day ... No one realizes how insidious harassment is and how much of it lives in the gray area of life.” She left the company and started her own business.

Even my mother has a story. She called and told me that a co-worker approached her and said, “So-and-so and I have decided that you wear black lace underwear.” It’s been decades since that comment was uttered and yet my mom still felt compelled to call me back to forbid me from using “so-and so’s” name.

And that was just the emails. In comments posted on The Daily Beast, which obviously are unverified, one woman wrote: “My boss asked me once if I would go out on a date with him if he divorces his wife ... i was appalled and shocked and infuriated when i heard that from him.”

Said another: “When I went to HR to complain about harassment and a hostile work environment, the personnel head told me straight out that if I went ahead and filed a claim, I would find it impossible to ever get another job in the field in which I had worked in for 15 years. I also got the impression that it would take a murder for the company to take any disciplinary action against a senior executive. I was scared and felt defenseless, because I had no safety net. So, I continued to work for this psychopath.”

I knew I wasn’t alone when I divulged that a client had put his hand on my knee in a Manhattan taxi, or my boss had told me that his male boss had mentioned I had “quite a rack” as his eyes wandered to my breasts. But I was taken aback, in the wake of the mounting sexual-harassment allegations against Cain, by how many lives have been touched by this sort of gross misconduct, and how much of an exposed nerve it remains.

The consequences of speaking out are clear, as Sharon Bialek learned this week when she accused Cain of reaching for her genitals and trying to force her head toward his crotch in a parked car when she was seeking a job with the trade group he ran in 1997.

The Republican candidate, in flatly denying her allegations, called Bialek a “troubled woman,” and referred to the fact that the single mother has twice filed for bankruptcy. New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser called her a gold-digger who “flirted like a tart” with Cain.

Bialek is facing what many precisely women fear: an attack on her character.

We keep quiet because we don’t want to wade into a “he said, she said” battle. Some women need the money too much to risk losing their jobs. And many know their male bosses simply won’t believe them.

Teresa Kopec, now a substitute teacher and mother of three living in Spartanburg, S.C., is one woman I talked to who actually did report her abuser’s behavior. She told me that when she was 21 and working as a graduate student at the University at Texas at Austin, a man—decades older than her whose name she can’t remember—would harass her repeatedly. 

“He would roll his chair up to my desk and reach out and pat my upper thigh,” she says. “He would come up behind me while I was seated and rub his crotch on my shoulder.” And, in the final straw, while she was talking to a receptionist, “He reached out and snapped my bra strap.”

Just to add to the yuck factor, his wife worked in the same office.

Kopec took her troubles to the college’s dean, armed with the knowledge that she had the receptionist as a witness.

When she detailed the bra-snapping incident, she says the dean responded: “How would he know where your bra strap was?”

Even my mother has a story. I was taken aback by how many lives have been touched by this sort of gross misconduct, and how much of an exposed nerve it remains.

Kopec quit. “If this guy doesn’t believe it,” she thought. “Who will?” From then on, she only worked in female-oriented offices.

There are no statistics on the number of unreported incidents of sexual harassment. Just as there aren’t stats on unreported rapes or attacks of domestic violence. But there is more than enough anecdotal evidence that these women exist in spades.

And we all have our tipping points, as Sharon Bialek did—the moment when we toss aside our caution and concerns and feel compelled to speak out.

I asked Teresa Kopec if, like Bialek, her harasser were running for president of the United States, she would come forward with her accusations.

“I would speak out,” she said. “You want someone not creepy being the leader of the free world.”

Based on what women tell me and what I’ve experienced firsthand, there are a lot more creepy men out there than we ever realized. Maybe it’s time we do something about it.