Content warning: This article discusses accounts of workplace sexual harassment.
Violated. There’s not a single word that can similarly encompass the feeling of confusion, anxiety, and anger that comes with being sexually harassed. When it happens to you at your workplace, there’s an added of layer of “What the f*ck just happened” because there’s a personal expectation to be treated with a bit of decency and respect at the very least. So how come sexual harassment continues to be treated like it’s just a normal part of office culture in some workplaces?
Last week, there were sexual abuse allegations raised against a certain ad agency executive. In the fashion of #MeToo and #HijaAko posts, the allegations were made via social media posts. The posts ask us to confront the fact that alleged harassers and rapists continue to roam free (save for forced deletions of social media accounts to avoid backlash) and hold positions of power. Most of them are still our colleagues and our bosses.
On the other hand, survivors are here contemplating whether the abuses they experienced are too little or too much to be believed. We still contemplate whether it’s worth it to risk our jobs and reputations—oftentimes, not even for the hope for justice but mere peace of mind.
Under unwanted sexual attention
Amrie: My first job as a college undergraduate was at a call center. If you aren’t part of the sizable Filipino population that has tried landing a job in the industry, you might not be familiar with its cheating culture. Maybe it’s prevalent because the zombie work hours could feel like licenses for promiscuity. But that isn’t really an excuse for how many married folk and people in relationships are fooling around with colleagues.
To me, this culture of infidelity contributed to so much macho-posturing. Male colleagues felt emboldened to talk about who among the women in the office were f*ckable and typed in vivid, crass things about p*ke in unofficial workplace GCs. Women were forced to avoid certain cubicles and walkways because these men would undress you with their looks and signal that they’re DTF. Me and my work friends filed several complaints and in the end harassment wasn’t the reason they got kicked off the job.
While sex positivity is something that we need to cultivate, in no way does it condone unwanted sexual attention and forcing people into sexual situations.
Harassment is embedded in our culture
Zofiya: I’ve also had my fair share of harassment, both in my professional and personal lives. It’s sad, but as a person who suffers from misogyny, it’s almost a fact of life. In college, I came across an extremely sad figure from a Catherine McKinnon journal article: She said that only 7.8 percent of women will not experience any kind of sexual abuse or harassment in their lifetimes.
In one of my previous jobs, I had a coworker—completely unprompted—tell me, a queer person, that women kissing each other wasn’t normal. This same coworker was known for leering at my female officemates. I was in a company that prided itself on its progressiveness; I couldn’t understand why he was there. I later found out that another officemate had filed a complaint against him.
While I was still in school, a classmate assaulted me on campus. When I brought it up to one of the school officials as a reason to switch classes, she told me that I would need to stay in class with my assaulter if I wanted to graduate.
What these incidents have in common is that the people in charge had to wait for people to report before taking any kind of action—and what they did end up doing wasn’t enough. For the former, the man kept his job and the officemate who filed a complaint ended up leaving. For the latter, I was eventually allowed—after an extremely strenuous and triggering process—to switch to another class. From what I know, the person who assaulted me stayed.
The onus is always on the survivors, typically women, to take the first step. I used to think that there was nothing wrong with that, but after years of hearing the same old story of me or my friends or whoever having to be retriggered in order to gain justice which they aren’t guaranteed to get, it doesn’t seem like it’s working.
Institutions need to be more proactive. It’s not enough to be against a harasser, or to be against singular acts of harassment. Anti-harassment needs to be embedded within the core of a company through its culture and rules.
Harassment is not a fact of life. In the documentary “Walang Rape sa Bontok,” two survivors of sexual abuse visit Bontoc, a place in the Cordillera region. The concepts of rape and assault do not exist there.
I bring this up to say that rape, assault, and harassment only exist in cultures that allow them to happen. It’s not enough to pay lip service to survivors—there needs to be actual, tangible change in making workplaces a safe space for women as well as making it easier to hold abusers accountable.