I Was Sexually Harassed and Turned the Tables on My Harasser. Here’s How.

Feminist leaders and activists hold a protest. (Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Feminist leaders and activists hold a protest against sexual harassment and rape, Washington, DC, May 18 2011. (Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images)

A few weeks ago I was so sick I needed to go to Urgent Care, where I was prescribed antibiotics to be filled at a local CVS.

While in line at the pharmacy counter, I was approached by a man. He spoke softly, so just a few of us could hear – me and possibly the old Latina lady behind me.

Him: (probably drunk, possibly high, unsteady on his feet) Hey girl, what’s up? How you doing?
Me: (nothing)
Him: How you feeling?
Me: (hoping responding in a curt manner would cut off this little exchange) I’m in pain.
Him: Awww, tell me where it hurt, girl. Maybe I can help.
Me: (just looking at him, nonplussed)
Him: (moving closer) Where does it hurt? Huh?
Me: (continued silence, some eye-rolling)
Him: (glancing towards my crotch) Bet it’s real nice down there, nice and soft…
Me: (feeling increasingly uncomfortable)
Him: (clearly referring to my vagina) Yeah, mmmm hmmmm…

I’m not a shy person. In fact, I think most would classify me as a ‘strong woman.’ However, at that moment I didn’t feel strong. It was after 10pm, I was tired, and after having been at Urgent Care alone, I just wanted to get home and to bed.

Except there was this situation, standing right in front of me. If it were the subway or a store, I’d get up and move. But in this case, I was stuck. I was in pain and needed the antibiotics.

I was also having trouble grasping that this was going down in such a public place. It was a well-lit store with plenty of people around, yet I still felt threatened. As he continued to get closer and closer to me, I could feel my heart rate climbing, my adrenaline spiking. I was also concerned because I felt like the situation was escalating. Unless I ‘did something,’ I didn’t know what would happen.

Finally I did the only thing I could think to do: I named it.

Me: (looking straight at him) This is harassment.
Him: (silence, eyes darting around a bit)
Me: (louder) What’s happening here is that you’re harassing me.
Him: (silence, hurrying away)

That was it. He left. Scurried away like the rat he was.

I’d like to say this was my plan all along, that I had the whole thing orchestrated, that it was easy for me to determine what would make him leave me alone.

But that’s not true. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know what to do. I just knew I had my dignity, and didn’t want someone taking it away without my consent.

I think the people around me admired my response. The Latina lady nodded vigorously. The male pharmacists fulfilled my prescription in record time (the desk lady said it would be at least 10-15 minutes but the male pharmacist looked at me and said, “No, I’m going to do it right now.”)

While I waited, with 1% battery left on my phone (not enough to call an Uber) I texted my male housemate: “At CVS by metro. Please come get me. Don’t feel safe walking home alone.” It was only four blocks to my house, but I didn’t know where the guy had gone or whether he had a weapon.

Then, do you know what I did, big strong woman that I am, big, powerful, I-stand-up-for-myself-and-all-women woman?

I cried.

I popped my antibiotics and sank down against a wall and cried. I cried from relief that the situation was over and from sadness and anger that it ever happened in the first place.

You may be wondering why I published this on LinkedIn and here in the Observer. It could seem like it’s not ‘relevant.’

But it is. We’re kidding ourselves if we think this kind of thing doesn’t happen in office buildings just as much as it does in subway stations. It happens on public streets and it happens on Wall Street. It happens at CVS and it happens at Goldman Sachs.

Last week, Canada’s CBC fired Jian Ghomeshi, host of the tremendously popular Q radio show, over allegations of sexual harassment and violence. The Toronto Star reported:

“Only one of the alleged victims worked at the CBC. She never dated Ghomeshi. She alleges he approached her from behind and cupped her rear end in the Q studio, and that he quietly told her at a story meeting that he wanted to “hate f—” her.

The woman said she complained about Ghomeshi’s behaviour to her union representative, who took the complaint to a Q producer. As the woman recalls, the producer asked her “what she could do to make this a less toxic workplace” for herself. No further action was taken by the CBC, and the woman left the broadcaster shortly thereafter.”

I’m not suggesting that standing up for yourself always ‘works.’ A few weeks ago, a woman was killed in Detroit for saying no to a man who wanted her number.

Rather, I’m telling this story because I discovered that when possible, there is power in simply naming it. There is power in stating the truth, right out loud. Instead of looking down or looking away or saying, “You’re an asshole” (which, trust me, is tempting), there is another option:

  • “That was not appropriate. I feel uncomfortable and threatened.”
  • “This is assault. What just happened is that you assaulted me.”
  • “This is rape. What’s happening here is that you’re raping me.”

When something like this happens, you are not the one at fault. Fear and shame and guilt like to live in the shadows; they start to die under the light.

So name it. Even if just to yourself at first. Say what is happening. Then say it aloud. Then say it loudly.

Speak your truth, even if your voice shakes.

Support those with shaking voices.

This issue crosses age lines, cultural barriers, and workplace boundaries. It is pervasive and disturbing and wrong.

It is also solvable. We are not powerless as a society or as a culture, just as I wasn’t powerless in that pharmacy line.

More and more women are speaking up and speaking out, and more and more men have their back. #AllMenCan support #YesAllWomen.

This piece is the most clearheaded explanation of the root cause of this problem I’ve seen. My takeaway from it is that it will take all of us working all at the same time to do it.

It will take parents and teachers and politicians and comedians and physicians and CEOs and managers.

It will take fraternity brothers and sorority sisters and Hollywood and therapists and thought leaders and bus drivers and cops.

It will take real support of little girls and little boys. It will take things like The Authentic Man Program and The Mankind Project and The Good Men Project. It will take education and determination. It will take a new definition of masculinity.

It’s a big, heavy issue, but I think we have what it takes. I personally commit to doing my part by listening and by sharing my truth and by naming it.

Thank you to all those who are with me, all those who fight the good fight both within the workplace and outside of it. Together, I believe we can win.

Melanie Curtin is Director of Communications for OpiaTalk, the Snapchat of eCommerce. I Was Sexually Harassed and Turned the Tables on My Harasser. Here’s How.