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How to Thwart Unwanted Physical Contact at Work


How to Thwart Unwanted Physical Contact at Work

Looking back on two careers from the vantage point of a senior, I wondered how it was that I was never inappropriately touched, groped or grabbed in the workplace.

So much has come out with the Time’s Up Movement, our consciousness is raised. So many women have been victimized. I hoped that in understanding how I escaped this awful experience I might help someone else. Here are my reflections.

My first career in nursing included plenty of grabby doctors working in the hospital. They felt entitled perhaps to do what they wanted. I never got grabbed. Was it an attitude? Maybe what I later learned from the police officers who came annually to our public health agency to talk about street safety also contributed. We visited patients at home in some rather scary places. They told us to walk tall, act like you own the street and never appear hesitant, so as to send a message to anyone around you that you are not to be hassled. I did that. It worked.

My next career as a lawyer was heavily weighted with men, some with huge egos, arrogance and power. I’m not exactly sure about what message I was communicating but I’m pretty sure it was a “vibe”, or a less than conscious way of coming across that said “don’t mess with me”. I had no unwanted touch by any of them. But how did I escape that kind of thing when so many others have had to deal with it? What tools was I using without thinking about them?

It certainly was not because I’m a person of large stature. I’m all of five foot one and a size 2 petite. Sometimes bullies pick on people smaller than themselves. My size alone was not going to intimidate anyone. I thought back in my life to growing up in a big family with three younger brothers. I understood that guys got aggressively physical more than girls and if they’re around and get in your way, you have to set them straight or tell them to shut up. That was drilled in without me being particularly aware of it. I am sure that helped me. I am also sure that my dad, who taught me to square a fist and throw a boxing punch at age six knew what he was doing: empowering me to believe I could defend myself if I needed to. Physical strength was valued in my house. I absorbed that too and did things to keep fit for all my working years Speaking your mind was also a value and thankfully, words came easily to me. I am convinced that this is a useful tool for self protection: speak up.

I distill my “lessons”, the means I instinctively knew I could use to avoid unwanted physical contact or groping, into three possible choices. These can be used if you are at work, and get improperly brushed against, feel a hand on you or you are otherwise physically hassled by some jerk. These are not for everyone. They are just reflections on what likely protected me. I share them in the hope that someone else may benefit. I believe that just knowing I could do these things may have been some sort of signal that stopped any would-be predator or bully.

Choice No. 1: Use your words, loudly, clearly and without hesitation. “Stop that right now”, “knock it off, idiot” and “get your hands off me” will all do nicely. Do not be polite. The aggressor is wrong. Call it out.

Choice No. 2: Use physical means to stop the aggressor. There is great value in knowing how to throw an effective uppercut punch even if the creep is taller than you are. A punch or a hard slap will probably surprise the person and stop him (or her) unless you are being tackled down. Shock value may be greater than the ability to really hurt someone. This wouldn’t stop a rapist but I’m talking about a groper. If you’ve never used your fists, take a boxing class (great exercise) or a self defense class. It’s very empowering and will give you confidence. I think confidence in your own physical ability sends a very powerful message.

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Choice No. 3: Scream and yell at the top of your lungs if anyone else is around and could hear you. If creepo slides a hand where it doesn’t belong and thinks he/she can get away with it, embarrass the hell out of that person by calling attention to it. If you have a place to report the conduct, do it. Write it down too, everything that happened in detail with time and date so you don’t forget.

Many women have silently tolerated horrible conduct by physically inappropriate people in the workplace out of fear of retaliation, fear of losing their jobs or just believing that they were powerless. We are not powerless. Create your own powerful “vibe” and it just might repel anyone who thinks he can touch you when he should not. We must thwart bad behavior at work. My tactics won’t fix everything to be sure but they can be a firm stand that changes what has been happening for too long. If you need legal advice on harassment at work, contact the National Women’s Law Center Legal Defense Fund. Empower yourself!

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