Was It Sexual Harassment?: Election Edition

Trigger warning: Sexual harassment; inappropriate touching.

When I was voting on April 4th, the male poll-worker overseeing the ballot box applied a sticker to my upper breast.

It happened so fast that all I could do was muster a “thank you, sir” and scurry off to my car, wondering, “Did that just happen? Was it an innocent slip in judgment or sexual harassment?” As I drove to work, I replayed the incident. Instead of handing me that coveted “I Voted” sticker, the volunteer peeled it off and stuck it to my chest in the region of my upper left breast. It was an action both infantalizing and discomfiting.

I wondered: Should I report it? If so, would I have a greater chance of being believed if I used my own name rather than submitted an anonymous complaint? Because I didn’t say anything to the man when the incident happened, does that delegitimize it? Make it less believable? To be honest, I was just stunned–and maybe this volunteer had banked on that.

The interaction reminded me of the first time I was sexually harassed in the workplace. It was on a sweltering summer day in a coffee-shop that didn’t have air conditioning. I was wearing a black tank top in a futile attempt to beat the heat. While I was reaching up to pull a styrofoam coffee cup down from its dispenser, my boss swung up front to pour himself some coffee. I’ll never forget the words he said as he looked me up and down: “Harry, you looking good today.”

Having been conditioned to be unfailingly polite and ingratiating, I probably mumbled, “Thanks.”

I don’t remember, but I certainly did not call him out on his behavior. He was known for making even heavier and more inappropriate overtures toward his young female employees, so I may have even counted myself lucky that I got off “easy.” I never dreamed of complaining. To whom? My female supervisors who were familiar with his behavior and had sometimes been on the receiving end of it? Said boss was the sole proprietor of the business and I was a college kid who needed to pay her rent.

My first impulse in telling the above story is to defend my conduct in wearing the tank top in the first place (i.e. It was hot and my boss was a cheap-ass who didn’t want to pay for proper AC; of course I was wearing a tank top). There’s an insidious built-in assumption here, though, that there’s a time and a place to wear a tank top when you’re a woman, and that perhaps harassment is more excusable if your reason for wearing a tank top isn’t satisfactory.

Anyway, I think that’s one reason that sexual harassment and sexual assault persist. Perpetrators, usually male, count on us to give them the benefit of the doubt, especially if they’re smiling and friendly. After all, rapists are big bad guys whose leery mugshots give them away. They’re not people you’ve had pleasant interactions with, up until the moment that they say or do something sexually inappropriate. They gaslight you, make you second-guess what just happened, so it’s easier for them to get away with it.

Maybe the poll-worker was intentionally being a pervert, maybe he wasn’t. Ultimately it doesn’t matter. My friends agreed that his putting a sticker on my chest without my consent was out of line, so I sent an email to the mayor. I trust that he’s an ally and that he and his staff will work to solve the matter, but in the meantime I’m still sorting through my feelings and a misplaced sense that maybe the incident was my fault.