When I was 24 years old, I worked the graveyard shift at a youth hostel in San Francisco's Tenderloin. It was fine, sometimes even fun. I rarely felt unsafe in that neighborhood, but I often felt unsafe while doing my job.
There was the long-term resident, a student, who would call me at the front desk and try to keep me on the phone while he masturbated.
I told my boss. The boss talked to him. The calls stopped, but I still had to see him every day.
There was the short-term resident who commented on our bodies, staring at my friend's breasts and telling her that he "liked his girls a little bit thick."
We told the boss. The boss talked to him. The comments stopped, but we still had to serve him every day for the remainder of his stay.
There was the co-worker who, after I started dating someone he knew, came up to me one morning and shoved a banana toward my mouth, asking me repeatedly to take it, take it. I had known this man for two years and thought of him as a kind, avuncular figure. For some reason, after my relationship status changed, his behavior did too. It was sad and shocking.
This time I told my boyfriend. Long story short, nothing happened. I still had to work with him until the day he quit for unrelated reasons and my coworkers thought it rude that I refused to hug him goodbye.
Writing all these things down, one thing after another, makes my stomach feel like it's full of bees. It was all so long ago, but the rage I swallowed is still down there, buzzing sharp and hot. Honestly, until today, I did not connect them in my mind as symptomatic of a pervasive toxicity in the place I worked, a place that I genuinely loved despite the crappy hours, mediocre pay and soul-numbing sadness of the neighborhood around us. Not long after the banana incident, I made a complaint to the general office about one of our managers, who had this pattern of hiring young women, dating them for a while and then dumping them. Turnover at the front desk was getting ridiculous.
"Are you really going to do this? Are you going to make me file a sexual harassment report?" asked a different manager, a friend of mine.
I told him I was, and the heavy sigh I got in response should have told me everything I needed to know about what was to come. All of the managers had to watch a training video, the first step in the company's tiered complaint system. I assume my complaint was documented, but I really don't know. I still had to work with him. I chose to transfer to a different location. I heard through the grapevine that his behavior escalated and eventually caught up with him, almost a decade later. I do not know if that organization had a #MeToo reckoning after I left, but I really hope it did.
There is a special kind of shittiness about having to continue working with someone whose behavior you have called out as inappropriate. The message I got from my experiences is that there is no advantage to speaking out. I know I am not alone. Contrary to what some conspiracy theorists will have you believe, speaking out against harassment almost never benefits the accuser.
I think about all of this when I read about the employee Arcata City Councilmember Brett Watson harassed. I feel deep empathy for her and also deep frustration with him. But I reserve my deepest feelings, that stomach full of buzzing rage, for the culture that has made this behavior so easy to perpetuate and unrewarding to address. I am mad, and will continue to be mad, that so many of us just swallow that poison because we know that if we speak out, we'll hear something like this:
"He's just kind of a physical guy, it didn't mean anything."
"You're too sensitive."
"I don't think he really meant it that way, he's married, you know?"
"He's not stalking you, he just has a crush on you."
"In his culture, it's totally normal to act that way."
"Of course he tried to pinch your butt, why do you think he keeps coming here and tipping you so much?"
"Of course he promoted you, he likes you, doesn't he?"
"It's too bad your job requires you to dress sexy, I think it gives guys the wrong idea."
"You're so straight-laced, he was just trying to make you smile."
"He was drunk, he doesn't usually act like that."
"He's having a rough time at home, he usually doesn't act like that."
"He's just kind of socially awkward."
"You must like it a little bit, or else you'd tell him to stop."
"It just goes to show, men and women can't be friends, something always goes wrong."
"Yeah, that guy's a creep, don't be alone with him."
"Nothing he's doing is illegal, you know, but just steer clear of him and you should be fine."
I have heard all of this crap, and you have heard all of this crap, and more. We've been told what we wore, how we acted, where we were, how much we drank are the reasons we were raped or harassed or abused. And as a final indignity we're often asked, literally or implicitly, to accept an apology and move on. To not make it weird, because for some reason our safety is less important than everyone else's comfort. Making everything OK is the emotional labor good women are socialized to perform.
Good women don't make things awkward and more complicated for everyone else. They take on the shame that should be the burden of their harasser, because if they don't, the world will know what to call them. Witches. Troublemakers. Attention-seekers. Man-haters. Gold-diggers. Sluts. The kind of woman no one will protect. Bad women.
Well, it has been my privilege to be a bad woman all of these years. A real privilege, the kind many people who could suffer economic, social and physical reprisal for speaking out don't have.
In 2006, right around the time I left that crappy job, a woman named Tarana Burke started the conversation we are still having today, about sexual assault and harassment. It took until 2017 for her work to reach the mainstream and become what we now refer to as the #MeToo movement. We are seeing the progress of that movement today in how the behavior of Brett Watson has been addressed by the city of Arcata and its city council. The situation as it stands is not perfect, and I really feel for the employee who has to continue working with the man who harassed her. But it feels light years away from the experiences of my early working life, different than how it might have been handled even a decade ago.
This is a weird time to be a woman. We are living through a cultural backlash against all of the progress we've made over the past decades and there is still so much work left to do. But I am not tired. I am one of the lucky ones to know for certain that I live in a community I can be proud of, a place full of bad women like me.
Linda Stansberry (she/her) is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.