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Having been subjected to sexual harassment and sexual assault, it is easy for me to believe Herman Cain sexually harassed several employees and made unwanted lewd advances--bordering on assault--against another woman. I have met many women who had experiences similar to mine. Although sexual harassment/discrimination was more pervasive and direct in my youth, it took other forms as I grew older. Cumulatively, these incidents weakened my self-confidence, negatively affected my career, and sowed within me a certain level of distrust of male coworkers.

My first experience with sexual harassment was in third grade. A classmate named Arthur would chase me around the playground, reach down my shirt, and squeeze my flat chest as he yelled, "Titty twister!" I did not like Arthur.

In middle school, I earned a reputation as a "slut," even before my first kiss. An assistant gym teacher once approached me and told me I was the "most beautiful girl he had ever seen." I was 12, he was 21; he asked me out when I turned 16 (age of consent).

In 8th grade, an oaf named Darryl took to grabbing my rear-end every day as we crossed paths on my way to Algebra. He continued to harass me throughout high school, with a lot of hostile remarks accompanying the sexual ones. In 10th grade, boys I had never met made comments, like, "You don't get round lips like that from sucking square pegs" or spread lies about imaginary sexual experiences we had shared.

My friends' fathers routinely made comments that I found disconcerting. After a choir performance, I had one father come up, clasp my hands, look into my eyes, and say, "I had eyes only for you up there, CatM"--never mind that his daughter had taken part in the performance, too. Others told me how "beautiful" I was or looked at me in ways that made me uncomfortable. Discussions with friends about those fathers suggested they did not have those experiences; perhaps it was because I was a foster child and therefore seemed unguarded.

 Studies on harassment in schools suggest my experiences are common:

Nearly half of 7th to 12th graders experienced sexual harassment in the last school year...Over all, girls reported being harassed more than boys — 56 percent compared with 40 percent...“It’s pervasive, and almost a normal part of the school day,” said Catherine Hill, the director of research at the association and one of the authors of the report.

Half of those who were harassed said they did nothing about it; 9 percent said they reported the incident to an adult at school; and 27 percent of students (32 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys) said they talked about it with a family member.

The first work-related incident occurred when I was 16 and was relatively minor but nevertheless affected my self-image. I was hired as a weekend announcer at a radio station. After hearing me on air, the owner informed the manager who hired me that I sounded as if I "worked in a red light district" and if I did not modify my voice, he would fire me. I did not even know what a "red light district" was, and it was simply my normal voice.

At age 18, I scored my first grown-up job as a secretary at a small real estate firm. I was abruptly fired after 1 year, despite having only ever received praise. A former coworker told me the owner had said it was because a client/friend said I looked at him like I wanted to f*ck him every time he came to the office; perhaps it was a case of projection, since I had no recollection of looking at any client this way.

I subsequently found similar work at another small, single-owner company, where I again experienced sexual harassment. An older salesman pulled me onto his lap one day as I demonstrated how to use a computer program and often relayed explicit jokes to  me uninvited. I complained to HR (the owner's wife), who said I was making too much of these "harmless" incidents. Months later, he was dismissed for poor sales figures--not harassment.

His replacement was no better. One afternoon, he approached my desk and, noticing I had removed my heels, asked, "Ever have anyone suck on your toes?" Another time, he was perched at the drafting table. I dropped my pen as I walked past, and when I bent to retrieve it, he thrust his hips and moaned as though I were performing oral sex on him beneath the table. I was mortified as everyone laughed. In phone conversations, he regularly made loud, crude comments about women, such as, "I'd like to stick my dipstick in her honeypot."

The owner also treated me differently than the male receptionist in the sales department. For example, months after hiring me to type, file, and answer calls, he added making coffee, washing dishes, and vacuuming the floors to my responsibilities. One day, he brought in an old, dirty anti-static mat for beneath my desk and told me to go scrub it. Too embarrassed to get on my hands and knees in my skirt in front of everyone, I said it was not in my job description--so he added it to my job description and told me to do it or leave. I left, creating another black mark on my work history.

Like most women, I've been on the receiving end of catcalls, whistles, profane remarks, and pinches from strangers. A seemingly inebriated man once grabbed me at a bus stop, shoved me against a wall and demanded a kiss; I had no idea what to do and was thankfully freed by a passing Samaritan. Another time, a mentally ill man asked me and other female bus passengers if we were "bleeding from the butt," noting repeatedly that "all bitches bleed from their butt like dogs."

In my early 20s, I was hired to answer phones at a sheriff's office. For 2 years, one deputy made suggestive comments whenever he called in, which I deflected. Undeterred by my married status, he persisted in asking me out, begging me for oral sex, and volunteering intimate details of his experiences with other women, right up until I left.

Most recently, I worked at a Republican-dominated company where a "boys club" atmosphere prevailed. The management even hired a friend of the company president's despite being told that he had been fired from his last position for sexually harassing a woman presently working at our company. She quit, rather than work with him. My friend's position required her to take frequent business trips with this man, and he would ask her uncomfortable questions like, "Did you ever cheat on your husband?," rate the looks of female board members, and invite her for dinners.

At lunches with other sales staff and managers in the department (all men), she and I  had to endure crude comments about the attractiveness of various females at clients' companies and whether this or that sales person had "tapped" that. A top salesman once yelled, inappropriately to someone, "You can suck my cock!" and referred to female clients he found troublesome as "bitches," yet no one complained and he was promoted several times.

One colleague was often subjected to intensely personal questions from her publication's  editor-in-chief, such as whether her breasts had grown larger during pregnancy and was she pumping milk for her newborn at the office and, if so, did she do it in front of any female colleagues. He liked telling her about strange sex toys sold at a shop near his home, under the guise of, "Isn't that funny?" At their first in-person meeting, he grabbed her hand and told her how much he liked her. She never encouraged him, yet she also never reported these incidents.

Management was 100% male and promotions nearly always went to men. Female colleagues in their 50s were frequently dismissed, with the claim that their position was eliminated. They would be replaced by younger models, who were given the same responsibilities but different titles. Many of us tolerated situations we found inappropriate in fear of being "phased out."

I also experienced an episode similar to Ms. Bialek's. I was single and had agreed to meet a man I talked with on AOL for lunch. The restaurant's parking lot was full, so he suggested I park at a distant lot and we would drive there together. I hesitated, but he seemed nice and had never said anything inappropriate, so I agreed.

After lunch, he drove me back to my car, but instead of stopping at the lot, he pulled into an alleyway. Before I could get out, he grabbed me, shoved his hand down my blouse, pulled my hand to his crotch, and thrust his tongue into my mouth. I was frightened, yet angry; I slapped him, exited the car, and ran to my car. He later apologized via e-mail, asking, "What's wrong? Didn't we hit it off?"

I recently told my boyfriend about this old incident, and--like some questioning Ms. Bialek's claims--he asked why I had not called police. Comments made about Ms. Bialek since she came forward help explain:

When there are hardcore, proven, 100% unbiased sources and facts then I will agree with you. Until today all we have heard is allegations and unproven facts. When one of the women had the chance to come forward who was part of the settlement agreement, she refused. if what she is saying is true, she stands to win millions in book deals, news deals, Liberal money, etc. Give me hardcore facts, not allegations, not he said vs. she said crap.

Sexual harassment often goes unreported because it is often hard to prove. Perhaps there are no witnesses or no DNA or no electronic evidence. Some accusers, as Bialek said was her situation, fear its "he said-she said" nature means they will not be believed. Some women fear being blamed, as indeed they are; I have read more than one Internet comment saying she asked for it by meeting him alone for dinner. The victim may like the perpetrator, just as Bialek had liked Cain. They might question whether they unintentionally invited the harassment or if they are overreacting or if it the incident was severe enough to take actions that might ruin someone's career or life.

If the accused is prominent and a public figure, the accuser might fear being the target of discrediting attacks, which Cain's team is doing to Ms. Bialek:

To bolster its claim that accuser Sharon Bialek has “a long and troubled history,” Herman Cain’s campaign sent out a press release Tuesday highlighting a pair of bankruptcy filings, as well as six “civil lawsuits” filed against her in Chicago’s Cook County court system.

In Cain's press conference tonight, his lawyer/spokesperson said (I am paraphrasing)  it was unfair to judge Herman Cain's character based on these accusations, but insinuated that we should judge Bialek's character based on her economic past. Cain and his lawyer told us to find her dishonest and uncredible for no reason other than her inability to manage her finances. Cain called her "troubled," as though only women whose lives are mythically perfect are believable. What if it was Cain's actions that left her troubled? Cain also assured us that it is "common sense" to question whether the lawsuits Bialek faces motivated her to come forward. I consider all these attempts by Cain to disparage her integrity and emotional health solely because she lacks economic power as further acts of harassment.

Sexual harassment is about power. Cain's argument that he is more believable than his multiple accusers because--as he boasted in his press conference--he has managed "thousands and thousands of employees" and is "a successful businessman" (ie, rich) is illustrative of the power dynamic at play in many sexual harassment cases. The powerful believes he should and will be believed over the powerless and takes advantage of that situation. Indeed, Cain expresses no remorse that women felt he had harassed them, which suggests he felt entitled to do whatever it was he had done; he is angry that these women dared challenge his power by coming forward--"How dare they accuse ME!"

Cain cited his wife's endorsement of his character as reason to disbelieve these women. Yet, most sexual harassers do not look like playboys or lounge lizards. They look like ordinary men or women. Some appear very professional, dressed in business attire and carrying briefcases. They don't bear tattoos that say "sexual harasser" on their forehead. Many are married and have kids. Few tell their spouses, "I like to pressure employs for sexual favors and degrade them."

Cain has dismissed these multiple claims as "baseless"--even those that resulted in a monetary settlement. Yet we know that sexual harassment victims are more likely than not to leave such incidents unreported. Given the low rate of events reported, it seems statistically unlikely that 100% of the women Cain harassed either filed claims against him or singled him out--independent of one another--as a target for a false claim for which they would thus be unable to supply substantiating evidence and one that Cain implies would be inconsistent with the character of the accused. Since we know 100% of harassed women do not report it, these two women must have considered his actions quite egregious and upsetting to prompt them to file claims. They must also have had some reason to feel confident that the claims would make it past the agency's smell test.

Further, the Human Resources Department for the National Restaurant Association must have determined that they were at least somewhat credible, perhaps because it represented a pattern of behavior or they had corroborating witnesses, to prompt the organization to offer settlements.

Despite Cain's assertion that the claims are only emerging now because "some do not want to see him be president," two claims were made in the 1990s, long before he became a presidential candidate. They were made because two women felt that something Cain said or did was inappropriate and that they suffered recriminations for reporting it.

Ask your wives, sisters, mothers, aunts, and daughters whether they have ever encountered commentary, gestures, or approaches at work or in public that seemed sexually based or made them uncomfortable. Then ask whether they reported it and what the outcome was. How many received settlements worth tens of thousands of dollars? How many questioned whether it was their fault?

Men are also subject to sexual harassment and find it even harder to report and prove. When people brave enough to come forward like Sharon Bialek or Anita Hill or Nafissatou Diallo are subject to ridicule, disbelief, and attacks over situations in their life that have no bearing on whether they were victims of harassment or abuse, it becomes that much harder for victims to believe their claims will be taken seriously.

Like Cain, many men in the episodes I recounted would probably deny having done anything wrong and would earnestly protest the unfairness of the accusations. Many reading this diary might consider some incidents as meaningless, but they were not meaningless to me. I learned to worry about how I spoke and how I looked--was I unconsciously inviting untoward advances/comments? I learned that I could not trust anyone--even other women--to take my complaints seriously, that reporting it without proof was pointless, and refusing to accept it could cost me my job. Maybe Ms. Bialek's experiences in life taught her the same lessons.

UPDATE:

RiotLibrarian provides a detailed account of the Cain campaign's efforts to use Sharon Bialek's financial and personal history to discredit her accusation:

http://www.dailykos.com/...

 

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