I had my first real job at the age of eighteen. I say "real" because the only source of income I had generated prior to that, besides the bi-weekly allowance from my parents, was delivering flyers around my neighbourhood. I was thirteen and that lasted just over a month. Thus, my first real job where I had regular hours and a regular paycheque was at eighteen when I worked at a telemarketing firm in downtown Winnipeg. The work itself was easy but tedious. I was especially elated that I just had to verify calls, rather than making them.
Turnover was high at the company. Winnipeg had somewhat of an industry niche in the field during the nineties and the place I worked was not upper-tier, just a stepping stone to a stepping stone. For me, it was income in between graduating high school and attending college in the Fall. I wanted to be a designer. I wanted to see my work on billboards. I wanted – perhaps I should say needed – the recognition for my talent. Interrupting people's dinner with solicitations was not what I ever envisioned as a long-term thing. But moreso, as time went on, the office culture was not what I ever envisioned either.
I can't remember his name but I do remember his face. He was a dopplegänger for British singer Robbie Williams. The nerdy managers adored him. I feel like they looked to him as the cool guy they would never get to be friends with outside of the workplace because he wouldn't otherwise give them the time of day. He, of course, played up to it as well. More time spent cracking jokes in their offices meant less time doing actual labour. Within a week of him starting at the company, he made me feel very uncomfortable by making lewd, highly inappropriate comments. I tried to ignore it – it was just words, right? – but it did bother me. I had never been around a male that was so aggressive before. I didn't know how to react. I felt like an animal in the wild with a predator infiltrating the midst. I was on-guard but admittedly weak. I sensed he would eat me alive. He was older (late twenties) and seemed more worldly. I was naive and relatively inexperienced. And it was just words, right?
Words that eventually evolved into him placing his hand lower and lower down my back each time he tried to get by. Words that evolved into him surprising me from behind by initiating a shoulder massage. I still did nothing because I was too intimidated. If I spoke out, if I expressed my discomfort, then I would ruin the "fun" atmosphere that the managers wished to cultivate. Also, they liked him and I knew that I was more disposable. Heaven forbid I be the killjoy. Besides, I was only going to be there for a few months prior to starting college. I thought I could bear it.
Then, while sitting around the office one day, he wanted to know my thoughts about "making babies" with him. This would make me retch at my current age, much moreso when I was only eighteen. I lied and told him that I had a boyfriend, to which he replied bluntly "that's okay, I just want to f*** you". I left work that day feeling cheap. Feeling less than human. Feeling as though the sum of my existence was just a collection of body parts in animate form created for the servitude of men. I was very, very confused as this was not what I thought being an adult was going to be like. My parents always actively aimed to empower me growing up. But then another lesson was awaiting me. A much harsher one. The next time I went to work, I was called into my manager's office for reprimand. I can't even recall what it was about. Had I somehow shortchanged the vending machine in the lunch room? I hadn't done anything to the best of my knowledge but lo-and-behold, Robbie Williams' dopplegänger was also present during what surely should have been a confidential conversation. As my manager blathered on about being disappointed with my performance, Robbie Williams' dopplegänger stared at me in defiance. It was a look most women have probably encountered in their lifetime. I've experienced it a few times since. All at once it subtly conveys to "stay quiet" and "don't f*** with me".
I was demoted that day. It was a shitty job with a shitty, toxic office culture that has had no influence on my current career path but this experience has still stayed with me ever since. It informed me as to my place was in the world. That I, as a female, would have my gender used against me.
This past week, the Harvey Weinstein scandal has taken over from Trump's latest foibles in capturing headlines. There are a lot of famous, influential names being mentioned and for some this may just be reflective of "Hollywood" and its hedonistic ways. But I feel that Hollywood (and all of pop culture) holds an accurate mirror to society. Men taking advantage of positions of power is not new and certainly not limited to the entertainment industry. However, getting men to realize and accept this amongst their brotherhood remains a challenge.
I've had conversations with respected, intelligent male friends and acquaintances that downplay this behaviour and seemingly excuse it. They shrug it off as simple fact that some men are like that and "boys will be boys". I've also heard the darker subtext though that women are lying in order to get something. "They are after money" is a common retort. Also, revenge. When I ask what they'd think of me if I made similar claims, I always get "you are not like that". But here I am. I have nothing to gain by relating this. I could even write a much, much longer journal entry about all my direct experiences with toxic masculinity but I don't really discuss it. It just feels a part of life in terms of being a woman. That men feel they have ownership of your body and your dignity. But it shouldn't. It should also be pointed out that every close female friend I have has also been sexually assaulted in her lifetime. This has nothing to do with seeking attention or superficial remuneration and everything to do with the simple fact that a lot of men don't view women as human.
After leaving the telemarketing firm that day, I never returned. Not even to pick up my last paycheque. I also never told anyone at the time. Not my friends. Not my family. Certainly not my father, who would have literally killed the guy. I simply internalized it, feeling ashamed and low for something that was done to me, not by me. I have been very fortunate with subsequent workplaces where this type of behaviour hasn't been displayed. However, I have still encountered it with many other men that have come-and-gone from my orbit. Entitled men that become both verbally and physically abusive in attempts to demonstrate their power. Men that use coercion to get what they want over common courtesy or respect. The Weinstein story is, again, simply a mirror that is making us look uncomfortably at our blemishes as a society. I have no faith that things will change in my lifetime but it is encouraging to see people using their voice to share, relate and move towards that betterment. This isn't something a woman has to face alone.