It felt like a gift

When I was 23 or 24, in the early 2000s, I worked at a small company in a small office with thin, dingy carpet on the second floor of an orange building near the industrial area of Berkeley, California.

It was a weird work environment, but I didn’t have enough work experience to know that yet. I had some good colleagues, many of them around the same age, and we were all muddling through young work life. I had veered from my professional path in order to afford living in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the dot-com boom had inflated housing costs. The company gave me a shot at something I hadn’t tried before, and that opportunity both gave me a living wage and the knowledge that I was on the wrong career track.

I could not afford to be a beginning writer and pay $1,300 a month to rent two-thirds of the top half of a red North Berkeley bungalow with an accordion bathroom door and knocking pipes. The apartment came with a cracked window and a cracked ceiling, and my boyfriend and I spent our downtime repairing, painting, and decorating to make a home.

Working at the small business in Berkeley, well off my career path, afforded us the opportunity to feed ourselves and buy furniture. Later, we would move to a nicer apartment on the quiet island of Alameda, just inside the San Francisco Bay from Oakland. The Alameda apartment building had a gym and a pool and was $200 cheaper. I don’t remember where we lived when my boss patted my ass.

Here are my excuses for him:

  • He gave me an opportunity to work in a career for which I had not been formally trained. He offered me on-the-job training.
  • He promoted me from an office manager position into this better paying position, well before the event I am describing.
  • He encouraged me in the position, giving me bonuses when my work was especially productive.
  • He had never made me feel sexually uncomfortable in all the time I had worked for him.
  • To this day, I am confident it was an unfortunate slip, the way you might have ended a client call with “OK, love you. Bye,” and after ending the call, realized with horror what you had done. He had patted my ass in the affectionate way he might have patted the bottom of one of his sons or wife when they were all in the kitchen and happy and preparing a meal. We were celebrating a big success in the department and hugged, like people do in small offices when they celebrate successes or life events or holidays. I thought I saw embarrassment flash across his face.

We hugged, he patted my ass, and all of the celebratory joy drained from my body. I was shocked and embarrassed, speechless. My cheeks were hot, and I felt nervous. He said nothing, did not acknowledge what had just happened. No, “Oh no. I am so sorry.” No, “I am embarrassed by my behavior. I apologize. It was a stupid reflex.” Not even, “Oops.” He left my part of the office without any explanation or apology.

I stood there stupidly, feeling stupid, among my colleagues. My mind raced to question itself: Maybe he didn’t register it? Maybe I imagined it?

I asked incredulously if anyone who stood with us had seen that. I don’t remember what most of them said, but I remember nervous chuckles and slinking back to their cubicles.

“I saw it,” someone said.

My colleague looked me in the eyes. He was a smart, funny man my age who exuded a cool, casual confidence. I knew him to be professional, kind, and decent. “I saw it,” he had said, and held my gaze long enough for me to know I could trust him and I could trust myself.

I don’t know if I said, “Thank you,” or if I asked again to be sure. I don’t remember much else except overwhelming embarrassment and shame.

I told my female boss what had happened, that others had seen it. I told her I thought it had been an accident. I told her I wanted the boss to acknowledge it and apologize. I was terrified of making waves, and in my early 20s, fear could have silenced me. But others had seen, and I was worried about my reputation.

The battle between fears could have kept me awake, could have riddled my thoughts, could have bound me so tight I resigned to inaction. By speaking up, I risked repercussions from my boss or the company. (And for what? It had been an accident, hadn’t it? Had it even happened? Was it someone walking by I hadn’t seen?) By staying quiet, I risked the respect of my colleagues and I accepted shame.

That could have been the end of my story: anxiety, self-doubt, diminished self-esteem, guilt, shame.

But my colleague’s simple sentence changed the way I faced the situation: “I saw it.”

The boss gave a horrible apology: “If I somehow unconsciously or without my knowledge … I’m sorry,” delivered with contempt, an eye roll, and after quite a bit of arguing about whether it happened. It was not his best moment. I suspected he was worried I would sue him and let that fear guide his actions the way I might have let fear lead mine, a larger life lesson for me than I realized at the time.

But I do not tell this story because my boss didn’t behave well or because I faced an uncomfortable conversation with a person who touched me inappropriately. We know people don’t like to acknowledge their wrongdoing. We know that survivors of sexual assault face a secondary social and emotional assault from their perpetrators and society at large: doubt, blame, contempt, and shaming. We know that fear of those repercussions silences survivors.

This story is not shocking; a pat on the ass is so common and relatively low-level that it would be easy to dismiss. How many tweed-clad strangers 40 years my senior have cupped my ass? Countless. They are good at doing it under the radar; they’ve practiced. My ass has many stories of unwanted touching. I don’t tell this story because it’s shocking.

I tell this story because 15 years ago, a man in his mid-20s changed the way my story ended. Having a witness gave me back my power. It felt like a gift. Three quiet, serious words validated my experience, and that is what lit my path.

Let us be witnesses. When we see wrong, let us validate the wronged. Let us say, “I saw it.” Let us lend our power to people who are feeling powerless. It doesn’t take much. Three words. I saw it. I see you. I believe you.

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