My Wide-Eyed Feminism Didn’t Prepare Me for This

I’m just starting my career and the “post-Weinstein” moment has shattered everything I thought I knew about the working world.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Thinkstock and Thinkstock Images.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Thinkstock and Thinkstock Images.

The list of sexual assault and harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein is currently 90-odd items long, and as I compiled them in the first weeks of my internship at Slate, they chipped away at my faith that I’d entered a forward-thinking working world. I’d distill each new addition’s horror into a few clinical sentences for the ever-expanding list and be reminded anew that I was the mirror image of the women I was writing about: young and brand-new to the workforce, unsure of its rules and of myself, desperate to prove my worth. One of Weinstein’s victims was even a 22-year-old Stanford graduate, a particularly on-the-nose parallel.

Then other allegations joined those against Weinstein. Reports revealed prominent figures at publications whose job pages I’d checked, like the New Republic or NPR, as serial harassers. The controversial “Shitty Media Men” spreadsheet circulated, but I felt too unestablished to even ask to see the digitized whisper network. And it wasn’t just one misogynistic profession incubating these men: Harassment stories poured from field after field. Each new account came with a chill. I began to feel vulnerable, as if a clock somewhere was counting down the time until I, too, would be sexually harassed. Weinstein’s victims told of terrifying, complicated situations—a request for a massage, a lascivious comment paired with a work opportunity, worse—and reading them, I started to ask myself what I would say, what I would do, if I could get away. I’d shake off the scenario but not the defensive-crouch feeling: That lingered.

Before I entered the workplace, I’d worn my certainty about the accomplishments of second-wave feminism like a bulletproof jacket. Now the reality of the working world I was confronting bore little resemblance to the one I’d been promised by all the cheerleading feminism I’d encountered on campus. By the time I graduated, it was common practice to read aloud a definition of consent before gaining entry to an all-campus party, and calling for more stringent Title IX policy was a familiar activist rallying cry. Sparkly “Of course I’m a feminist” decals adorned laptops and water bottles, loudly and proudly declaring our convictions. We changed the wording on the neon tank tops worn by roaming sober monitors at a wacky, raucous kiss-a-stranger school tradition from “Kiss me, I’m sober” to “Ask to kiss me, I’m sober” to avoid even the insinuation that nonconsensual mouth-mashing was OK. But amidst all this talk of how to stamp out sexual assault and harassment on campus, all our smash-the-patriarchy conviction, I don’t remember having a single conversation that projected these questions onto my hypothetical future workplace.

Like practically every woman I know, I had a #MeToo story, but I’d prepared myself to encounter sexual harassment in alcohol-sticky corners of a party, taking public transit in a city, or in backward-seeming workplaces like Fox News or amid the prolonged adolescence of tech companies. I had prepared to face sexism, but I didn’t expect sexual harassment to lurk in progressive offices in the light of day; I hadn’t envisioned myself as prey and was loath to contemplate current or future co-workers as would-be predators.

Maybe you’ll write me off as naïve, incubated in a liberal college bubble. But I wasn’t among the 41 percent of self-deluded women who believe we don’t need to go further to attain gender equality. I knew the wage-gap statistics and read with concern stories of sexual harassment and discrimination at Uber and in the Silicon Valley bubble where many of my classmates hoped to find employment. I’d reported from the Taylor Swift groping trial. The threat of sexual assault was as real to me as the dumpster on my college campus by which Brock Turner was caught raping an unconscious woman, but I’d never been sexualized in a work or academic context, so harassment in the professional world still seemed a distant possibility.

But then I began to read about Weinstein and the men disgraced in his wake. I tallied on a teal Post-It all the women Weinstein had allegedly assaulted, tabulating on paper because I kept losing count. Some details blurred together into a horror reel while others lodged in my mind: the image of Erika Rosenbaum, Weinstein’s arm around her neck as he masturbated; Tara Subkoff, who described leaving a party with haste after Weinstein pulled her onto his lap, and then propositioned and threatened her; Cara Delevingne, her sexual orientation on display for Weinstein’s viewing pleasure. It felt futile to chronicle the stomach-sinking horror in just a few not-legally-liable concise sentences. I could figure out no creative ways to write, over and over, “forcibly performed oral sex on her.”

“Was seeing me naked the highlight of your internship?” Weinstein is said to have leered at Paula Wachowiak in 1980. Reading that, I quaked in the business casual outfit my mom had bought me for my internship. “The case has illuminated the very ordinary reality of being a young woman with a desire to succeed, perform, and please others,” wrote Jia Tolentino on the New Yorker’s website; I remember reading those words on my phone in the Metro and recognizing the description with muted dread. I read about forced kisses just miles away in Washington, D.C., allegedly committed by a congressional chief of staff on the Hill or a journalist along the canal in Georgetown. I’d been to both those places. I read and wrote and added tally marks representing women who’d been treated simply as female bodies, as the triumphant story of shattered glass ceilings I’d been told came to seem like an aspirational fairytale.

Before this dam-breach of harassment stories, I’d written off my mother’s warnings of sexual misconduct in the workplace as relics of a less-enlightened past. In a way, I was right: This type of sexual harassment was widespread then; it just hasn’t gone away. Swap out names, and the words of this 1975 New York Times article could be published verbatim today:

“Sexual harassment of women in their place of employment is extremely widespread. It is literally epidemic,” said Lin Farley, director of the women’s section of the Human Affairs Program at Cornell University.

She listed the forms such harassment could take:
– Constant leering and ogling of a woman’s body.
– Continually brushing against a woman’s body.
– Forcing a woman to submit to squeezing or pinching.
– Catching a woman alone for forced sexual intimacies.
– Outright sexual propositions, backed by threat of losing a job.
– Forced sexual relations.

Miss Farley, in testimony given before the Commission on Human Rights of New York City, noted that, in the past, women discussed the situation infrequently.

This November, 42 years after quoting Farley, who coined the term “sexual harassment,” the New York Times captured the pervasiveness of the problem with the same word—“epidemic”—as it had in 1975. Perhaps it should feel heartening that, as Hanna Rosin pointed out in a conversation on Slate’s Double X Gabfest with Noreen Malone, who worked at the New Republic two decades after Rosin, harassment has become easier to identify for younger generations:

Women your age and younger just have such clear lines around what is harassment and what’s acceptable. I feel like the women my age who were [at the New Republic] really felt like, “Well, that’s just the system.” It never occurred to us that there was any other way to be. There’s the sun and the sky and the moon, and that’s just how it is.

But though we can recognize sexual harassment as wholly unacceptable, we still haven’t purged it from the workplace. That’s progress toward parity at a glacial rate. It’s been pretty crushing to realize how little seems to have changed.

Feminism told me I was an empowered professional woman, part of the vanguard that would finally get to storm boardrooms and director’s chairs. Now I am struggling to reconcile this image of myself with the idea that some man soon might see me not as an equal but as a sexual plaything conveniently housed in a nearby cubicle. On some level, I want to react defensively: Avoid one-on-one meetings or overanalyze whether my knee-length skirt might read as suggestive. Yet I’ve also read enough feminist cultural analysis to know that taking precautionary steps to prevent my own harassment feels like buying into the myth of victim-blaming, and the last thing I want to do is perpetuate the idea that sexual harassment happens because a woman wasn’t careful enough. And how can I be empowered if I’m acting out of fear? Besides, being perpetually on-guard also seems unfair, a blanket smear of all the well-intentioned men who do understand power and privilege and treat their female co-workers with respect. It’s hard not to feel stumped.

I would like to believe that this is a watershed moment, that the downfall of so many powerful men will curb others, that we will have franker conversations about what needs to change. But the past year has made me cynical. I voted in my first presidential election hoping for a feminist victory; instead, a serial harasser won. Now, abusers are not just in the Oval Office but everywhere, and my optimism has gone as flat as the champagne I pre-emptively bought for election night. In the worst version of this newly revealed working world, I navigate the hallways of every new office building with the same feeling of watchfulness I have on a dark street because at least that’s better than being taken by surprise. But in a better version of this world, the problem’s been laid out in all of its grotesque ubiquity, and we can’t look away or dim the lights anymore; we watch out for each other instead.