Bullish: Dealing With Sexual Harassment When You Work For Yourself (Or Just For Some Dude)

I’m filing this column from France, where you can totally show your tits on the beach, and not in a sort of empowered-feminist-protest way (I defy thee, sexists!), but the same way you show your nose and ears and knees and stuff and nobody really notices and the kids are naked anyway and whole families are there with mom’s exposed breasts and everyone’s like, “That’s how we tan, bien sûr.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, I once did some art modeling for an “artist” from a traditional culture. He wanted to talk about how, obviously, I must be going to great lengths to hide my art modeling from my parents and OMG we share a secret so it’s like I own you. “Actually, no,” I said. “My mom thinks it’s pretty cool that I’m in paintings. Maybe some of those artists will be famous some day.” He said something like, “BUT … LADY … SKIN …,” after which he cackled like an evil witch.

My theory: the more repressive the culture, the more likely that someone who’s seen your ass just can’t let it go. The U.S. is sort of a middle ground of puritanical culture (Anthony Weiner) versus sexual permissiveness. That is, a young woman can easily make a few bucks doing various forms of modeling – often for skeezy men who won’t let you forget that you are now made entirely of ladyparts.

A young woman I’ll call “Lucretia Mott” wrote in with a pressing question (last week’s Bullish answered a question from “Madeleine Albright” and a previous column answered a question from “Lisa Simpson”) on just this topic.

Early this year, I offered myself as an intern for a company that makes screen-printed t-shirts and other products that mostly say “fuck” on them a lot. I thought the products were hilarious but also intelligent, and it didn’t bother me at all that the shirts were being modeled by, mostly, women in panties.

I quickly graduated from intern to personal assistant. I do EVERYTHING. I move boxes in the warehouse. I hire contractors. I sit in on board meetings. I make sure he pays his mortgage and picks up his children on time. I designed and ran a booth at a trade show.

And yes, I modeled. At the beginning. And now I seriously wish I hadn’t.

My boss is a rich man, and I am His Favorite Employee. He pays me very, very well, occasionally dumping money on me when I haven’t earned it. For example, he will drive us around in his own car all day running errands and then give me $40 “for gas” at the end of the day … even though I used none. Once he decided to pay me $200 instead of the $40 I’d actually worked for. Who am I to turn down an extra $160?

I should mention too, that my boss pays everyone very well. I may get all the bonuses, but when he decides to pay me double for the day he pays everyone else double too. And he loves helping people make their dreams come true; when I cleaned his garage I found boxes and boxes of thank you letters from people whose careers he helped. He’s very polite and respectful towards everyone he does business with, no matter what.

The problem is, he’s super creepy.

He tells me about his sex life with his wife, in front of his wife, which makes us both uncomfortable. He’s also seen me basically naked due to changing clothes at the photo shoots. This means that my workday is filled with lewd comments about my boobs and “cute ass”.

It’s been like that from the beginning, but the more embroiled in this company I get the more I hate it. I LONG for a job where no one’s seen me naked. Where they at least keep it to themselves when they undress me with their eyes. It’s affecting my sex life with my boyfriend heavily; I’m way too skeeved out after work to want to bang anybody. Other people have begun to ask me to model for them, and I can’t stand it. I’ve gone from comfortable with my sexuality to wanting to keep it secret and private and not let anybody know that I have boobs and a vagina. I dress more conservatively now and am supremely uncomfortable when anyone tells me how pretty I am, because I assume they’re following it up with some grotesque comment in their brain.

So, here’s my dilemma. I know I can/should/WILL have a talk with my boss about all of this. And maybe he’ll change his behavior; at this point, I’m fairly indispensable as an employee. But I’ll still know what he’s thinking, and I don’t know if I can ever get over that.

I really hope you’ve got some kind of advice on what to do with this job. Because I am so sick of hearing about my ass when I’m trying to balance someone else’s budget.

Lucretia, I’m so sorry you’re being skeeved up every goddamn day.

I feel as though I’ve read dozens of articles about sexual harassment that deal with whether and how you should report it. However, what if you work in a situation in which there’s no one to report it to?

Here are some thoughts, for you and for anyone dealing with sexual harassment where there’s no Human Resources department to go to.

Being “Liberal” Doesn’t Give Dudes a Free Pass

I’ve made the mistake before of thinking that liberal beliefs are a monolith – if a guy is wearing skinny jeans, he must want evolution taught in schools and believe in gay marriage and be pro-choice and also therefore not be sexist, right?

Um, no. Plenty of douchebags are pro-choice for the sole reason that they want to bang as many chicks as possible and not ever have to pay child support. Plenty of people espouse liberal viewpoints because they enjoy affiliating with hip groups of people and because, honestly, it doesn’t cost them anything. “Sure, women can get abortions anytime they want” is easy to say; standing up for your co-worker who’s being demoted after taking maternity leave is much harder (and dude, she’s probably not even hot anymore).

When I moved to New York in 2003, I was clueless. I was given a Vice Magazine by someone who told me that would help me get a handle on the social scene. There was a section of “fashion do’s and don’ts” that featured a photo of two young women in neon tights, captioned, “These tights started a fire only a good raping will put out.”

Oh, I thought. I guess I’m supposed to think that’s funny, because I’m … edgy. Right?

Actually, no. And honestly, it takes much more feminist courage to stand up to “liberal” misogynists than to stand up to Rick Perry – because you’re dividing the ranks, alienating some of the people you thought were on your team. Just trying calling out, say, Dane Cook: “I think a lot of his jokes are funny, but that particular joke was really sexist – it kind of ruins the rest of the show for me.” You will absolutely lose friends.

So, when you say, “He’s very polite and respectful towards everyone he does business with” – well, actually, he isn’t. Maybe he’s expending so much willpower behaving himself in a “business” context (as though his relationship with you isn’t business!), that he just lets his bad behavior explode elsewhere. Willpower is a limited quantity (New York Times article); use up too much of it, and your baser impulses spill over. Not that that’s any excuse for harassing your assistant.

(See the peripherally related How to Shut Down Street Harassers.)

Emotional Labor is Part of Most Jobs

That said, a great many employees do “emotional labor” as part of their jobs.

For every comment about your ass, well, there’s a Mexican “busboy” somewhere (a degrading job title for someone over eighteen years old) putting up with god knows what kind of condescending racist bullshit. Plenty of non-white Americans just consider racism part of almost any job. It wears you down, just as jobs in general can wear you down.

There is possibly no job anywhere that actually is just paying you for the labor itself. You have to commute, deal with difficult people, do administrative bullshit outside of work, etc. There are subsidiary actions to take and travails to endure. This is why the minimum salary you think you might accept for a job is not enough – when you think of that minimum, you are almost certainly not accounting for all the “extras.”

Not that anyone has the right to sexually harass you. But I’m not sure that comments about your body are worse than, say, being forced to go in and out of a coal mine until your lungs blacken.

This guy’s inappropriate remarks are obviously profoundly affecting your life. It’s a problem. But a lot of other jobs create problems as well; there’s not necessarily a haven waiting elsewhere.

Keep in mind that sexism will probably pop its head up from time to time throughout the rest of your career, but it’ll be a different kind of sexism once you’re old – you’ll just become unwelcome, ignored, or invisible. Quoth Tina Fey: “The definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.”

The u-so-sexy kind of sexism is at least something you can sometimes convert into money, although not without – as you are experiencing – some emotional cost.

So how can you make the best of a well-paying gig?

It Might Be Possible To Become a Skeevy Dude’s “Peer”

A few months ago, I was at a bar with my business muse, Molly Crabapple, when a much older guy hit on us (Ooh, he could stare at us and ask condescending questions in exchange for free drinks that are totally not as valuable as our time, what a bargain!) Many men seem to have a hard time with the idea that women often have important things to say to one another and are actually in a bar for the sole purpose of obtaining alcohol and a place to sit in exchange for money.

So, I drop my usual, “I’m here to spend time with my colleague, excuse me.” (That throws them off, that a hot girl could be a “colleague”!) He goes away, but he’s still staring from across the bar.

I tell Molly that, if he comes back, I’ve got my line ready. The appropriate tone of voice for this line is as though there has been an absolutely ridiculous misunderstanding, as in “No, I don’t work here, I’m just shopping!” Here it is:

“No no, you misunderstand! I’m actually just like you! I work hard to become successful and make money so I can have sex with people younger and hotter than me.”

This is not actually how I tend to live my life, but it gets the point across: I am an agent here, not a reward for your agency.

When you talk to your boss, make sure it’s not some girlish, “It hurts my feelings and makes me feel vulnerable when you treat me that way.” Because it seems pretty clear to me that your boss gets off on power. The “gas money”? Paying you double? If you feel indebted, you are caught in his spell. People who are full of awkward gratitude are highly controllable.

You’re not likely to change your boss. It’s possible he could have some small realization that some women don’t like to get skeezed on all the time. But it’s also possible that he could decide you’re a frigid bitch who is ungrateful for all he’s done for you, or that you’re “discriminating” against him for his age, or some other crazy thing that is thought by the types of men who view women as talking heads that exist to make angry chatter that deprives them of their god-given right to pussy.

So, the best you can hope for (without leaving) is that he mentally “promotes” you to sort of an honorary “son” or protege position. You’re like him, see? You want to become powerful and generous and help others and someday have your own assistant. And, of course, there’s probably some truth to this – the man obviously has some admirable qualities, and some raw abilities that he chooses to use for evil and that you could choose to use for good.

When you talk to him, it might be effective to avoid saying “offended” or “uncomfortable” and instead talk about how you’re glad you’ve “graduated” from modeling (no offense to models – we’re talking about fending off a major douchebag here) and you’re so glad you have a job that’s not based on your appearance since you get to do such exciting intellectual work.

If you make him feel bad, he’ll get defensive – instead, make him feel like a good boss (I know, it’s awful) for giving you the opportunity to make a living with your brain.

A good way to open this discussion might be to ask him questions about his own career and business, and make obvious parallels to your own situation. Throw in some flattery. Make your statements definitive – not “I wish I could do that,” or “Wow, you’re so smart,” but rather, “That obviously worked really well when you were in the early stages of your career. I’ll add that to my agenda,” or “Brilliant idea. Note taken!”, or “Would you put me in touch with so-and-so so I can show him my portfolio?”

And then ask if you can have more responsibilities, or head up some exciting new project, or expand his business by hiring and managing another assistant below you, or some other means of following in his footsteps.

You also mentioned that you had started dressing more conservatively. I totally understand that. If it were me, I’d try to dress stylishly but extremely androgynously.

I’d steal a page from a lot of super-fashionable gay men I see: pomaded hair, pinstripe button-downs, suspenders, wingtips with no socks, perhaps even a pocket square or jaunty neckerchief.

This makes it obvious that you’re not being lazy about your appearance – you’re just not being very “sexy.” When your boss comments on it, you get a chance to offhandedly say, “I’m really digging these new things I bought – I’m getting compliments on my fashion sense instead of on my body. Feels really good.”

When to Fire a Client (or a Boss)

While you don’t have a Human Resources department to report things to, you’re really in a much better position than many people who do. Call sexism at a big corporation and there’s a good chance word will get around (“Traitor!”) and damage your career, and you – rather than the perpetrator – will be moved, and then if you sue, you’d better win millions, because your career in that industry is irrevocably damaged.

Sexism has spurred many a ballsy woman to entrepreneurship (see Bullish: In Praise of Anger) – but again, that’s not as a result of reporting harassment to HR.

I say that your position is superior because you really don’t want to be working as an assistant as a career anyway, and because you are functioning in an artsy, entrepreneurial, freelance-type world in which jobs are often informal (working out of someone’s home, getting paid in cash, etc.) and relationships aren’t so strictly regimented as they are in a corporate world full of inflexible job titles. You can go off and do anything you want.

I have often advised women to get out of the 9-to-5 world because having only one client (the company that pays your salary) puts you in a submissive and vulnerable position; you need them much more than they need you.

If you have many clients, you can fire the worst ones; you can raise your rates and see if a few drop off, thus leaving you with the same amount of money for less work (see Bullish: How to Run Your Career Like a Business). If someone sexually harasses you, you can give that person a brilliant kiss-off. Of course, if someone thinks of himself as a “client” rather than as your “boss,” he’s much less likely to harass you in the first place.

I think you should find a way to trick your boss into setting you up with other clients.

Obviously, he’s already giving you plenty of work, so this might be hard. Does he know someone powerful and interesting whom it makes sense for you to really want to know? You’d be sooo thrilled if he could introduce you and if you could find a way to work on that person’s exciting project?

Maybe you ask whether he knows really powerful women in your field and mention that you’d like to get some experience working for a woman entrepreneur? (Not that women bosses are guaranteed to be any less oppressive – this is just an excuse for expanding your client base).

Maybe there’s someone you’ve already met who’s at his level, but does something really different that you would have a good reason to want to learn to do?

Or maybe you want to spend some time in another city. Does he know someone who could hook you up with work there?

You mentioned running his trade show booth at an event. It makes sense that you’d want to do more of that – could he hook you up with the organizers of the trade show, or with friendly but noncompeting businesses that also need trade-show booths?

Is there a way that this could happen while benefitting your boss in some way (even if just socially)?

Interestingly, people don’t like and respect you more when you do favors for them. They like and respect you more when they do favors for you. If someone puts himself out for you, his brain has to make sense of it, so he maintains internal consistency by raising his esteem for you. Of course I want her to succeed. She’s the next big thing. That’s why I set this up for her … right?

You won’t gain anything for telling this guy off. It’ll feel good for a day or less, and then the repercussions will haunt you. And it won’t even change his mind; it will not make him a better person. He would probably write you off as having mental (or sexual) problems. You can’t un-bigot someone. Bigots concoct irrational understandings of the world to allow them to maintain their own prejudices.

So, you should use this relationship to make as much money and as many connections as you can, then slowly move away from this guy. Maintain cordial email relations. In fifteen years, he will no longer see you as a sex object, and you can look him up and drink scotch together.

Milking this relationship for all it’s worth is not unethical, as long as you are doing the work that he pays you for. Everyone in a work situation has the desire to improve her own career. It’s not even an ulterior motive; it’s a given.

originally published on The Grindstone