Life

Sexual misconduct afflicts more than celebrity world

Alison Gowans, features reporter with The Gazette, taken on Thursday, May 26, 2016. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Alison Gowans, features reporter with The Gazette, taken on Thursday, May 26, 2016. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

It was 2008, and I was waiting tables at a local diner. Most of our customers were decent, good people who just wanted to enjoy some eggs and pancakes. But one day a man sitting at a booth with his family suddenly started shouting across the restaurant.

“Nancy! Beth! Sarah! Sarah! Sarah! April! Michelle! Jane! Jane! Jane!”

None of the women — and it was all young women — who worked in the front of house at this restaurant had any of these names, and there were no other customers in the dining room, at least not that I can remember. Finally, I walked over and asked why he was yelling.

“I don’t know your names, but it doesn’t really matter, does it?” he replied. “I can just call you all Nancy. Nancy, get me some coffee.”

I didn’t know what to say. I wish I had said, “My name isn’t Nancy, and yes, it does matter what my name is. Act like a decent human!”

But I didn’t. I got him his coffee. Throughout the rest of his meal, he would keep shouting orders at me and the two other waitresses working that day. The woman and children he was with sat quietly at the booth.

We all acquiesced to his yelling and his rudeness. The customer is always right, after all.

And if we had yelled back, we knew he might have escalated. Maybe he would follow one of us after our shift. Maybe he would have found our boss and tried to get us fired. Maybe he would have retaliated on that family sitting with him, that woman and those two children, after they left.

That’s what women know. That’s the behavior we have witnessed, for as long as we can remember. He didn’t sexually harass any of us. But when men (and some women), wonder why the victims of powerful men waited so long to come forward, this is the response.

We are taught: Keep your head down. Don’t make a scene. Know your place. Smile. Survive.

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For a short time, I volunteered answering a crisis line. In training, they told us to remember that “fight or flight” aren’t the only two responses to danger. There is also “freeze.” If you fight or run, your attacker is likely to fight back or give chase. Those are dangerous things. So we freeze.

Keep your head down. Don’t make a scene. Know your place. Smile. Survive.

When it comes to workplace harassment, fighting could get you fired. Fleeing sometimes works, but guess what that means? It means giving up the job, the career opportunity, the promotion, the chance.

Many women simply can’t afford to lose their jobs. Poor women, immigrant women, women who have families to support and bills to pay. Disproportionately women of color, who also have to put up with the daily injustices and indignities of racism. Fighting or fleeing often aren’t a realistic option.

That leaves freeze.

Keep your head down. Don’t make a scene. Know your place. Smile. Survive.

I’m happy, oh so happy, that so many predators finally are having their misdeeds unveiled to the light of day. But let’s remember that the problem is far bigger than the famous and high-profile names getting splashed across our headlines. The problem also is men who prey on their housekeepers and nannies and waitresses and bartenders. It is managers at factories and restaurants and stores across America.

If movie stars, with all their wealth and access and privilege, have had so much pain and anguish coming forward, remember the women who have none of those things. We have to make sure this movement, and this moment, can embrace them, too.

l Comments: (319) 398-8434; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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