Many years ago, very early in my career as an Interior Designer, I worked in a rather large government building in Winston Salem, NC. During an average ordinary work day, I had received yet another inappropriate email from the Clerk of Courts, and then word spread through the building that he was being arrested.
Gary Thomas was arrested somewhere around the year 1999 on charges of embezzlement and misappropriating funds from the Estate office. He had told me of these misappropriations. I had worked with him for almost two years on the three-phase design project of remodeling the second floor of the Hall of Justice. He regularly came to me with budget requests, and all of them had to be approved by my boss. My boss frequently denied the requests that did not fall under the category of “capital improvement,” and Gary would tell me, “Oh that’s ok, I think I have some funds in Estates I can use.”
But Gary had other bad habits, in his work life. He regularly sent me e-mails that would be considered inappropriate in a work setting. He regularly called me in for meetings, “Please bring your plans and wear that cute shirt I like so much.” I would enter his office and he would lock the door, put his phone on Do Not Disturb, and push the plans aside.
Gary had a private restroom in his suite. He showed me the side closet in that restroom, and the massive amounts of Playboy magazines he kept in those shelves. There were blankets, although I never realized why the blankets were there until much later.
Gary knew I was married, but I now know he was grooming me. There is no telling what might have happened, had he remained in that office for longer. But there were some uncomfortable moments in those “meetings,” and there was no denying he wanted more from me than some revisions to drawings and some art work for his office. Sometimes he asked me for more than revisions and art work. Sometimes I had no choice but to give in.
I can’t really speak about what went on behind those locked doors. It’s highly demeaning to me because I was seriously only 27 years old. While everyone was required to sign the form stating they would not commit sexual harassment, no one ever spoke with me about what harassment actually looked like. No one ever told me what I could or should do when he locked those doors, or when he showed me his magazines. Everyone told me never to send inappropriate emails, but no one ever told me what to do when someone sent them to me.
I was deeply embarrassed by what was happening to me in that building. I was even more embarrassed when the SBI went through his office and his emails, and when they seized his office equipment, and it was revealed that he had magazines and blankets in his private restroom. I was embarrassed that my emails were on his computer, emails he had sent to me, a digital trail that linked me to other presumed victims.
None of the other victims came forward. I never spoke a word about what I had experienced. Gary was charged with his crime of embezzlement, but never did any word come out about his indiscretions with women. He called me before he went to prison, wanting me to come visit him before he went away. He was mad at me for not coming to see him. He regretted misusing those funds, but he still thought he did the right thing in getting the needed equipment for the Clerk’s office.
The Forsyth County Hall of Justice was filled with stories about harassment and inappropriate behaviors. Men came on to me often in that building. Harassment was an ever day occurrence, and even though this was 15 years ago, I doubt much has changed. Of course nothing has changed, because an elected official can do white collar time for embezzlement and no mention ever made of his harassment of women.
I had no idea what was happening to me, or why I was being singled out for his gross behavior. I had no idea what I was supposed to do – who would I report that to and how would they respond to my allegations? Gary had a LOT of influence in that building, from judges to bailiffs to attorneys and clerks. He was an elected official! People had actually voted for him! Nobody had ever voted for me. What power did I have against him? Nothing. I had nothing.
I have been following the women who are accusing Bill Cosby of raping them. I have read and supported them in large part because I can relate. I know what it is like to have that person praise you for your hard work, and then ask you to demean yourself by pleasuring themselves. I know what it is like to hear the door close behind you, and to feel like someone different as you go about motions that aren’t what you ever wanted. And I know what it is like to feel like you have no ability to stand up for yourself, because you know that person will publicly embarrass you and make your life a living hell if you don’t cooperate. I don’t know what it is like to experience that while being under the influence, but I do know what it like to realize, years later, how you yourself became complicit in rape culture. To understand how the corporatization of rape means that women (white and Black women) are at risk of being harassed and raped at their places of work, and if they wish to keep their jobs they must keep quiet because no one will believe them.
In seminary I wrote a heavy paper on this topic, about how women are pursued in the workplace by men in positions of power. Used to be, in the 1950’s and before, that white men kidnapped Black women and used Black female bodies for sexual pleasure. The white women were the ones to meet mama and to marry, but Black women could be victimized and no harm would come. At some point, kidnapping and raping Black women by white men became less common, although Black female bodies are still exoticized and pornographed as sexual images, while white women are viewed as “pure and marriage materials.” But when Black women and white women enter the work force, all women become targets for harassment and victimization through the corporate structure. Men have much power, and use that power to gain access to women’s bodies, and there is nothing women could do about it, because if they speak, they could lose their jobs. If they lose their jobs, they would lose good references. So men hold power above women, corporate power above women, and use that power to sexually abuse them.
This reality continues today. It happens every day. Sadly, harassment policies do very little to help, because they simply say “Don’t harass,” and they never inform employees what harassment actually looks like. I’ve never seen a harassment form that included a description of “grooming,” the process that perpetrators use to prepare a victim to become complicit in sexual abuse. And very little language is ever mentioned beyond “document what is happening” and “report to human resources.”
Even writing this post is extremely difficult. There are many who will be shocked, who will criticize me for doing what I did, or will criticize me for not coming forward. There are many who will criticize me for writing about it at all – if it was so many years ago, why does it matter now?
It matters a great deal. It matters when victims speak out, because as others speak out, victims listen and process their own victimization. As others hear the sly ways that men practice corporatized rape, women become aware and will learn what it looks like. Only then can women feel empowered to step back, unlock that door, and run like hell. Only then can women feel empowered to report those emails. Only then can we change a corporate culture that empowers rape and victimization of women.