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First Aid, Sexual Harassment and the “Strong, Confident” Victim

checking carotidian pulse in recovery position...

Just to clarify, this is not, repeat NOT a chat-up technique.

This week I went on a first aid course. I was looking forward to learning the techniques that would prolong the agonising suffering of one of my biro stabbing victims, as well as how to administer the most British of recovery positions – that is, to administer stiff brandies all round and politely ask the patient to jolly well live. What I instead learnt was that I allow the fact I’m a strong, confident woman turn me into a victim of sexual harassment.

In spite of my own fears and insecurities, when placed in a room full of strangers, I project the persona of a confident and humorous female. To all concerned, I am a vivacious and openly friendly woman and this, in many ways, serves me well. I’m not unusual in these character traits – there are women all around the world who are a charmingly affable force to be reckoned with and in fact, I come from a long line of vivacious and openly friendly women.

My mother will happily chirp away in an amusingly forthright “known-you-all-my-life” manner to any unsuspecting shop keep or street busker, who were blithely minding their own beeswax. My grandmother’s weapon of choice was to sing at you, if you were unlucky enough to have mentioned any word resembling the lyric of any number of random ditties from her worldly repertoire. I, for my part in this gobby family tree, see everyone as a potential new best chum and I crack jokes. Whatever way you look at it, we are far from the shy simpering wallflowers that you imagine when you hear the word “victim”. But that’s exactly what I turned myself into, and it was because of, not in spite of, the fact I am a “strong, confident woman”.

The first aid course went, as all first aid courses go, tediously slowly and with that annoying girl who always asks way too many questions of dubious relevancy and seems to misunderstand everything, turning the cursory “any questions?” into an investigative debate on exactly what brand of sticky plasters you should have in your basic first aid kit. You know the one, she’s on every corporate training course ever, and the muscles on one arm are vastly over-developed from it being constantly raised in the air. So there I was, launching the odd jovial quip with my answers to some very dull primary school style teaching, and enthusiastically throwing myself into all the demonstrations of how to physically assault a corpse place someone into the recovery position, when the metaphorical rug of my self assuredness got whipped right from under my well shod feet.

I had been asked to practice some life saving techniques on the David Brent-esque male course trainer, and as I tentatively knelt over him, holding my ear close enough to his mouth to feel his breath, he whispered something in my ear. It wasn’t something grotesque, it wasn’t anything lewd or crude. It was a “cheeky” comment about whether I was looking for a husband. It was enough.

I wish I had got up from my knees and informed this man that I did not enjoy his comment. I wish that I had given him a stern faced rebuttal and a firm ticking off, but I didn’t. I carried on with the life saving techniques that we had been asked to practice and with my guts rising in my throat, I ran my hand down his limbs and torso to check for hypothetical blood, my entire being willing my hands to withdraw from this wholly awkward physical encounter. In spite of the fact he was the one lying prone on the ground, I was the one who felt, in some way, no matter how large or small, violated.

It wasn’t so much that this man had made a hugely inappropriate comment, it wasn’t that he had hit a raw nerve with his choice of topic (I think we all know that I’m more likely to take a holiday than a husband), it was the fact that while a student on his course, and being required to practice intimately physical techniques that I was unfamiliar with in order to pass, I felt vulnerable.

What’s worse, I let his comment slide because I blamed myself! I actually held myself accountable for this man acting in a way that was not only inappropriate for a near stranger to behave, but for someone in a position of professional responsibility, because I felt that I had acted in a way that had made him feel this was acceptable. The fact I had been cracking jokes and behaving in an amiable, confident fashion, as is my character, had been misconstrued as flirting and an invitation to whisper personal comments in my ear, right before I had to stroke the entire length of his body, and I was sorry!

I spent the rest of the course unable to look him in the eye and had to work hard to keep my attention on the words of life saving advice drifting through my ears, as my brain paced over and over every action and move I made from then on, in a bid not to give any further invitation for this unhealthy exchange to continue. It didn’t work. Merely applying my lipstick opened the window for a wisecrack about it being smeared on “course trainers”. My cutting repost, barbed with shards of frozen venom, wasn’t enough to stop me from willing my female form to be swallowed up by the coffee stained carpet. From the look on his face, this was all merely flirtatious banter.

Did I confront him there and then about his behaviour? Did I point out that my jocular comments at the start of the day bore no sexual undertone and that my being able to hold a conversation with any person you care to throw at me (not literally, although I’m now qualified to deal with any injuries they may sustain if you do) was not an open invitation for innuendo and coquetry? No, I blamed myself and I suffered in silence, berating myself for both the blame and the silent suffering.

As the end of the day made its merciful approach, we were presented with a feedback form to share our thoughts on the course and the staff who had taken us through it. Now was my chance, an opportunity to make it known that I was not willing to suffer the retarded social skills of this blissfully unaware letch. But he was right there, he was going to take the forms from us and he would know that I was the one who had made a fuss about a “harmless” joke he had made, a joke that was all my own fault because I had left myself wide open to it with my gregarious character, right before he decides who has passed and who has failed the course. Disappointed in myself and full of repressed anger, I walked away, making empty passive-aggressive threats of grand violence on Twitter and text to my friends. Oh hang your heavy heads, feminists of the world, for I truly let you down. I accepted my fate with such weakness and defeated pity. I wasn’t a strong or confident woman; I had turned myself into a victim.

Later that night while sulking, I had a revelation. I wasn’t at fault here and I’m not a victim! I could try to excuse his behaviour as being a mere misunderstanding and I could try to convince myself that I would get over my “silly” feelings of awkwardness, but hang on, if he was making a “harmless” joke, why had he waited until I was leaning but 2 intimate inches from his face? If this behaviour was professionally and socially acceptable, why had he not shared it with the entire class?! I was not the one at fault, no matter how cheery my disposition may have been in the lead up.

And now the tricky part. I didn’t want to make a fuss. Why? Well, if I was so outraged, surely I should have said something at the time, but for my own reasons (as discussed above), I didn’t. I also acknowledge that what he had said contained no explicit or threatening words and that he didn’t actually lay a hand on me. However, what he did was not appropriate and actions should be taken for two reasons; the first being so that he won’t do this again, and the second so that I can claw back some of my self-respect and control over the situation. My decision, rightly or wrongly, has been to consult the HR department of my employer for sage impartial advice, with a view to contacting this man and his superiors, in a polite and professional manner, to let them know, without making a formal (potentially career damning) explosive complaint, that what he did was not acceptable. I’m being generous and giving him a gift – the opportunity to change, and I’m giving myself a gift too, my voice back.

It turns out I am a strong and confident woman after all and I’m never going to be sorry for that again.

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About prettyfeetpoptoe

I live in London and have both my own legs so I am fortunate enough to get out and about on occasion. I form many views on the things that I see and do and love nothing better than a session of linguistic gymnastics in order to share these views.

17 responses »

  1. I’ll bet almost every woman has experienced this sort of thing…or worse. Time to stand up! Good for you.

    Reply
  2. Ugh, these are the worst. It’s as you’ve described and then some. What do we do, for example, if we call him on his behavior and he retorts by making US feel like we’ve overreacted? There’s also the bit where we feel like if we accuse him of something inappropriate, it will be blown out of proportion by his superiors and he’ll be suspended or lose his job over what might well have been merely his socially inept attempt at flirtation without risking public humiliation. I mean… how will we ever be asked out if we lambast every man who’s ham-handed with a compliment? It’s hard to know exactly which level of sensitivity is best; that level at which no one loses a job unnecessarily but all parties take things appropriately seriously. Awful. Well done for eventually finding a way to handle it best and realizing you had not been in the wrong.

    Reply
    • I’m really lucky that I have a supportive HR person who agreed that I wasn’t making a silly fuss or overreacting. They pointed out that he may behave worse with people he sees as being less confident so something definitely needed saying.

      Is it wrong of me to have a chuckle to myself that he probably got the feedback on Valentine’s Day? 😉

      Reply
  3. Well managed. He sounds like the type to employ innuendo. But going to his HR dept. will certainly be career-damaging for him and even you.
    I like your writing and well-described experiences.

    Reply
    • Thanks very much. I really hope it doesn’t damage his career, I hope he changes his ways and learns from it. Well, unless he’s done it before, in which case OUT OUT OUT!

      Reply
  4. In the end, it sounds like what you did was best, anyway.
    I know how it feels at the time. Perhaps, should this happen again (or something similar), you will be able to “mention” it to the person there and still make a complaint later.
    You didn’t do anything wrong.
    Scott

    Reply
    • I’ve promised myself I will definitely react faster at the time but this really caught me off guard as it was so out of the blue. Three cheers for a supportive HR process after the fact!

      Thanks Scott.

      Reply
  5. Good for you!

    Something that I think every single child is taught at primary school is that “it isnt a joke if the person whose expense you made it at doesn’t find it funny”. Flirting and inappropriate behaviour is exactly the same. He may not have felt you up, or said something dirty, but it still wasn’t appropriate. What gives him the right to make YOU feel uncomfortable? Because you were friendly? Would he have made the same pass on the middle aged man who may have also been cracking a few jokes?

    Thanks for writing this post. I think more people need to understand what it’s like to feel uncomfortable because a man has decided he has the right to make a sexual move. Every woman has gone through it, from ‘oh i shouldn’t have worn such a short dress’ to ‘i shouldn’t have made small talk on the train’, and every time, at the end of the day, if the woman doesn’t want to be treated that way she shouldn’t.

    I hope he takes into consideration what you’ve told his supervisors, and at the very least, at least we know what he did was wrong!

    Reply
    • Thank you! It’s good to hear that other people recognise the line was crossed and I’m not just causing a silly scene over nothing. It’s such a grey area but you’re right, people need to be taught that their behaviour shouldn’t make other people uncomfortable and to speak out if it happens to them – not just as a form of punishment for the perpetrator, but as a learning tool for them.

      Reply
  6. Fantastique – as per usual. How dare the wanna be paramedic make you feel like that. Karma will get him when he whispers that in the ear of a female kickboxer.

    Reply
  7. Well done, my friend! I’ve been in this situation, and it turns the bowels into water. Self-doubt and indecision like this crippling, and it takes time to sort through. You’ve regained your power and position, though, as the Kick Ass Pop Toe.

    Reply
    • Thanks Sandy Sue! It really shakes even the strongest and most formidable of people and it’s such a grey area that it’s easy to question yourself. Ass kicking from here on out!

      Reply
  8. I’ve just experienced this kind of thing yesterday. Roles reversed in that it was a fairly flirty female social worker asking if i would be her other half and making comments about my hair. I am a single male parent but i have chosen to ignore this as i don’t expect any sympathy being a male. I also had my bottom pinched by an admin worker a few years ago, i just ignored her. Lots of other incidents down the years aswell.
    Is it because i am quiet and reserved that women seem to want to act dominant and controlling around me? I feel that it is and that if i acted like some of the brash, jerky males then i would be left alone.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing this. It shouldn’t matter what gender the roles are in this situation but it does, there really is a stigma attached to men complaining about “unwanted” attention, but nobody should be made to feel awkward for expressing to someone else that they do not welcome or appreciate their behaviour.

      I guess you have to assess which would be worse – having someone keep bullying you or have them think you’re odd for pointing out what a bully they are. Only you can decide what is right for you but you definitely don’t deserve to be picked on or harassed.

      Reply
  9. Dissatisfied Whitireia Alumni

    Here is my story…

    The place: Whitireia Community Polytechnic, a government-owned, taxpayer-funded institution located in Porirua, New Zealand.

    The situation: First aid class with 20 students, all of whom were ongoing classmates for a health science course.

    The tone: Totally out of control, as usual for this crowd. Complete lack of seriousness, yelling, and generally acting like a bunch of special needs children trapped in the bodies of adults. (Whitireia has a long tradition of scraping the bottom of the barrel to enrol some of the dumbest students in the country.)

    So we get to the point where we are supposed to find a partner, and take turns feeling each other up, including touching the inside of the thighs, etc. This was a required task, in order to pass the class.

    I am totally creeped out by the situation in general, and wondering if I can take advantage of the chaos to simply avoid getting groped, without the instructor noticing. The instructor had explicitly stated that he wasn’t going to assign partners, and that students were free to make our own choices.

    Then, a classmate named Jonathan Benbaruk, literally RAN over to me, and demanded to partner with me for the groping.

    I told him, “Do it with one of the boys”.

    He replied, “I don’t like boys”, and continued demanding to partner with me for the groping.

    He continued demanding, again and again, after I had clearly said “No” several times. He continued demanding after I said that I shouldn’t have to get angry at him to get the idea across.

    He continued demanding as I was physically walking away from him. He got down on the floor and started rolling around, yelling, “Save me! Save me!”

    A couple of weeks later, in the regular classes, there was a “teamwork” project that would involve preparation outside of class time (e.g. getting together at a student’s home, or some other non-supervised environment). Literally everyone else in the room picked their team-mates, but I didn’t get a team, since I was generally not in any of the cliques there. So the teacher decided that I should be required to be on a team with Jonathan Benbaruk.

    I asked the teacher to step outside the room, and then quietly explained why I didn’t want to have any interaction with Jonathan Benbaruk. I actually ended up doing an alternate assignment by myself.

    And the end outcome?

    I was branded as being a bad student and a bad person, and treated as if I had refused to cooperate with legitimate “teamwork” requirements, both in the first aid class, and subsequently. When I directly stated that his actions constituted sexual harassment, I was bullied by two female Whitireia managers. One of them, Beth Derby, told me that Jonathan Benbaruk was just looking to make an intellectual connection, and that I should feel flattered, and be personal friends with him. The other, Leanne Pool, directly stated that tolerating sexual harassment is required/expected in workplaces, so I was basically deficient for reacting negatively to it in the classroom.

    Jonathan Benbaruk (who also had major issues with poor attendance, inability to follow simple instructions, poor academic performance, etc, etc) was accepted into Whitireia’s nursing programme.

    Real cute, huh?

    Reply

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