I want to tell a story about workplace sexual harassment and “banter”. Back when I was 17, in the summer holidays I went and did some work experience for the small company my father worked at.
My parents had been divorced 8 years and I lived with my mum. I didn’t like my father: he was emotionally abusive and boorish. The man was racist, homophobic and a bully. I guess he still is but I haven’t spoken to him since 2006. Anyway, I wanted a computer monitor and he wanted a parts catalogue entering into a database on this new Amstrad word processor they’d just bought, so he paid me £20 a day to do it, which was a fortune to a kid in 1991.
The company maintained and serviced welding machines across the east midlands. They were based on a trading estate and had two employees: my father and his colleague, J. They were a subsidiary of a company that operated out of a larger unit on the same trading estate which did more generalised welding stuff. The parent company did all the HR and suchlike. It was a very male dominated environment, but the parent company had a female secretary, K, who wasn’t much older than me. The blokes, my father included, would sexually harass her whenever they saw her. At the end of the day they’d go home to their wives, my father included.
I don’t know if it ever got physical, but there were constant insinuations from these middle aged men to this 20 year old girl that they’d like to take her and fuck her. I guess to survive in that environment she learned to roll with it to an extent and appease these lecherous advances until the men went away and stopped bothering her.
My father seemed to think my development into adult male-hood was stalling (I was a closeted trans girl, go figure), and he and J took it upon themselves to “educate” me. During the few weeks I worked there they sometimes took me on site visits to customers: usually factories full of industrial equipment full of girly posters on the wall and men communicating at each other in ways that used “fuck” as punctuation.
Two things stand out from this time. The first was coming back from a customer site, we drove past a woman walking on the street. J rolled down his windows and started literally barking at her, with his tongue hanging out. My father gave him a quizzical look. J said, “hey, I have needs don’t I?”. They both laughed, thought it was hilarious. I sat in the back in stony silence. It was clear I was expected to join in. The disappointment in my father’s eyes was palpable. I was appalled.
But the biggest thing I remember was around how they talked about K when she wasn’t there. She was a piece of meat to them. My father and J would talk (in front of my father’s 17 year old child, who they assumed to be a boy; more fool them) about the rape fantasies they had about K. Once again it was obvious they were trying to “complete my education”, as it were, and it just wasn’t taking. They seemed to think they were doing me a favour. I just wanted them to stop and was in no position to say so because this was my father, and my first bully, and I was terrified of him.
They got increasingly desperate in their attempts to get me to join in. One lunchtime they pretended to come in drunk and ask me what I’d like to do to K. They told me that I should go and say something to her because, in their exact words, “she’s a nymphomaniac”. I was lost for words and just said, “oh dear”.
J turned to my father and said, “I didn’t expect him (SIC) to say that. Did you?”
My father went white and agreed he had not. Later, when driving me home to my mother that evening he gave me a lecture on how I was “antisocial”, and how I wouldn’t make friends or get anywhere in life because I was “boring” to people and needed to “loosen up” and “join in”.
I not only had no idea how to behave the way they were behaving; I had no desire to learn. They all seemed to think it was normal to behave this way. For some reason they seemed to have a high turnover of secretarial and admin staff. I don’t think K had been there long, and I don’t think she was there long afterwards. I expect the stress of having to go along with their “banter”, and then be branded a nymphomaniac, a slit, filthy, for doing so probably caused her quite a bit of stress. If the men realised the impossibility and logical absurdity of the position they’d placed her in, they showed no signs of it, or of caring.
My father wanted me to learn about how the world worked, I guess, and in a way I did. I assume his disappointment at the conclusions I came to had a part to play in his eventual disowning of me. I wish I’d realised at the time that despite his constant assertions, I already had far better social instincts than he had.