The Five Stages of Being Sexually Assaulted By Your Coworkers
Content Warning: Sexual assault, death, suicide
Over the course of my 15-year career in the tech industry, I have been sexually assaulted at afterhour work events on four separate occasions within the past five years. When I say assault, what I mean specifically is being kissed, stroked or otherwise touched in a sexually charged way without prior consent. With the exception of one case, these incidents involved cisgender men who I had worked with before and considered to be friends or friendly colleagues. Despite the prevalence of women’s empowerment initiatives in corporate settings, I found that even those closest to me were unable to respect my bodily autonomy.
Rather than seeking sympathy or calling out specific individuals, I am sharing my story because I believe that many offenders may not fully comprehend the gravity of their actions.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I urge any cisgender men who may be unsure whether they have assaulted someone in the past or are 100% certain they never have, to read on and put themselves in my shoes.
In many ways, my experience dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault is similar to dealing with death and loss. Namely, every time I’ve gone through four, maybe all five stages of grief.
In the moment, I often don’t even realise what’s happening. I’m left shocked and surprised, and I freeze. Next, my survival instinct kicks in and my only goal is to not escalate the situation. I smile and casually try to excuse myself because you never know what might happen next. One moment you’re hanging out with a coworker after-hours as you have done many times before, the next moment, he might yell at you or hurt you because he didn’t get what he wanted.
When the situation turns from harmless flirting into aggressive sexual advances, I switch to high alert mode. I’ve been grabbed and insulted on the street for not reacting to catcalls or rejecting advances too many times before.
I find myself questioning my memory and behaviour. Did I lead him on? Was I too flirty? Did I misremember what happened? Is it even really assault if I wasn’t hurt?
It’s easier to deal with what happened, if I tell myself I was partly at fault because that means I had control over the situation and wasn’t victimised. It means that my friend is still trustworthy, and I didn’t judge them wrongly.
However, even after I’ve pondered on all those questions, what remains are feelings of violation and broken trust. That’s how I know - without a shred of doubt - that it really happened and it really was assault.
Once I’ve come to terms with that, my doubts turn into frustration and disappointment. It’s difficult to comprehend that someone I considered a friend and coworker would put me in a situation where I feel uncomfortable and scared for my safety.
In a conversation with a friend, he suggested that guys may struggle to interpret certain signals. So let me give you a really handy, surefire rule-of-thumb: if it’s a work thing or an after-work thing, the signals DO NOT MATTER. Work is work. I don’t want to think about my body parts or how they make you feel at work.
If you’re romantically interested in a coworker, ask them out on a date. That way, the context is 100% clear from the beginning.
I recall a time when things were getting heated between me and a coworker at an after-conference event when they asked if they could kiss me. You might be surprised to learn that straight-up asking for consent is not only an actual possibility, but it’s also hot AF. You might not be surprised that the person in question was a woman.
I’m angry now. At the patriarchy, at ignorant male coworkers, at clueless event organisers who don’t know how to properly enforce their own code of conducts. But this anger isn’t getting me anywhere. Now I’m thinking about mitigations for the future. Maybe if I just wear frumpy sweaters and old jeans from now on, guys will leave me alone? Maybe I need to tone my personality down by 80%? Maybe I just don’t groom for a month?
But I really don’t want to. Growing up, I was taught you could only be one thing: smart or attractive, and also that I was not attractive. So, I focused on nurturing my brain and working hard to prove myself.
However, about five years ago (I guess this is not a coincidence), I discovered that I could do whatever I wanted. I could be hot AND smart. On my own terms! Now, I want to live my life to the fullest and never go back to muting myself. I’m done bargaining for my right to be taken seriously by conforming to someone else’s standard of how a professional woman should look and behave.
Experiencing sexual assault doesn’t usually make me feel depressed. Perhaps it’s because I refuse to accept it as my fate.
However, there was a time when a coworker became obsessed with me after I turned him down, and I had to break off all contact with him. Later, I found out he had checked into a clinic to work on his mental health, but before I had a chance to reach out to him, he took his own life. This sent me into a spiral of emotional detachment, grief, and guilt. To this day, when I see the signs coming on, I disengage as quickly as possible and break off contact.
Finally, there’s only one step left: acceptance. But accepting doesn’t mean we accept that sexual assault is just a fact of life that we can’t change. Rather it’s the realisation that the first step towards improvement is accepting the current reality as is. It’s a tough, painful, and sad reality to face, but it’s the only way to move forward in an industry dominated by men with poor social skills. Despite knowing that it will happen again to me and many others, I refuse to let it change who I am. I will continue to love myself and my body, even if that means being objectified, groped, and harassed by people who are supposed to care.
After a tough conversation about what happened, I still consider some of the guys who assaulted me to be my friends. I forgave them, not for their sake, but for mine. I would rather not continue carrying the pain of feeling violated and the burden of being a victim.
And because love means forgiveness.