Most women experience unwanted attention from an early age—the second you hit puberty, a whole new world of stares, remarks, groping, or worse descends upon you. But there’s a particularly uncomfortable strain of attention that aligns specifically with entering the working world, and it can constitute its own brand of confusion.
This certainly doesn’t apply across the board. Most of my bosses have been male, most of them have been either benignly neutral or outright champions and mentors. I thank them. Bad male bosses can be bad for a variety of reasons that may not be related to romantic interest, like stealing your ideas or being threatened by your experience or not taking you seriously. And certainly plenty of women enter into consensual romantic relationships with bosses—sometimes even marrying them (and vice versa).
But then there is the unwanted sexual attention, the kind that ranges from obvious ogling to a persistent attempt at romantic relations, even when you’ve shown no interest. This, I would venture, is staggeringly common for women still, and it’s likely much of it goes undiscussed on account of how “nothing” really happened. It’s particularly disturbing because work is a place where it matters enormously to be seen as competent, skilled, smart, ambitious, equal. Being seen as sexual in spite of these efforts can greatly undermine our sense of self, fuck with our self-esteem, and leave us wracking our brains to figure out what we’ve done to warrant the unwanted attention.
That attention can come in so many forms: sometimes it’s off-color jokes or talking about sex in a way you feel you’re supposed to roll with. Sometimes it’s flirting or outright advances. Sometimes it’s touching you in a way that isn’t sexual but still feels inappropriate. Sometimes it’s comments on your appearance, positive or negative, such as telling you when you look good or not. Sometimes it’s personal questions they have no business asking. Sometimes it’s personal information they have no business telling you. And talking about it is not likely to win you a lot of sympathy because, like all intrusions of female space, we are usually seen as inviting it by our mere existence.
A recent essay at the New York Times illuminates exactly such a predicament. Bonnie Tsui writes about being 18 and finding herself employed by a boss in his late 40s, who persisted in pursuing her romantically just enough that he danced around that line of acceptable for years. She was supposed to like the attention, she thought, so why didn’t she? He left messages at her dorm asking her to come to dinner, which she ignored. He never really did anything, did he—maybe he’d stood too close, but he’d never touched her, never made a “real” advance—so why did it feel so awful?
Tsui eventually took another job but ran into this boss again a decade later accepting an award. She writes:
He was in the audience, and he came up to me as I stepped offstage. He looked the same. Though I was a grown woman, something inside recoiled at the way he eyeballed me. That day I was wearing my favorite dress: a bold purple jersey with a green peacock printed on the skirt. He told me I looked great, congratulated me, said he’d been following my work, told me I’d done well. I wish this felt as good as it sounded. He followed me through the crowd. “I’m looking for my husband,” I said, feeling small. Sandra Day O’Connor was in the audience that day; later she would tell me, “You were marvelous.” At a moment when I should have felt proud, powerful and accomplished, I suddenly felt very young and foolish.
I love Tsui’s essay because it occupies the in-between space so many women’s experiences inhabit—where something vaguely uncomfortable has happened that you can’t quite pin down, but has left you feeling diminished nonetheless. It’s a feeling that becomes the background noise of so many women’s lives.
Part of why this kind of attention can be so frustrating is that it can make you doubt whether you’ve earned anything you’ve gotten. Are you among the “less talented” women who’ve pushed ahead in spite of your mediocrity because men who find you desirable are paving the way? How would you ever really know?
Tsui goes over this in her essay, ruminating on what she wore, how she behaved, and why she hadn’t told him in more explicit terms to leave her alone. After the run-in for the award, he emailed her an explicit recollection of what she’d worn one day 10 years earlier, calling it “the sexiest sight I have ever seen.” She was furious. Tsui concludes, “Nothing happened. But something did, didn’t it?”
Indeed. Not that the commenters agree. They are full of judgment, accusing the author of being hypersensitive, of wanting the attention, of failing to say no; they suggest she’ll learn how to say no more firmly when she’s older and advise her to take steps to get over it, because unwanted male attention is coming whether she likes it or not.
And this, more or less, replicates most women’s internal monologue in reaction to this particular brand of is-he-or-isn’t-he harassment, which can still be immensely damaging. So we push it to the background and muddle through, hoping next time we’ll pass by unnoticed.
Image via NBC