Here’s a thing I learned recently: up to 54% of self-employed women experience sexual harassment on the job.
When it happens, there’s no recourse. No HR office down the hall where you can file a complaint. No Title IX Coordinator to ensure your workplace environment is free from sexual violence and discrimination. No legal team on board. Heck, there isn’t even a breakroom where you can beef with coworkers about so-and-so’s questionable behavior. And since self-employed people typically don’t have a big safety net, the possibility of not being paid can be a deterrent to speaking up when a client or colleague crosses the line.
What that means is―when you experience sexual harassment as a self-employed person―the sense of isolation, vulnerability, and feelings of being diminished or degraded by the experience are actually exacerbated.
You can probably guess how I came to write about this topic.
In a recent series of exchanges with an editing client, things went from “Hmm, that’s kinda borderline,” to “Whoa! Totally unacceptable!”
From the beginning of our correspondence, this man’s communications were occasionally erratic or overly personal. In my responses, I tried to model a more appropriate tone, underscoring the professional nature of our relationship: he had contracted me to critique and offer feedback on a book-length manuscript of poetry. I had compassion for him, as a person in his seventies pursuing a long-deferred dream. But I also had to be honest. His manuscript needed a thorough revision.
His reaction to this news? A lengthy screed that was alternately defensive, dismissive, and filled with references to genitalia. He felt “nutted” like his wife’s quarter horse. He shared a visceral description of the operation by which a horse is gelded. He said he didn’t want to take any of the deeply considered advice I offered because he, himself, did not want to be a gelding.
As to my suggestion that he try to consider his manuscript from a global perspective (in which some of the same issues cropped up repeatedly)―well, that was a “knife aimed at his belly,” or, “God help him,” his crotch.
Note: the manuscript is not about animal husbandry.
My first thought was that he might have used all that time spent crafting castration analogies more effectively by getting to work revising his poems. My second was: “Oh my God! He’s sexually harassing me!” I actually laughed. I was so surprised by the plain fact of it that I didn’t clock what that harassment is designed to DO: diminish me, my professional expertise, and the work I had done by sexualizing the conversation. Basically, he had a tantrum and started waving his metaphorical dick around.
I let him know his behavior was inappropriate, and that I would not be continuing our conversation. But the real impact was yet to come:
I woke up the next morning feeling like shit. Demoralized, disinterested in the work I had to for my other clients, and worried I might not be paid the balance of my fee for the hours of labor I’d already done. I started writing about the experience in order to process those feelings. Then, I thought: “Don’t share this. People will think you’re a vicious red-pen wielding harpie and MEN WON’T WANT TO WORK WITH YOU.”
Which is exactly how I was supposed to feel, right?
That’s how people who harass others in the workplace wield their power. When your workplace is your own home―and the lines between life and work are sometime less clear―it can multiply the effects of harassment.
But here’s the thing: I love my job. I love working with writers to help them craft their best stories, poems, and essays. I’ve had terrific working relationships with writers at all levels, including many male authors who did not feel emasculated by receiving feedback from a woman. And I bring twenty years of experience as an educator to the role.
It’s my natural inclination to try to present solutions to any problem I identify: as an editor and writing coach and―in my former capacity as Associate Director of an MFA in Creative Writing Program―as an administrator.
But this is a problem that is clearly beyond the range of my ability to provide a solution.
I write about it in hopes that doing so will help me pull the thorn out of my own paw, and perhaps provide some validation for others.
I also plan to donate $100 of my client’s fee to the TIME’S UP Foundation, an organization dedicated to preventing sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. If you’d like to join me in supporting TIME’S UP, here’s a link: https://timesupfoundation.org/
And PS: If you are self-employed and believe you may be in need of legal representation, here is some information and resources: https://www.employmentlawhelp.org/sexual-harassment/self-employed