A female friend of mine went on a foreign business trip early in her career with two colleagues who were both male, married, and senior to her at the company. After dinner with a client, hours after she had retired to her room, around 1 a.m., one of her coworkers knocked on her hotel door and asked if she would come out for a drink. She declined. After another hour, around 2 a.m., the other coworker knocked on her door. When she opened it a crack, he tried to push his way into her room. She fought him off. All three still work together.
The narratives blend, as do the euphemisms. That Hollywood executive is a bad apple. That TV host is a monster. That politician uses "locker-room talk". It's the alcohol. It's the socialising. It's the clothes. It's the attitudes. It's just being in the vicinity of women. It's the video games, though I haven't heard that excuse in a while.
But the fact is, it's you. It's men. The social ill that we can't quite put our finger on is men.
If every single woman I know or have ever known has multiple (or even daily) experiences with men being inappropriate or threatening toward her, what other conclusion can we draw? Either there are a handful of men who work around the clock to keep women on edge, or many of you don't realise what you're doing is wrong.
The good news is you can stop this behaviour. You must stop.
What kind of behaviour is inappropriate in the workplace? Hopefully, you learned this in some corporate sexual harassment training. But this rote aspect of orientation has clearly failed in its mission to quell the bad apples, so I asked female friends and colleagues to share some of the routine actions that make the hair on their neck pop up.
One said: A coworker knew I had a date the night before, so he asked me how it went. He said, "So, did he get lucky?"
Don't ask about her romantic life. Don't refer to her sex life. Don't ask about the quality of the sex she's having. Don't comment that she seems like she needs to get laid. Don't tell her to lock down a guy before she gets too old and decrepit. Don't reassure her that with tits like hers, she'll find a guy some day. Don't relay details of your own marriage and past in order to comment on hers. Don't make knowing eyes when she mentions she's going on date number three. Don't tell her how to behave on a date. Don't tell her what guys like on a date. Don't tell her to wear a low-cut dress on a date. Don't make any reference to getting lucky, like, ever.
One said: The guys in our office tell the women to smile so often that now we've started responding with factual retorts. "Why would I smile while staring at an Excel document?" or, "If I smiled, I would spill the coffee out of my mouth."
Don't tell women to smile. Don't tell women to be more cheerful. Don't assume it is a woman's role in the office to make everything more pleasant and lovely and soft. Don't tell women how to behave so they're more desirable to spend time around. Don't comment on a woman's mood, particularly if you're suggesting that it is her female duty to be happy all the time. Don't mirror the language of a real-life campaign against sexist men.
One said: I saw one of our male cashiers walk over and massage the shoulders of one of the female cashiers. He may have seen it as a gesture of solidarity or whatever, but I was totally creeped out.
Don't touch your female coworkers, ever. There might be exceptions—like she's about to fall out of a window. If you could catch her while staying near her arms and not her breasts as you do so, that would be best. Don't rub her shoulders. Don't brush back her hair. Don't graze her butt. Don't grab her butt. Don't let your hand linger on the small of her back while taking a group photo. Don't hold her waist as you're trying to move past her in a crowd (we know that trick). Don't fake a fall and land with a hand on her breasts. Don't put your arm around a woman in a meeting. Don't place your hand on her wrist to emphasize a point. Keep your hands to yourself.
Either there are a handful of men who work around the clock to keep women on edge, or you don't realize what you're doing is wrong.
One said: My coworker knows I take a hip-hop dance class because he saw sneakers in my bag. Now some mornings he'll ask, "Did you take a class last night? Did you get sweaty?"
Don't ask about a woman's body. Don't ask about her bodily functions. Don't comment when a woman's body gets bigger or smaller. Don't commend her on losing weight. Don't act excited about the presence of sweat. Don't ask what it's like to have breasts. Don't ask if she has her period. Don't tell her she looks good for her age. Don't tell her she's the type of girl you would have dated in your youth. Don't discuss your type at all.
One said: At 37 weeks pregnant, a superior at work asked me how much I was dilated. Not sure if that was more awkward than intentionally creepy, but I would have preferred not to have fielded that question.
Don't ask a woman how wide her vaginal canal has spread in anticipation of her fetus' arrival.
One said: I was talking to a coworker and she asked how the weather was outside, as I had just come in from lunch. I said it was a little rainy, but not too bad. A male coworker overheard and and interjected to my coworker, "Don't go outside and ruin that beautiful hair," followed by a kind of weird smile.
Don't comment on a woman's appearance. Don't tell her she'd look better blonde. Don't tell her she should wear more skirts. Don't lament that pantsuits obscure a woman's curves. Don't comment that her calves are a nice shape. Don't say she looks sexy in red. Don't tell her to straighten her hair. Don't inform her you like it better when women have long hair. Don't suggest she try Botox. Don't say she looks tired. Don't tell her that the sight of her across the boardroom table gives you a hard-on.
One said: A coworker was audibly sick, sniffling and coughing. I asked if there was anything I could do, thinking he might need a cough drop or the cold medicine at my desk. His response? "Ha! Nothing I can ask you for here!"
Don't make jokes when the punchline is "I want to fuck you." Don't imply that if it weren't for the corporate drones, you'd bend her over the copy machine. Don't suggest that it's taking everything in your control for you to keep from kissing her. Don't make it seem like society is keeping you two apart. Don't insinuate that you barely respect her as a colleague. Don't blame PC culture for not allowing you to be even more repugnant. Don't make it clear that all you want from her, all she can offer to your life, is sex.
It's a lot, isn't it? It's almost as if men can't do anything right.
You shouldn't be afraid of saying or doing something because it could be misinterpreted as the wrong thing. You should be afraid of saying or doing a wrong thing and having it be interpreted in exactly the way you meant it.
Yet another example: A friend's boss once noticed aloud her new hair colour. "I like the blonde!" Then, instantly, he backpedalled: "I mean, I liked it before! I mean, wear your hair however you want. I mean, your hair is up to you." He clearly understood that it was inappropriate to comment on a female coworker's appearance, for better or for worse, and bumbled through the awkwardness. He's not a creep. He just said a dumb thing.
The power lies in your intention. You think you're a good guy? You want to be a good guy? Then examine your behaviours. Ask the women around you what they find to be inappropriate. Figure out if you fall within their definitions. Have some really uncomfortable conversations with yourself.
And if she wants to fuck you, she will tell you.