Full disclosure: Sexual harassment in the archives
From the Justice League: This post addresses events and themes related to sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. If you find those things difficult to read about, you may not want to view the rest of this post.
Due to the nature of this post, we’re going to be more heavy-handed with the comment moderating. Feel free to post whatever you want on your own blog; here’s what can’t go here.
- The author left all the names out of this post on purpose. Any comments that attempt to “out” the people and institutions described will be deleted.
- No victim-blaming. This goes for the author and other commenters.
- No personal attacks on the author or other commenters.
- General suggestions for handling sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as sharing your own experiences with sexual harassment and reporting, are welcome. The author is not soliciting opinions on how she should have handled her own situation–it’s over and done with. Patronizing comments to this effect will be deleted.
I’m moving next week, and a couple of weeks ago I started going through some boxes to see what I could get rid of. When I got to the boxes of papers, there was one particular document I was looking for as I planned out this blog post. I couldn’t remember if I’d saved it, and I didn’t remember exactly what it said, and I almost hoped it wouldn’t be there…and then, at the bottom of the last box, I found it. I read through it more carefully than I had when I first received it. It was worse than I remembered. It was one of the few times in my life where I personally felt the power of records, and in that moment, that power made me break down and cry. I like my neighborhood, but one of the reasons why I’m moving away is that I have to pass by my old workplace twice a day during my commute. Just hearing the automated voice on the subway call out the name of the stop is really hard for me, and seeing that document again brought back all the reasons why.
I used to work in an archives with a work environment often described as “ridiculous.” We were productive, but we also had a lot of fun. Everyone censors themselves at work a little, but of all the jobs I’ve had, this is the one where I felt most comfortable being myself. During the time I worked there, I covered a family photo with a ‘shopped image of my boss shaking hands with a certain former president he’d never shake hands with, hung paper fruits from his ceiling when he used the phrase “low-hanging fruit” one too many times, and plastered the walls with as many Hello Kitty stickers as I could find. My boss, for his part, tended to center his pranks around Rick Astley, to the point that I refused to open any shortened URLs he sent me. And just about every intern we had ended up on a mysterious “records pickup” that led to a surprise lunch. My boss and I were the only permanent staff, and this is the tone we set for ourselves, and for the hordes of interns and student workers who rotated in and out.
My boyfriend, who I met while he was interning in my archives, asked me out the day after his internship ended. Unexpectedly, a couple of months later, my boss asked him to come back and intern again. It was good work experience, and paid, so how could he say no?
I wrestled for a long time with whether I should report the relationship before the internship started. Up to this point, my boss knew nothing about my dating life, which was exactly the way I wanted things. The internship was only temporary, very few people knew about our relationship, and we could probably keep my boss from finding out. And if he knew, there was always the risk that he could decide not to let my boyfriend work there. On the other hand, getting caught in a secret relationship was potentially more dangerous–and far more embarrassing. And even if my boss didn’t mind, his higher-ups might.
Finally, a couple of days before the internship started, I told my boss. “[Boyfriend] and I, we’ve started, um…” I couldn’t even finish the sentence. My boss looked surprised–was I pranking him?–and then suddenly gleeful. I knew exactly where his mind was going. “Do with this information what you want,” I said, wondering what I’d find in my inbox or taped to my office walls.
The prank went down without me, but my boss proudly showed off his fruits of his labor afterwards. He’d convinced my boyfriend that he needed to sign an “Employee Sexual Activity Disclosure Form,” which didn’t look terribly official and became more ridiculous as you read down, ending with a space for my boyfriend to fill in how many times a week he planned to have sex with me. (I, apparently, had no say in the matter.) It was only later on, reading that form many months later in my apartment, that I noticed the saddest part: it specified that this relationship would be “mostly consensual.” In my mind, my boss had entertained the idea of someone engaging in sexual activity with me against my will, and he found it funny. I didn’t want to believe it–I saved that piece of paper precisely because it was so unbelievable–and yet I was holding the proof in my hands. I felt sick with shame and anger.
At the time? I just laughed. What a ridiculous prank! When you’re a humorist–when your entire professional reputation is based on the perception that you are both funny and provocative–it is very difficult to step back and say, “Hey now, that you joke you just made? That’s. Not. Funny.” And hadn’t I said, just a day or two earlier, “Do whatever you want”? If you’d asked me back then whether I was offended, I would have said no, and I wouldn’t have been lying. But it absolutely affected me. I don’t think my work performance suffered–I didn’t receive any complaints from my boss or from patrons–but I definitely became more withdrawn. I didn’t really make jokes anymore. I avoided conversations that were even remotely personal. Work was no longer a place where I felt comfortable being myself.
Could I have reported the sexual harassment? I guess so. But I didn’t really see a situation where it would end well for me–or for my boyfriend, whose employment status was far less secure. HR might just say “You two shouldn’t have been working together anyway” and force him out. They might leave my boss as my supervisor, which would be awkward. They might fire him, in which case all my co-workers would hate me. And since this was my only archives experience, I would need to use my boss as a reference to get another job in the field. As I saw it, I had only two options: do nothing, or give up entirely on being an archivist. In the archives field, where jobs are scarce, small staff sizes are the norm, and you can wait months or years for a job to open up in a particular city, saying “I can’t work with this person anymore” doesn’t leave you with a lot of options.
I had hoped to stay at this archives indefinitely, but the disclosure form made me realize that that wasn’t possible if I wanted to have a life outside of work. Sometimes, whether you like it or not, you need to talk to your boss about your personal life. If you are the victim of stalking or harassment, and you are worried that the offender may show up at your workplace, you need to be able to talk to your boss about it. If you need time off from work to get married, or have a baby, or take care of a relative, you need to be able to talk to your boss about it. How can you have a serious conversation about any of those things with someone who jokes about you being sexually assaulted?
I ended up leaving this particular archives for unrelated reasons–I was offered a better job somewhere else–but the harassment I experienced there still affects me. I’m now a manager, and I spend far more time supervising than being supervised. When talking to my employees, I’m very hesitant to ask any remotely personal questions, because I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable around their boss. The downside, of course, is coming across as unfriendly, or seeming like I don’t care about them, and running the risk of making them uncomfortable in an entirely different way. But coming from a workplace where the friend/employee boundary was clearly out of whack, I’d rather err on the side of drawing that distinction too sharply.
So that’s my story. But this post is for everyone out there who has experienced sexual harassment. Most of them have the good sense not to post about it on the internet. (There were many archivists who helped me out by reviewing this post prior to publication, and none of them even wanted to be thanked by name.) I’ve been talking about writing a post like this for a while, and have heard from multiple archivists who have their own stories, but are afraid to share them publicly, or even to report the sexual harassment they’ve experienced. I don’t blame them. I fully believe that if I’d reported my boss, I would have ruined my archives career. And I worry that writing about sexual harassment in a public place will have the same effect–if I didn’t already have a job that I love and hope to stay in a while, there’s no way I’d publish a post like this. But I think it’s important to talk about sexual harassment, to remind our colleagues that yes, it really does happen in archives, and when it does, it’s incredibly damaging.
First, it’s worth pointing out that sexual harassment isn’t something that happens only to women. My boss made his (male) intern describe his sex life and promise not to rape his girlfriend more than a little. If that’s not harassment, I don’t know what is. It’s also not something that only men do–I found out later that a former (female) intern helped my boss write the disclosure form. So don’t assume that, because of your gender, you could never possibly be a victim or perpetrator of sexual harassment.
Second, I don’t think it’s possible to completely prevent sexual harassment, but I do think that many of the sorts of reforms we talk about on this blog would make it so that archivists could get out of harassing situations without destroying their careers. Certainly, a better job market would help. Clarifying the employment status of interns, volunteers, and temporary workers, and ensuring that they have access to institutional HR staff, would at least give these employees the option to report SH. SH certainly isn’t something that happens only in archives, but the way archives are structured, combined with the high number of temporary and unpaid staff, means that there’s a large contingent of archives employees who are both vulnerable to SH and without recourse if it happens to them.
Third, if you do experience sexual harassment in the workplace, you have options. (Readers, if you have any experience with reporting SH, in any type of workplace, PLEASE comment and improve upon my advice here.) If you feel safe talking to the person, let them know that their actions made you uncomfortable. Best case scenario, this person had no idea that they upset you and they stop doing whatever they were doing. If that fails, you can talk to the person’s supervisor, or your institution’s HR department. If you’re a volunteer or intern, this gets trickier–the HR department, or even people higher up than your boss, might not know that you work there if you aren’t getting paid. If you’re interning for credit and a professor is supervising you, you can talk to your professor. All this being said, in some situations it may seem like there are no good options. I wish I could tell you that reporting is always a good option, but it definitely wasn’t for me.
Fourth, any healthy relationship–between colleagues, between friends, or between lovers–has boundaries. Ideally, you establish those boundaries before they get crossed. And in the workplace, the boundaries differ depending on reporting relationships and the work environment. When we think about these boundaries, I think the tendency is to think of negative boundaries (the things you shouldn’t say or do), and that’s what this post is mostly about. But for me, a truly healthy work environment is one where you can establish positive boundaries–the things you really like, that make your workplace a safe and welcoming place to be. Where you can not only say “Please don’t ask my boyfriend about our sex life,” but also “Thanks for asking how my mom is doing, it means a lot to me that you care,” or “I love being able to debate archival theory with you” or “I’ve been really stressed lately, thanks for listening to me vent.” Preventing sexual harassment is just one small part of creating a work environment that works for everyone.