Sexually Harassed by a Mentor

In the faculty office building, Top never dared follow me. Neither did the Mormon missionaries. Friendly faces smiled back as I waved at professors who remembered me as their student. I sold copies of my recently published chapbook. I knew I was safe there. It was my sanctuary.

One of my old English professors, Gary, especially welcomed me. I had met him when I was 18. In his Research Writing class, I had written a research paper on Chinese and Japanese women painters in the 1800s and early 1900s. He seemed impressed with me, and I liked feeling impressive. He had suggested I apply for literary editor on the campus magazine where he served as faculty advisor, and he promptly hired me. He had helped me place my chapbook in the campus bookstore. He had introduced me to other writers and professors and booksellers on campus. We talked about writing, and he stacked up books on craft, which he handed over to me with a wide smile. I got the sense he liked feeling generous, and I loved being believed in. To Gary, I was already a writer.

I was using him to learn the ropes of an industry and to meet people who might be looking for submissions, queries, assistant readers. I had observed that collaborations and even careers are built this way. A coffee date, a regular lunch, and the novice gets pointers while the mentor gets the gratification of respect and gratitude. Gary, I had thought at the time, was getting a charge from playing an important role in my early development as a writer.

Since that time, I have had this relationship with many writers, some of them men. I have accepted rides from male writers. Attended readings. Gone to classes. Sat beside men in writing groups. Swapped writing for critiques. Exchanged hugs. Emails. Online chat messages. This is not a case of you should have known better. This is a case of a young person in search of opportunities and allies and mentors in what remains an industry dominated by white men. I was an ambitious young person, believing that I deserved the same chance as any man.

*             *             *

One afternoon when I didn’t have a shift at my other jobs, Gary suggested a drive to West Seattle. I figured this would involve a coffee shop. A bookstore. At the very least, a discussion of craft or maybe a mention of literary magazines I should submit to.

I said yes.

He drove across the bridge to West Seattle and up to a viewpoint, a strip of grass overlooking downtown. We got out, though it was March and still cold. I leaned over the railing and looked out across the water.

“Boy,” he said too brightly. “Isn’t it beautiful?” He looked at me, almost desperate for agreement.

I knew right then there would be trouble. I could guess what kind. He’d been high-strung for weeks, ever since he’d asked how things were going with my boyfriend (no one outside the Thai community knew we were married), and I’d told him it hadn’t worked out. Now he was downright tense. I wondered too late if I’d done the right thing, telling him the truth.

I told him I was cold and needed to get home.

But he took his time getting back in the car. I was already buckled up and waiting when he finally climbed into the driver’s seat. He sat there, breathing hard for a full minute. The windows steamed up. I wondered if I should just get out and walk. But I didn’t have the slightest idea how to get back home by bus. Smartphones didn’t exist yet. On foot, it would take me over five hours. Probably longer. I had often got lost walking through neighborhoods like this one. And it was so damn cold.

He didn’t put the key in the ignition. Instead, he turned to me, one long hair springing from between his eyebrows and trailing down his oily nose. He said, “I have a really strong urge to touch you.”

I recoiled in disgust.

“Would that be okay?”

I shook my head. By this point, I was smiling. I could feel the tight, tense smile that would give me a migraine later. The scared-panic smile that I resorted to when I felt cornered and needed to stall until I could find a safe exit. I leaned away from him.

“Hey,” he said, returning to the false brightness and smiling back. “At least I asked. Right?”

This was not an apology. It was not even an acknowledgment of my discomfort. It was a straight-up assertion that he was still a wonderful person. He had essentially asked permission to sexually assault a former student and employee, and now he wanted to be patted on the back because he’d asked permission. Look at me, he had implied. Such a great guy. I understand consent.

But he didn’t. Understanding consent requires understanding and concern for other people’s experiences. He had not thought about me at all. He had not, in orchestrating this opportunity to initiate sexual relations off-campus where his colleagues wouldn’t catch him, considered how his proposition would impact a young woman he knew to be in a frightened and vulnerable period of her life. He knew this because I had told him so. Explicitly.

I stared straight ahead and said nothing. Was this the reason he had hired me as an editor? Had he introduced me to faculty and booksellers on campus in the hope of starting an affair? He was married. With children. I had been to his house. I had met his family. He knew my brother. And all along, had this been the only reason he had invested in me—not as a young writer but as a potential (in his deluded mind) sexual partner?

This is the price of sexual harassment, particularly by bosses or mentors: self-doubt. When someone chooses to nurture your career, you want to believe it’s because you stand out. You’re exceptional. Men get to keep believing that. But what Gary had just taught me was that, for me, professional support came at a price. I was expected to offer something more. Something men don’t have to give. Or even think about giving. Gary had expected or hoped that my gratitude would be paid in sexual currency. I believed this meant I was no good as a writer. If Gary was the only person who’d taken an interest in my writing and sex was his only motive, then clearly I was no good.

I just wanted to get home. The sooner the better. He started the engine and took off, and I did not speak to him during the drive. In one of two final power moves, Gary insisted on pulling into a Mexican restaurant on the way back. I said I needed to get home and wasn’t hungry, but he parked anyway. We went inside, and he ordered himself a hearty meal and ate all of it in front of me, smiling the whole time.

I started talking about other men, other professors I liked more than him. I didn’t know how to be assertive. How to say exactly what I meant. I was furious. But all my life, saying so had been dangerous. And Gary knew that. So as he forked up mouthfuls of beans and rice and burrito oozing with cheese and smiled at me like he was a nice person, I mustered all my passive-aggressiveness and talked about other people I liked better.

When he finally, finally dropped me off outside my apartment, he once again thanked me for a lovely day with the forced brightness in his voice. I slammed the door in his face and walked away. Shit, I thought. Now he knows where I live.

I climbed the stairs and, now at a safe distance, typed him an email. I told him what he’d done was unacceptable and that I wanted nothing further to do with him. Please don’t contact me again. I hit send. His final power move arrived a day later. A response from him pinged my inbox.

I never opened it.

I hit delete and blocked him, and then I didn’t leave the apartment for three days, calling out sick from work, scared that like both Top and the Mormon Church, Gary would also come looking for me. One more “no” I had sent out into the world. One more price I could expect to pay.

*             *             *

At 24, I took all the wrong lessons from this. First, I was worthless as a writer. Second, nowhere was safe. Not my home. Not the bus. Not my workplace. And not even the places where I had been a student and had believed myself valued and safe.

The worst lesson was that this was what I could expect from men. I became suspicious of the other men in my life, even those who—in retrospect—I am confident were sincere and decent people. I now believed that as long as I was single, I would be in danger. Gary had only breached common decency once he’d learned I was single.

I concluded that if I were in a relationship, at least the toxic men in my life would leave me alone. I would, once again, be claimed property. I had learned from Gary that it wasn’t enough for me to be the owner of my body. As long as my body was my property, men felt free to assault and harass and stalk. But if a man owned my body, it was different. To shut down harassers and assailants on the public bus, all it took was the flash of a wedding ring or the words, “I’m married.” Whereas “I’m sorry, I need to take this call” or “I really need to finish this for work” could set men off. Shouting ensued. When I refused to hand over a pen I was using, one man stood and tried to rip my seat off its bolts. When I asked another man at a bus stop to leave me alone, he cussed and screamed at me until I called the police.

When I say that telling men “no” can be physically dangerous for women, I mean it literally.

Choosing a relationship—any relationship—felt safer. I had learned that men more readily accept “no” if they feel that deep down, it comes not from a woman but from the man who owns her. Maybe I could focus on something other than my own safety. Maybe I could sleep again. Maybe I could actually read on my commute. Maybe the stalking would stop.

“If it’s going to be this hard,” my brother said to me one evening as I wept uncontrollably, neither of us knowing yet what traumatized behavior looked like, “maybe you should just stop fighting it.”

I believed he was right. The way things were going, I didn’t even have the energy to take care of myself. So I made a familiar choice. The next time I caught Top spying on me at the bus stop, I walked up to him. “Okay,” I said. “Fine.” I pointed to his car. “Drive me home.”

I chose the devil I knew.

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