“How much do you charge for PR?” a man at a networking event asked me last month. We’d been talking for a few minutes about an event he was planning to host with his firm. I told him my rates, interested in the possibility of a new project.
He replied, “For that price, I better be sleeping with you, too.”
The men at our table laughed. The women looked uncomfortable and remained silent.
This wasn’t the first time I’d faced sexual harassment. But in the past I’ve always remained quiet. Or laughed along. Or angrily walked away without saying anything.
Labels like those are why, when a man grabbed my chest at a networking event last year, I said nothing but quickly moved away. They’re also why, when a client made inappropriate comments to me at a lunch meeting, I remained silent then, too, only to cry the whole way home.
This time was different, though. I looked across the table and quickly retorted, telling the man how inappropriate his comments were—that they were disrespectful and uncalled for. He looked a bit shocked at my anger, then added that it was “just a joke” and gave me a half-hearted apology. I explained that the remark wasn’t funny, said goodbyes to my colleagues, got up, and calmly left.
Walking home that night, I felt bad about what he’d said to me, but proud that I had finally taken a stand for myself. From unwanted hands touching my thigh during business events to subway gropings, I’ve remained silent for far too long.
Speaking Up Can Be Scary—But Empowering
Several factors have paralyzed me from taking action whenever I’ve experienced sexual harassment in the past. My first thought is always, “Did that actually just happen?” followed by, “No way, that couldn’t have happened.”
Moments later, as I come crashing down to the realization that, yes, someone has been inappropriate with me or has made unwanted advances, I’m flooded with feelings of anger and sadness.
By that point, it often feels like my window to respond has already slammed shut. One crucial realization I’ve come around to, though, amid the recent deluge of sexual harassment allegations and the #MeToo movement, is that the window never really closes.
While there may be real risks involved that lead you to choose otherwise, it’s still possible to speak up about how a situation affected you at any time—there’s no such thing as “too late for it to matter anymore.”
(If you’ve experienced or witnessed sexual harassment at work, here’s a thorough guide to your options and what to expect from the reporting process.)
Confronting these issues head-on can be uncomfortable (or worse), but whenever you’re able to use your voice, you’re not only standing up for yourself, but for possibly dozens of others who’ve been offended by the same type of experience, or even by the same person.
When I confronted the man at the networking event, two women followed me out to tell me how glad they were that I’d said something. Apparently he’d made many inappropriate comments to other women, but few people had ever called him out for his behavior.
One praised me for being strong enough to do that, but admitted she didn’t always feel comfortable doing it herself. I understood, nodding in agreement—and also realizing how far I’d come myself.
A few years ago, I know I wouldn’t have uttered a word. After years of dealing with disrespect and condescension, I’m too angry to remain silent anymore.
The Power of Standing Up for Yourself
Sexual harassers operate much the way bullies do, preying on others over whom they think they can assert their power. In my experience, standing up to a bully catches him by surprise, causing the power dynamic to shift—so that I become the one in control of the situation.
As much as I’d like to believe that I’ll always stand up for myself in the future, chances are that another incident might leave me blindsided and unsure of how to respond. Still, I feel more committed than ever that, should I hear or see sexual harassment happening to someone else, I’ll speak up on her behalf—or, at the very least, follow them to a safer space and let her know it wasn’t her fault.
Strong. Brave. Fierce. Respected.
These are the words I now associate with confronting sexual harassment. Of course, speaking out—as important as it is—doesn’t automatically fix the misogyny and sexism that have been ingrained in our society for centuries. But it’s already starting crucial conversations that can move us all in the right direction.
This year, #MeToo has catalyzed a powerful multiplier effect, empowering people to confront sexism and harassment in ways that previously may have felt too risky.
It’s important for women—and men—to not only speak up against unacceptable behavior in the moment, but also to share their stories afterward, no matter how they manage to respond.
This article was originally published on Fast Company. It has been republished here with permission.