I was flipping through Atlas Obscura, during a weekend of self-care when a section about Pope Leo X’s ornate bathroom caught my attention. The bathroom was painted by the artist Raphael, and included mostly erotic images of Venus, Cupid and nymphs. Talk about some high-class porn. The section goes on to describe the behavior of other Renaissance Popes. Alexander VI hosted the Banquet of Chestnuts where 50 women were stripped naked and required to crawl across the floor to gather Chestnuts the Pope and his cronies had thrown. The men were encouraged to fuck the women and were given prizes for the most “conquests.” Given the historical underpinnings, one would assume these women didn’t show up simply for a good time. They were likely there to serve God, and in the case of the Roman Empire, the God of Money. God is capital, cash, the all-important access to worldly Power.
Totally disturbed, I turned to February 2018’s Vanity Fair and read through a few great articles on how shitty Trump wines are. I flipped a few more pages and landed on a feature by Emily Chang about how Silicon Valley tech leaders are gathering at intimate parties fueled with drugs and sex. The invites are inconspicuous, but the message is implied: don’t show up unless you’re willing to put out. I consider myself sex-positive and progressive, so I wasn’t phased by the idea of orgies, swinging parties, or drug consumption. Do your private thing. Whatever. What is powerful is that Chang lifted the cloak of forward-thinking progressiveness to expose the same tired narrative: heteronormative men hold the money (power) and young women are expected to show up as sexual party favors. These powerful demigods leave the parties and flip through images on their phones of beautiful young women they fucked, and boast about the deals they closed on these weekend retreats. The women who attend are often relegated to just sexual objects and aren’t granted the same ‘high five’ and access to the inner circle. Sound familiar?
The tension of the #MeToo movement is tethered with the Aziz Ansari story on one end, and Harvey Weinstein on the other. Many are arguing that the movement robs women of their agency to draw boundaries and say no. The responsibility to stop whatever sexual events are unfolding falls on the shoulders of the female participants. News flash, we live in patriarchy. Our agency is granted by the men in power. I acknowledge that the details are important in each story, but the deck is stacked against us from the start. Each story has a commonality of men in power abusing their power to get whatever the fuck they want. Sometimes it’s explicit (i.e., flat out rape) and other times it’s hegemonic — the belief we have a choice when we’re being handed the script of how to play into our own oppression. Women are reduced to objects of conquest, or powerless playthings, while men keep running the world.
What I know is that women experience violation of our bodies, minds, and dignity as a regular consequence of being alive and moving through the world with a vagina.
I, too, have been:
The first of these three I’ll save for another entry. As for the latter two, where do you want to start? I’ve spent my career in business-to-business sales, and could fill a book with observing or being the victim of: wandering hands, disgusting comments, solicitation, and sexting. Seriously, full frontal dick pics and totally unsolicited. Oh, did I mention this has all been in the workplace? Similar to the stories shared by the brave women in the multitude of #MeToo cases, and parallels to many of the female perspectives in the Silicon Valley story, the encounters usually come with the following battery of behaviors:
1. Abundance of flattery
2. Promise of promotion or gained influence
3. Suggestion that “other women” have done it too
4. Consumption of copious amounts of alcohol or drugs
For the collective benefit, I’ll dissect one of the most damming examples of male power in my career in field sales.
In 2012, I worked for a leading software company and was hired on to grow a new division. Our numbers were down, we had little internal support, and the leadership was constantly in flux. It was a tough gig, and I wasn’t any stranger to difficult sales territories. I was delighted by the opportunity to have my VP of Sales come to Denver to meet with my prospects, and hear first-hand the challenges. Upwardly mobile, I saw this as a chance to really demonstrate my grasp of the business, understanding of our challenges, and proposed solutions.
Abundance of Flattery
The meetings ended up being mediocre, but this didn’t seem to bother Mr. VP. He was complimentary of my hard work and keen on spending some time “together.” At the suggestion of my male manager, I booked a trendy spot for 6pm dinner. Mr. VP had a reputation for enjoying food, drinks and partying when he was on the road. We headed to a rooftop for a drink to fill the time before the reservation.
Promise of Promotion & Influence
It started off simple: Mr. VP asked me some questions about where I saw challenges with our business, and sought feedback on my current leadership. He clearly knew very little about my portfolio and work, so he bullshitted to the best of his ability. He knew the game here. So, did I. Then, his tone shifted, and to draw me in he started sharing confidential company restructuring. He promised that some of my team’s operational issues would vanish. THERE. That’s where I started to warm up. He got it. He understood that we were working our asses off and my opinion to help influence the positive changes was welcomed.
Another round was ordered. He leaned back in his chair, adjusting his sun glasses and rubbing his multiple chins pooling around the collar of his polo. I suggested an appetizer. He suggested we move over to the restaurant for a drink there.
Suggestion That “Other Women” Have Done It Too
Mr. VP clutched yet another drink and told several stories about a few junior female colleagues he “parties with.” He had a desire to get an apartment in Colorado, so he could be local to their office and to all the fun. “Was I fun too?” he asked. “Was I like these women?”
Now seated at the table, he proceeded to order the most expensive bottle of wine on the menu. That move struck me as odd — expenses were always an issue, but he was the boss I guess. I pleaded jokingly for appetizers and asked the waitress to bring us something heavy and filing. He suggested we review the menu first and open the wine.
Consumption of copious amounts of alcohol
The bottle of fine wine was gone in under 15 minutes. He started sharing personal stories about being open to explore “other things.” He asked about my girlfriend and wanted to know more about if I was gay, bisexual or just open to “fun?” I shared a few lovely stories about my girlfriend and how she was a driven sales person too. Looking up from his phone, he smiled and shared that he had canceled his hotel out by the airport. “Any suggestions on where I can stay tonight?” He asked. Panicked, I laughed nervously in an attempt to dodge the innuendo. “Are you nuts?! The city is sold out.” Nervous laugh. Then horror set in.
Under the table, I texted my sweetheart an SOS about how I felt uncomfortable and was horribly drunk. “Just say the word and I’ll be there, babe” she text.
Mr. VP grabbed my free hand across the table.
The waitress returned with bottle number two, and looked at me sideways. Even in my cloudy haze of intoxication, I could see she was confused about what was happening at the table. His hand now crept under the table and started groping my legs, moving in and out of my thighs, trying to pull me closer to him despite the table between us.
I stood up, and excused myself to the bathroom.
I was sick. Red wine and sour mix coming up made me shutter. Clutching the toilet in this swanky ass restaurant, I looked down at the Rolex my sweetheart had given to me for the night. “Look, it just completes the outfit and sends a message to this kind of guy. It means you mean business, and it’s a status symbol. Don’t lose it, O’Connell!,” she joked and kissed me.
I was sobbing and shaking in the bathroom. I grabbed my phone and called her to come get me immediately. I was terrified, worried about what leaving would mean for my job. She was in a cab before the call ended and told me to play it cool.
Mr. VP amped up his touching when he learned my girlfriend was coming. His sly smile implying that it would be a two-for-one situation. I squirmed away, and deflected to tell him about the hotel I booked for HIM ONLY (cashing in a final favor from my ex who runs a downtown hotel).
When my sweetheart arrived, she was livid and took advantage of his intoxication, insulting him without him realizing it. “Can you believe this guy is her boss?” she asked the waitress. She was shocked and responded with disgust. “Let’s leave him here,” she said with a grimace. Days before Uber being a big thing, I was concerned with leaving him and what it meant for me, my employment, my JOB. What if he wakes up tomorrow and remembers that I left him. I don’t want to wake up and remember this, a little voice inside me whispered. Against my girlfriend’s wishes, we decided to take the bastard to his hotel.
He groped me from the backseat the whole way to the hotel. My girlfriend tried to focus on the road and slap him away. His drunk hands searching my body while I leaned forward to shake him away.
We ditched him at the hotel door and watched his disappointment. He kissed my cheek and I laughed nervously. I hugged him, squirming free. I was afraid of this man. Afraid of his power and influence over my job. I was afraid of losing my charm and being cruel to him.
In the car ride home I sobbed, feeling disoriented and confused.
Ready for the real kicker?
I blamed myself for booking the solo dinner, despite the fact that my manager suggested it.
I blamed myself for not having a heavy lunch.
I blamed myself for trying to keep pace with the drinks he ordered.
I blamed myself for being cordial up to the point that we dropped him off at the hotel.
I blamed myself for this choke in my throat that couldn’t say NO to him for fear of repercussion.
I called a male colleague the next day and shared what happened with complete shock in my voice. He told me I had to go to HR or he would. “Non-negotiable, Am,” he said.
Sadly, my truth wasn’t my truth without corroboration and support from a man.
The male HR rep asked what I “thought was a suitable outcome.” Seriously? I responded that I refused to work under his chain of command, and I wasn’t quitting, so they would have to figure out what to do with that.
Mr. VP left the company that week, but not for sexual harassment. He didn’t contest the events of the night — the financial records and witnesses backed my story up. He resigned because he disclosed company confidential information to a subordinate and we were a publically traded company. Rumor has it he was let go of his previous company for the same reason. In scenarios with executives under contracts, most companies don’t want the legal repercussions that come with termination of contract. It’s easier to let these predators slip out by the cover of night, and head to the next company unscathed. Our system protects male secrets. Other women contacted me in the coming weeks with similarly horrifying stories about Mr. VP, coupled with a few somber messages of gratitude.
My story isn’t complete without the real coup de gras:
A meeting was set up with our female CEO a few weeks after the incident with Mr. VP. My remaining leadership didn’t want to lose me, but my morale was shot. She spent the majority of the meeting ripping apart my department, then she turned away and shuffled papers on her desk. “I hope you agree we did the right thing with Mr. VP,” she mumbled with her back to me. I was stunned by the onslaught of criticism for our team, and muttered, “Yes, thank you,” before slipping out of the room.
I sobbed in a tiny HR room, believing that the attention (and scrutiny) I brought to the team was going to be our demise. Again, I blamed myself. The CEO was fond of Mr. VP, and it felt like professional suicide for not ‘taking it.’
The two women in my leadership set up a re-do meeting that afternoon with the CEO, citing that she had failed to acknowledge what I had gone through. One of the female leaders sat next to me in this round-two. The CEO was noticeably annoyed and barked, “I guess I wasn’t clear enough in our last meeting. But really, I suggest you grow thicker skin if you wish to be in business.” She reiterated “grow thicker skin.” She didn’t bother to ask me one question. I walked out that day, and resigned within a few weeks of landing a new job. I would have left immediately but I had to pay my bills.
All Women Live in Patriarchy. Let’s Not Destroy Ourselves.
During the 20th century rise of fascism Europe, the left was fractured and ended up fighting itself. This fueled the rise of fascism at an alarming pace. After all, if there isn’t a unified offensive, precious energy is wasted on abstractions. One group criticizing how another group handles a situation, ignoring that these individuals are largely powerless to the meta-narrative at play.
In the days after the Golden Globes, some women published articles criticizing the celebrity women of #TimesUp as elite and wealthy. So, what? If these privileged women are using their power and cash as part of a dismantling narrative, let them! We would be best served not to rip them apart for their participation while a bunch of male CEOs keep jacking off in front of their captive assistants. The same backlash is happening with the Grace story in Babe. I can rip apart the shitty reporting, and suggest Grace could have done a few things differently, but it ignores the bigger picture and also casts a hell of a lot of judgement. Not helpful.
Women are exhausted by being told to grow thicker skin, or having to repeatedly set and enforce boundaries when our livelihoods and safety are on the line.
It benefits us to focus our energy on the commonality of these Tools of Patriarchy that are used to undermine us. I was raised to believe that if one person is underprivileged then it raises concern with a situation: it’s the duty of those in power to shut the fuck up and listen. Then, make the appropriate concessions and changes so HIStory can stop repeating itself.