sexual harassment

A World of Harveys: New Zealand Women Talk About Sexual Harassment

As allegations against powerful men accumulate, are we seeing a sea change in conversations about workplace assault?

by Tess McClure
17 October 2017, 2:00am

TW: this article contains frank discussion of sexual assault and harassment.

2017 has been the year of many things, but I'll remember it as a year where the balance in the conversation about predatory sexual behaviour shifted.

For my entire adult life, women around me have been talking to each other about harassment and sexual assault. The 'whisper network,' as it's been dubbed in recent weeks, is well established. But in the past year or so, those conversations—once private, peer-to-peer, enclosed within boundaries of direct experience and contact—have swiftly made their way into the public domain. The number of on-record, substantiated stories on abusive men in the media and arts industries—Weinstein, Ailes, Cosby, Tidball—feels less like a series of incidents, and more like a sea change. This morning, many of our Facebook feeds are a thick, unrelenting block: #metoo, #metoo, #metoo. More and more women are coming forward. A few abusive men are facing consequences.

Conversations—once private, peer-to-peer, enclosed within boundaries of direct experience and contact—have swiftly made their way into the public domain.

As the allegations against Harvey Weinstein grew from snowball to avalanche, we asked New Zealand women if they had experienced similar kinds of sexual harassment here, what had occurred, who the men were.

Always, when we hear these stories, there's a hope that the men concerned will be held accountable and face consequences—legal, social or professional—for their actions. One thing that became clear is that many women don't yet feel able to do so. For some, the harassment happened several years ago, and they have no recordings, or direct evidence to back up their claims. The nature of sexual harassment is, of course, that it is often covert and without witnesses. Some men have reputations for being litigious, and New Zealand's defamation laws place a burden of proof on those making public their accusations. For some of the women it was several years before they even conceptualised what had happened to them as harassment—they worked in workplaces where unwanted groping was the norm. Others had previous experiences with making formal complaints and having them quashed. Others still felt implicated in what had happened—that they'd been naive, or somehow complicit, or failed to roundly condemn the behaviour at the time.

Still, talking about sexual harassment and assault has purposes beyond holding specific men to account. For some women, it's cathartic. Sometimes, hearing other women's stories is necessary to realise that what happened to them was real, it happened, it wasn't right. Some of the older women who shared their stories hope in the heightened awareness of 2017, younger women will be able to make and carry through the complaints they themselves had quashed.

The stories we tell here range from sleaziness, to long-term campaigns of harassment, to assault. Not every sleazy boss is a Weinstein, and targeting your female colleagues with relentless seedy comments isn't the same as the multiple assaults which Weinstein currently stands accused of. But these behaviours exist on the same spectrum, and rely on the same power dynamics to function un-sanctioned.

That's maybe where these stories are most useful: for rendering explicit the dynamics of power in sexual assault and workplace harassment. While the women whose stories are told here are now of different ages and career stages, they were universally young when these encounters happened. All were in the early years of their careers—interns, juniors, starting out. The men in question tended to be powerful: senior journalists, broadcast presenters, long-term members of staff, or high-level professionals.

Even when specific men can't be named, these women have much to teach us.

These are their stories.

***

I was in my mid-20s, working at a regional television station. This presenter would get really drunk at the Christmas party and pash the women.
He grabbed me, and wouldn't let me go, trying to stick his tongue into my mouth, and I had to physically fight him off. Nobody intervened. Everybody thought it was just funny. He was in his late 50s. Then he went for a young editor, a really lovely woman, only about 20. She was a nice girl, and he managed to get his tongue into her mouth. I went to the boss the next day, and said look, this is not ok. They said, "Don't get all feminist on us. It's just the way it is—he just gets a bit drunk." I was an intern. It didn't go any further.

When I was working at a broadcaster, a junior producer, there was one presenter who would constantly try to get me to go to bed with him. He'd say I want to have an affair with you, why won't you have sex with me—every time there was a work event, he'd say "have sex with me". And I'd say, "just leave it". He was always so pushy, demanding to know why. I always felt so awkward. I just wanted him to stop. It was far beyond just asking me on a date, he was constantly demanding to know why I wouldn't sleep with him. I was a junior producer and he was a presenter. And I held my own, I never made a formal complaint. Everyone knew he did that kind of thing, but no-one said anything! It was just kind of deemed to be acceptable behaviour. Once, he requested I accompany him to do live coverage of a major news event in a different centre. It would have been a good opportunity, career-wise. My boss said no, and told me privately, "It's for your own safety and protection".
I know my boss was being a good guy, and I'm glad I didn't end up staying in a hotel with him, but it also shows people in charge knew what this man was like, what was happening, and it wasn't dealt with.

There's a power dynamic—initially it's exciting that the presenter's noticed you, because it makes you feel that you're doing good work. I never thought to say anything to my boss. I suppose I was still expecting the same kind of reaction that I had with the previous one—that I would be told somehow that I had contributed to it or that I shouldn't make a fuss, that these things happen.

If it happened to me now, I think I would make a complaint. But the irony is, I'm too progressed in my career for someone to see me as a target. I don't think anyone would dare do it to me now, to be honest. There's definitely a power imbalance: it happened to me as an intern, and as a junior. In both cases the men were presenters. Both cases they had big personalities, and their behaviour was endorsed—if not explicitly, the groping, inappropriate touching, inappropriate comments were accepted, and nothing was ever done. It does not create an environment where young women feel they can say anything.

I'd like to remain anonymous, because I think there's still a bit of "why didn't you do anything about and say something?" But when this happens to you when you're young, and it's so normalised, people don't complain. And then down the track it can seem a bit disingenuous and dodgy to have not said anything at the time, and then to talk about it later, without any kind of evidence.
It's really only now that young women are standing up far more and saying, actually, no this is not ok. It was just so normalised by me and by everybody else, that only now do I feel mad at myself for not realising I should speak out. I know I was the victim, it just makes me think, for God's sake! Say something so these people don't keep doing it!

I was 18, and a very naive 18. I was working at this restaurant, and I was really the only woman on staff. I got on well with the staff, and got on well with my boss. He was twice my age, old enough to be my dad, married with two kids, his wife was pregnant, and I suppose I put a lot of trust in that, in some ways. He was complimentary. I didn't know this word at the time, but I guess he was grooming me—I didn't have the language to understand what was happening. Eventually he started asking me a lot of inappropriate questions. He wanted to know if I was a virgin, and I remember saying, "That's none of your business." He used to say, "I could make it really special for you, I would be better than young men". I'd never had so much attention before, and I was a virgin, I had almost no sexual experience.

I remember talking to a friend, a woman about 10 years older than me, and I was describing what was going on—and she said "you know what, it sounds like he's using you. It doesn't sound like a good situation". I guess I put myself in this position. He had come round to my house. I didn't feel like I could do anything, like I'd brought this on myself, I'd let myself get this position where I had this fully grown man wanting sex from me and I just couldn't get out of it. I didn't want him in the house so we were outside on the grass. For some reason the idea of him being in my house was too horrible, but if it was outside, somehow, at least I had controlled the environment. I just dissociated completely, shut off, and he had sex with me. In that moment I was not there.

A few days after that—I have a messy idea of time after this—I was back at work and he called me into his office. He started touching me and put on this awful porn. I was crying, asking to leave. He locked the door and I just felt completely trapped. I asked if he would please let me out, I don't want to do this. I wasn't fighting him physically, I was just crying. He touched me, then he left, and he locked me in, with this porn playing—it's such a stupid detail, but I remember it, it was just so yuck. He eventually let me out.

A few days later, in front of everyone, the staff, he fired me. He didn't explain anything, he just said I don't want you working here any more. I just don't feel like I knew the right words or language to protect me—nowadays, people understand a bit more about consent. I don't remember hearing about that. Now I have other words: he groomed me, coerced me, assaulted me. I use the word assault. The word rape makes me feel more like meat or something. More like a statistic. Assault feels like a bigger word in some ways, because it seems to capture the emotional and psychological torment, that goes alongside it—rape is the physical act. And I feel less traumatised by that than I do about the power element—firing me in front of all of our staff, making me feel like I'd done something wrong. There was so much shame. How do you be a victim when you didn't have the right words to say in the moment, you didn't ask for help in the right moment?

Intimacy has been a challenge for me since my assault. I've always had to have 'the conversation' with my partners about it at some point, mostly so they know that if I freak out that's what it's about, not them. Anyway, I'm very fortunate to be with a very loving, considerate man now. On our first date he asked me if he could hold my hand, I said no, and he listened.

A few months into my first job I remember chasing down a really good story and then over hearing the news conference—99 percent middle aged men—joking and saying that police had called me a wolf hunting down the story. They were laughing and said they thought I was a fox instead. Small thing, but it was the first thing I remember in the industry and was the first of many, many, many incidences like this. Another time an editor-in-chief was on his last day and he said at his leaving drinks could he have a hug, as he had been waiting forever to be able to hug me. Another time, I went to a story with a high-profile man, now a Sir. I was alone and he "joked" that if he knew how fucking hot I was he would've arranged to meet me at a hotel. I laughed it off—because what else do you do?—and carried on the interview.

Then, I was at a major event with a group of reporters and we went out for drinks afterwards. A man who I had met just that week, the former news boss from Australia, offered to walk me home and, being in a smaller town with no taxis, I saw no harm. That was until we got back to the hotel and he asked if he could crash on my couch as it was a long walk back to his accommodation. I was dubious, but also had no reason to doubt him, so said he could. I got into bed and he then proceeded to jump in with me, grab me and start kissing me and groping me. I wrestled free and had to run next door and bash on the door of another reporter who came and helped me. I remember sitting in his room afterwards shaking and in disbelief.

I told some friends and a couple of workmates but never did anything else about it.

It sounds odd and sad but I think this has just become part and parcel of the career I have chosen. I've never let it stop me doing what I want, but the incidents do stick with you.

I was just starting in the industry, and I'd been to this event where a quite famous overseas writer was speaking. I asked a question at the end of the session, and a friend - another young woman - and I got talking with him, ended up going for coffee, talking about the work. He asked us if we'd like to meet him and a few other writers for a drink that evening, but when we turned up, it was just him. Still, it was fine for a while. We discussed work, the state of the industry, he talked a lot about his contacts within the industry and how he could assist. I was very excited to be meeting him, excited that he seemed to find what I was working on interesting. He was working with a publisher I really admired, and had always wanted to work with. He was buying a lot of drinks, saying maybe he could assist with contacts.

Anyway, at some point the tone of the evening just shifted, and suddenly this man wasn't that interested in talking about work. He kept reaching around and putting his hand up my top to rub my back. I'd shift away. He'd come back. He started grabbing my ass. Trying to get us to go back to his hotel.

I told him I wasn't going to, that I had a boyfriend, but this made very little impression. It was intensely difficult to extract from, partly because I'd had a few drinks, and also because I didn't want to irritate this man, or offend him, or make any kind of scene. He wasn't physically threatening, but it was the idea of how much power & respect he wielded in the industry. It was like, just keep laughing, keep laughing, keep it light. I eventually called my boyfriend and at that point, the guy left.

This sounds absurd, but I still walked away hoping I'd made a good impression, just in case.
I'm ashamed remembering it now, because I feel like I was fairly gutless about the whole thing. Even now I wouldn't name him, or want to be named myself—there would be nothing to gain, and plenty to lose.

It's also such a cliche, so profoundly embarrassing in hindsight—like of course he wasn't just interested in your work. And you also wonder about whether you bought into the whole thing, whether you're complicit, because you met him in the first place and because you didn't tell him to go fuck himself.

Maybe my story isn't that bad, it's just boys being boys. I was a young female in my last newsroom. This man I didn't really know started messaging me on the internal system. He would touch my back, touch my shoulder, sit close, right within my personal space. He was older, he'd been in the company a very long time, in a position of power. He started messaging me smiley faces, asking me how my day was. One day he asked me how my weekend was and I came back to this message: "I bet you looked good in that dress, ;)". I felt so uncomfortable, like Oh God. But it wasn't enough to make a complaint about. So I told a few female colleagues, and we just manipulated situations so I didn't have to be alone with him. Initially I thought it was an inappropriate crush - but then I discovered he does this to to every young woman in the office, messaging them, saying things to make them really uncomfortable. When all this Harvey Weinstein stuff came out, it really made me think about it a lot. I know he's still there, still messaging all the young girls in the office. I don't know whether to do something about it or not.

***

I was at a writers festival event, at a panel on criticism or something—I remember he was a newspaper critic at the time. After it was over I approached him with a question, as his area was adjacent to what I wanted to be doing. He asked if I wanted to grab a coffee round the corner to continue talking, and I said sure, went and had a coffee with him and we spent about an hour talking journalism and the media and what I wanted to do, my background. He asked me to join him at some drinks, but I had something on, so made an easy excuse to get out of that, and gave him my email.

A couple of days later I received an email, which was all well and good—I replied thanks for your time, and asked a few questions about the industry. Then I got this email back describing my appearance, what I had been wearing. He says, "Your 'look' is very different from other women your age, and if you thought I was gazing at your face I was!! ... The pallor of your face overall and your absolutely perfectly shaped, scarlet shining mouth, which opened slightly now and then as you listened"*. And not only comments about my appearance, but he'd also analysed my handwriting, and the distinct thing that stands out to me, even years later, was this comment "you have a huge sex drive that you wish was better satisfied"* I was just shocked and horrified that this professional interaction into delving into my appearance, and also this sense of like, "Oh cool. Yet another one."

While I was working for a magazine, early twenties, at the company's social club, the company's boss came with a client and sat with myself and two female colleagues. They had clearly been drinking heavily. The boss commented on how long my eyelashes were, then started telling us his client had a son who was gay, "but it didn't matter because he's a massive guy, his dick's as big as mine". He said the son should just come out to his dad and was using homophobic slurs. Another colleague pulled him up on his homophobia, but he continued. He asked me what I would do in that situation and repeatedly asked me to act out saying to him "Dad, I'm a lesbian", and couldn't understand why I wouldn't say it. We all made excuses and left.

On the Monday, one of the colleagues said we should go to HR. Our manager initially laughed it off before telling us she had experienced an upsetting situation with him. I was frustrated that she knew about his behaviour and had never mentioned it when there were so many young women that worked in the company.

Our HR manager met with us that day. Shortly after she came to get us and told us our boss was waiting in a room downstairs and wanted to apologise. I repeatedly said I really didn't want to do this so suddenly, but was told I had to. We sat there while he sheepishly apologised. The HR manager looked at us and asked: "Is it better now?"

There was definitely a power dynamic. I had already heard rumours about things he'd said, had seen him look female employees up and down while walking past them, and didn't feel comfortable being in a small group with him. Taking the situation to HR felt pointless—it felt as though he was immune and could get away with anything as it would never affect his position, which was really disempowering/depressing.

*Vice has viewed this email chain and can verify its contents.

If you've experienced sexual assault in the workplace and would like to contact us, email tess.mcclure@vice.com

Need to talk?
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If you've experienced a sexual assault you can report it to NZ police by dialling 111, or learn more here.

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