Life in the Box: Pricking Pricks


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When I was in my 20s, the term “sexual harassment” hadn’t yet been coined. So when I set out on the career path as one of my generation of feminists breaking into what had traditionally been men’s work places, it was confusing when male co-workers shocked us with unexpected little sexual pokes and pats.

First, let me set the stage. We young gals all practically wore signs that said, “Don’t touch me.” We dressed down (have you seen the little suits and ties we wore in the 80s?), we kept our flirting to a minimum, and we never, ever exposed our cleavage. We were out to prove we could do the job by our skills, brains and competence. We never wanted to be accused of getting ahead by sleeping our way to the top.

So then, why would an old grey-haired man trace my friend’s bra strap while she stood at the copy machine? What was the right response to a co-worker that fondled your fanny and pretended he didn’t? This isn’t the kind of flirting where both people enjoy the touch. It’s the kind of “I gotcha” that I never quite figured out how to handle. 80s-icons-sm

Now, 40 years later, I have the answer: a prick for a prick. Let me explain my logic. First, the offending touch is meant to be a put-down. It steals something. Maybe there is no mark left behind, but the effect is potent. They have taken away your private and personal power to only be touched sexually by someone you choose. So, in order to respond, you need to cause an equally indignant feeling.

Back in those days, I didn’t know one woman my age who hadn’t experienced these offenses.

If someone steals a piece of your autonomy, you want it back. If a man did this to a man, the offended man would slam him and knock him down; beat him up royally. And other men would say, “Damn right, he deserved it!”

But that only works with men. If a woman a: had the strength, and b: did the same thing; men would tell her she “over-reacted.” She would face higher consequences than the offender.

I know this from experience. I was once denied a promotion because I wasn’t “nice enough to clients.” Including a client that refused to stop telling and “showing” raunchy sex jokes after I requested he stop. One day, I left his shop without a word after he flashed a red and white crocheted penis at me, which he had pulled out from a secret pocket over his crotch. Instead of getting sympathy and support by the sales staff, I was held responsible. Apparently I had embarrassed the client. So, no raise for me if there were no jollies for him. (I guess I could say no raise for me if he got no rise out of me. Isn’t that properly called prostitution?)

Over the years, I’ve pondered how a woman in her 20s could slap back without giving the offender any sexual pleasure or power. I finally had a brilliant flash just a few weeks ago. (Okay, I’m a little slow.) I decided that my little diabetes blood monitor “pricker” would be just the thing. It’s a little spring-action needle that helps you take a blood sample from your finger. It doesn’t really hurt, but it doesn’t feel good, either. It would never be confused with a sexual touch except by a vampire. And it doesn’t take any strength to use it. There are so many situations where it would be just the right amount of bite to get a “back-off” message across to some dud of a dude.  homer-sm

The downside is that these little mechanisms are usually carried in a zipped up case and have to be adjusted each time they are used. So, they aren’t fast and they aren’t loaded for bear. So, a better weapon would be a stick pin worn outside the clothing that’s easy to grab. Or a fork if you happen to have one. A prick for a prick! Don’t stick it in his stick, though—aim for an arm or belly. Don’t want him to think you’re trying to turn him on.

So, last week I asked a few friends my age about this plan. They liked the scale of the attack plan, but said it wouldn’t work. They told me that if the man didn’t leave a mark on me, I couldn’t leave a mark on him because he could prove I attacked him, but I couldn’t prove he attacked me.

“He said” would trump “she said.” Again.

I could hear it all, “You’re fired because you poked that guy with a pin.” “He stroked my breast without permission.” “I’m sure he didn’t, because he’s a married, church-going, honorable man and you’re trying to ruin his reputation. Plus I play poker with him every week.” Oh, yeah, that poker game that only the men are invited to, where they’re free to make snarky comments about their employees and rail against being thought sexist.  

But back to my fantasy. I like the thought of marking madmen. The vast majority of these creeps were at least twice our age and married. So, at least if they went home full of poke marks, their wives might be able to see evidence of their day’s plunder. Maybe they’d even shame their guys for doing bad things. Doubtful, but let me at least imagine it.

I’m not a real vengeance-type-person. I don’t have to have an “eye for an eye.” But, this inequity of power had bugged me for so many years, I was delighted to finally get a satisfying answer to the question of how to respond like Mama Bear: not too much, and not too little. Just right.

Funny that times have changed so much that many in today’s generation of women have been showing up at work with cleavage galore and still demanding to be treated as equals. In fact, some I know have been able to get promotions by flaunting their sexual attractiveness—leaving us non-sexual flaunters in their dust. I have been passed up for promotion for that reason, too.  get-the-point-sm

I don’t know enough about the cleavage-showers to know if they get unwanted sexual touch, or if it even bothers them. Maybe they take it as a sign that flirting is working and they notch up another plus sign on their power scale. Maybe they get higher salaries and have more confidence than those of us from my generation. This makes me feel old.

However, I have a feeling that most young women want the same things we wanted—to look sexy but not be treated like anybody’s toy. On a similar note, I really doubt that that a certain subset of men have stopped their putrid practices of covertly grabbing girls.

There were actually moments in my career when co-workers, men and women alike, acknowledged me for my tenacity, talent, and accomplishments. Some of them even expressed admiration. And I did get enough promotions and raises to pay the bills and feel accepted.

The workplace, like any other human playground, can be a wonderland of shared effort and enthusiasm. It can also be a place for intentional and unintentional human bumps and bruises. I actually doubt that the bullies of this world will ever get enough pricks in the arm to stop belittling others. But I can fantasize, can’t I?  

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Nancy Heather Brown is a retired, Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she enjoys learning new things and reflecting upon the creative process both inside and outside the box.