Teaching myself to stop “laughing it off”

A student describes their experience with sexual harassment in the workplace.


While I was working as a cashier last March, a co-worker approached me and said, “You know, you’re the kind of person who if you told me you were 23 I’d believe you, and if you told me you were 27 I’d believe you, and if you told me you were 30 I think I’d still believe you. You just have a maturity about you.” 

He was 27. I was 19. I told him I was 19. 

After hearing this, he squinted his eyes, tilted his head and stared at me. He looked surprised, as if my straight-across bangs, knee-high rain boots, purple leggings and Led Zeppelin t-shirt screamed middle-aged single woman ready to mingle. 

To escape what I feared would become a never-ending staring match, I informed him I had just turned 19. He walked away after that. I smiled, nodded and carried on with my shift. 

Seventy-seven percent of women have experienced verbal sexual harassment and 38 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, NPR reported. 

I hate to include myself in these statistics because I know my experiences are nowhere near as severe as other women’s — I have never been forced to give my superiors sexual favors in order to keep my job nor have I been threatened with physical assault. However, I know the sexist and inappropriate behavior I’ve received from men is intolerable and far too common in our society to go unnoticed. 

About 83 percent of sexual harassment allegations in 2020 were filed by women, according to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,  a government agency responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws in the workplace. 

These things happened to me so often I thought they were just part of the job. Unfortunately, I was right. 

While I was waitressing this past summer, a man at the bar asked me how old I was. When I told him I was 19, one of the men sitting beside him yelled, “Close enough.” I wondered what “close enough” meant.

Was I close enough to his age, close enough to have sex with him or close enough to sit down and have a beer with him?

I never asked him what he meant by this. Instead, I laughed it off, got him another beer and walked away. 

Men have called me honey, baby, sweetie, sweetheart, little lady and baby doll. They winked at me, rubbed my back and grabbed my hands. Many have offered to become my boyfriend or husband.  

I would go into a panic every time one of these things happened, because I knew that I was trapped at work. I was expected to be respectful and enthusiastic to the customers, and I couldn’t make a scene.

My heart raced every time it happened. I felt uncomfortable, hot, confused, angry, but I never showed any of it. I just smiled, laughed and waited for them to walk away. Only then, would I pace around in a frantic circle and yell about how disgusting and despicable men are. 

I am not proud of how I handled these situations. I wish I would have said something or challenged these men in some way, but at the time, I didn’t think I had a choice.

Growing up, I was taught by the media and adults in my life that “boys will be boys.” This phrase normalizes boys’ sexist, aggressive behaviors, passing it off as natural and normal, and instills ideas of gender stereotypes, according to Psychology Today.   

Because of this, I learned men are supposed to demean, harass and sexualize women for their own egotistical satisfaction, and women are supposed to take it. 

Women are expected to smile, laugh and shake it off. So, that is what I have always done, but that doesn’t make it right. It should not be my job, nor any woman’s job, to put up with harassment and toxic-masculinity just because that is what society expects of us. 

Men need to be held accountable for their actions. Women need to stand up for themselves when they feel uncomfortable or violated, instead of silently smiling through their discomfort and giving men a free pass to continue their sexist and inappropriate behavior. We must speak up and tell men when they’ve crossed the line. 

Women should not have to remain quiet to protect men’s fragile egos. Derogatory pet names, waist grabs, hand rubs and sexual innuendos should not be just another “part of the job.” 

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