WHEN “SEXUAL ASSAULT BY A CUSTOMER” ISN’T IN THE EMPLOYEE HANDBOOK

Photo gently borrowed from here.

Photo gently borrowed from here.

After the conversation that ensued from yesterday’s blog post and subsequent #YesAllWomen tweets, this story needs to be told. I don’t tell it for myself. I tell it for anyone (regardless of sex, gender, or orientation) who has been silenced after an act of aggression, for anyone who was made to feel like that act was somehow their fault, and for anyone who may still be silent about it to this day. What happened to me was not my fault, and it was not ok. Neither is what happened to you. In confronting the hurt, we have the power to heal ourselves… and each other.

It was my first or second week at my new job. When you work part-time retail after school, it all sort of blurs together. I was hired to staff the young men’s department, floating over to the toddler section when needed to cover breaks, but that night, I was stationed in women’s with a woman I had never met before.

Our shift was winding down, and the roar in the mall quieted to a murmur. My coworker, the only other associate in the department that night, finally felt comfortable leaving me to take her half hour break. Not even ten minutes after she left, a man wandered into our department.

He was a small Indian man who spoke broken English and browsed the women’s clothing with a close eye. He told me he was looking for clothes to send back home to his wife. “She is about your size,” he said, asking me for help in picking out items. I asked questions like what her style was, what she typically wore, etc. etc. He dodged these questions, but I just assumed it was a communication barrier.

He held up a pair of khaki pants, reiterating that she was about the same size as me, asking me to hold them up to my person for comparison. Perhaps this is where a warning should have sounded in my head. However, I was a trusting individual, bestowing the benefit of the doubt in most cases. Also, I was new to this job–this line of work, even–and I wanted to succeed (which meant making the customers happy). Further, I was only 17. While I had experienced sexual harassment in my short time in this world, I wasn’t prepared for what was about to happen.

I obliged the man, holding the pants up at my waist. He looked me up and down, which made me a little uncomfortable. I looked around to the neighboring departments to see if anyone was nearby to help. The other associates were busy trying to get home to their lives beyond retail. I turned my attention back to the customer who was now shaking his head and making “tsk tsk” noises. “No,” he said, articulating that the fit didn’t look right to him. “You look in the mirror and tell me.” He gestured to the mirrors just outside the fitting rooms, not 10 feet away.

Again, I complied with his request. No sooner than “I think they look fine…” tumbled out of my mouth, he pushed me into the nearest dressing room stall and shut the door. “Stop.” I heard my own voice say out loud. “NO.” He silenced me with his mouth, pressing me against the stall mirror with his entire body weight. “Stop! STOP!” The voice yelled in my head, quieting down into a “Why is this happening? Why is this man doing this to me?” sort of whimper.

I’m not sure how long he pressed against me, lips on mine, exploring my body uninvited. At some point, it was like I divided: my physical self being victimized there in that dressing room stall and the rest of me witnessing it helplessly in the third person.

Suddenly, as if he remembered he had somewhere to be, the man stopped and exited the dressing room. Stunned, I stood there in wide-eyed silence. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before, and “sexual assault by a customer” wasn’t in the employee handbook.

I sauntered out of the dressing room and stood next to a clothing rack, holding onto it to steady myself against the tide of thoughts rushing through my head. Did I do something to make that man think that behavior was ok? Surely it was a miscommunication, right? He didn’t mean to do it. I’m sure he’s sorry. Should I tell someone? Do I want to be known as THAT girl when I just started here? Oh god, what if I get fired? And so on.

My coworker came back from break, immediately sensing my tension. “What’s wrong? Did something happen while I was gone?” A jumbled recap tumbled out of me. She immediately phoned the head supervisor on shift that evening. They asked me to go over my story multiple times before saying they wouldn’t report the incident to the police. “The video surveillance system doesn’t work anyway, so there’s no proof. And it’s not like you were hurt…” The whole thing was no big deal. Go home and come back the next day for a new shift. Of course, if I ever saw the man again, I was to report him immediately to store security.

At the urging of my mother and without any help from my employer, we reported it to the police. There was nothing that could be done. I knew that. I had a fuzzy description of the man, no physical evidence, and a faux surveillance system. But something in me felt it was important for people to know what happened. What if it happened to another woman? What if this man made a habit of hurting women like this? Because I was a minor, the incident showed up in the police blotter of the local newspaper as “17 year old reported being fondled by man in [department store] dressing room on [date and time].” Case closed.

But I’ll be damned if those little dressing room alert bells don’t give me a pang of anxiety to this day.

I understand #NotAllMen. I don’t like sweeping generalizations either, and I’ve known my share of good–truly good–men in my life. Men who would never intentionally harm anyone else. Men who understand what it means to treat others with respect and live as an example of that. Men who were raised to see women as people–not a gender, object, or conquest.

But please understand that all it takes is one incident to dwarf all of that and create a fear in someone that may live for years. Please try to appreciate the need for stories like this one to be told–for people to stand up and embody the faceless statistics that are so easily shrugged off. And again, this isn’t a woman or man issue; it’s a human issue. No one should experience abuse or assault. No one ever asks for it or had it coming. Period.

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