When I was in middle school, I would sometimes come home in tears, crying to my parents that the other kids had picked on me.
After a few episodes of this, my parents taught me a very lasting, if not exactly helpful lesson—if people are picking on you, it is 50% their fault, and 50% yours. We agreed that the kids shouldn’t have been mean to be, but they also made sure I acknowledged my role as a target. We considered my flaws. I was bad at sports, and didn’t try to get better. I refused to wear the Abercrombie & Fitch clothing that was popular with girls my age (I claimed “you’re buying a label, not a shirt,” which I certainly must have read somewhere). And worst of all, I decorated my school binders with printed-out pictures of anime characters and was mercilessly teased for it.
My parents helped me realize how my own behaviors made me an easy target for the other kids, and eventually I toned things down. Gradually, I started martial arts, went clothes shopping at the mall, and didn’t even watch anime for several years. And sure enough, I stopped getting picked on. It helps that I met a great group in 9th grade who I am still friends with to this day.
I became a person who was very risk averse, and I still am this way today. Though I’m fairly vocal on the internet, in person, I work really hard not to stand out.
Which is why I couldn’t understand why my new coworker seemed to have such a problem with me.
I was nervous about being the first woman on the web development team, but most of the guys treated me well. Except one. Steve (not his real name) wouldn’t leave me alone. He teased me about my appearance, saying that if a girl was going to join our department, he wished it had been a pretty one. He publically pointed out my mistakes, and blamed me for bugs in the code even when it was a project I didn’t work on. He made jokes that just weren’t funny, like when he pleasantly urged the technician to strangle me with the cord while they were installing my new phone.
I had just started my new job in November, and by December it felt like I had stories every day to bring home to John. At first we’d laugh together, but pretty soon John stopped laughing.
“You need to go to HR,” he said.
“Relax, I can handle it,” I said.
I’d learned, after all, that it takes two people for bullying to happen. I just had to stop being a target. When his jokes escalated, I stopped laughing or even saying “That’s not funny,” and affected indifference. When he rubbed my bra strap through my shirt, I started wearing only baggy clothes. I followed his instructions to the letter so he couldn’t criticize my work.
A few months later, when he made a rape joke, I put on my usual stone expression until I could get home and laugh it over with John. Or so I thought. John was furious—and at the time, I didn’t understand why. I thought he was angry at me. If Steve was saying sexual things to me at work, that had to mean I was sending signals that I was available and being unfaithful to John.
At John’s strong recommendation, I finally went to HR. Apparently, Steve had multiple complaints leveraged against him besides mine. He was let go in a week. I didn’t feel relieved though. I just felt like I’d failed. Even though I’d tried to do everything right in order to no longer be Steve’s target, none of it worked.
This happened four months ago and I’m finally coming to terms with this: none of this was my fault. And if you are being harassed in any way right now, NONE of it is your fault. You don’t need to change yourself because somebody else is being an asshole.
If somebody really wants to hurt you, it doesn’t matter if you take precautions. Saying harassment is 50% the victim’s fault is like partially blaming a rape victim. But it took me a long time to get to the point where I actually believe this is true.
If you’re reading this blog, you are awesome. You have some pretty sweet hobbies and interests, for example. Not everyone will like you, but that’s their loss. I don’t ever want you to be afraid to be yourself. And if somebody makes you feel that way, don’t waste time trying to change yourself the way I did. Talk to somebody who loves you. Talk to somebody higher up. Get help. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
Photo by Ryan Melaugh