I was sexually harassed at work when I was 17
’17 is the legal age of consent in New York,’ he swiftly and defensively replied to my text message
I was 17 and working my first job when I was sexually harassed by one of my coworkers.
I worked as a seasonal employee at a sports store in New York City. I was excited to become part of the team. As a senior in high school, I was naive as to how correspondence between my fellow coworkers should be. I just wanted to become friends with everyone.
One of my coworkers, Paul* (who I believe was 23 or 24 at the time), seemed particularly interested in befriending me, enthusiastically telling me details about his life which, in hindsight, should have been warning signs. We were folding some t-shirts when he told me that in high school, he was an outcast and many of his peers thought he was going to “pull a Columbine.” Still, at the time, I appreciated him getting to know me. We took lunch breaks together and talked about music. Without really thinking it through, I gave him my number.
He would text me frequently. I remember being at my locker at school and seeing a bunch of texts from him asking what I was doing. He talked about taking me to a Rangers game and “pouring Jameson down my throat.”
One time, he asked to Skype with me. I was in a silly mood and put on my devil’s horn headband that I wore for Halloween just a couple weeks before that. He referred to it as “sexy” and sent me a photo of him in high school – long hair and decked head to toe in black. The Skype conversation didn’t last long as I felt uncomfortable by his commentary on my headband.
I dwelled over the situation and one day at work, approached another coworker whom I had a good rapport with for advice. I showed her the text messages he was sending me, and would continue to send me even when I didn’t reply, and she agreed they were inappropriate. One of our managers overheard our discussion and insisted I tell him the situation.
When I left work that day, I texted Paul just to let him know that one of the managers knew about the situation and that he might be called in at some point to discuss it with HR.
“17 is the legal age of consent in New York,” he swiftly and defensively replied to my text message.
I told him I thought the concern was more about sexual harassment in the workplace than pedophila. I didn’t speak to him much after that.
He usually worked as a cashier while I tended to be stationed at the kids’ section, which was directly across from the registers. I told my manager that I was uncomfortable being near him and had my stationing moved to the men’s section, farther away from the registers.
Through talking to some coworkers after this, I soon learned that Paul was known to be a weirdo. That women would always reject him romantically and sexually but he didn’t understand why. That other people, both workers and customers, had complained about him for various reasons. I just wish I was warned about this before my attempt at being his friend.
When the holiday season ended, I was hopeful that I would be taken on as a regular employee, as I thought my keenness about the job was clear. Yet I was let go, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because I was seen as a troublemaker for reporting what I felt was an uncomfortable situation to the managers.
Paul was still employed there when I left.
Overall, I don’t really feel like my complaints were taken seriously, especially since he was allowed to keep his job despite what I was told were many grievances against him. At this point in my life, feminism hadn’t dawned on me, so I didn’t really seek out any advice on this issue or even talk about it much to anyone. This is the first time I’m actually reflecting on it within the framework of sexual harassment.
I definitely feel, as a 17-year-old girl still in high school, I was taken advantage of both by my coworker and the company, who never even let me speak to HR myself about the situation. Like other structures founded on what feminist scholar Bell Hooks refers to as the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, working retail for a large company is no different. Employees, especially seasonal ones like myself, are seen as disposable. It’s also far too easy for higher-ups to just sweep complaints like mine under the rug, never to be revisited again.
Not only does this tie into women’s rights but general workers’ rights as well, especially the rights of retail and service workers who are often dismissed when bringing issues like this to the forefront. I hope moving forward these types of complaints are taken seriously, as they can have truly detrimental effects on one’s mental/emotional wellbeing and sense of safety and security on the job.