Sexual Harassment, Collateral Prey and the Myth of the Bystander

img_1908Some years back, I was groped by an executive at a work event while my male peers looked on. It was disturbing, not only due to what was happening, but because my co-workers looked on and did nothing. This was a group of men I’d worked with everyday work with every day for three years.  No one did anything. When I recalled this years after, I was reminded that we didn’t have sexual harassment training; there were not words to use in the 80s. Listening to a morning edition business piece on public radio a few minutes ago entitled Workplace Sexual Harassment: A Threat To Victims, A Quandary For Bystanders left me near tears. It’s the same story years later. Except, now, there are words, there is training and there is awareness.

The NPR story started with this:

<>was at a happy hour for a San Francisco tech firm a couple of years ago, when a co-worker started forcing himself on her and the few other women at the party — again and again.

He was “giving us lots of hugs,” <> says, “trying to kiss me a few times; he grabbed my butt a couple of times.” The women were outnumbered by men, some of whom looked on, bemused, as the women tried to signal their distress.

Allen adds: “Probably the worst thing about that incident was that there were many, many men there, including this guy’s manager was there, and none of them did anything about it.” 1

There are no bystanders; that’s my hypothesis. An act of sexual harassment, as described above, witnessed by male coworkers does not have bystanders. There are predators and prey. As a male, if you are not offended, disgusted or distraught or you somehow rationalize sexual harassment you are a predator. If you are uncomfortable, if you know something is wrong, if you fear something will happen if you speak, then you are prey. You have been impacted by the “threat to the victim.” As a male doing nothing, you are collateral prey.

That executive acted without compunction. He had the expectation I would not rebuff him and the men that reported to him would not stop him.  He felt empowered to do whatever he wanted without fear. Desperate, I grabbed a glass of wine, and trying to maintain a modicum of decorum, pretended to spill it on him and he backed off.  I felt confused, violated and distraught. Moments later, one of my male colleagues walked over to me with tears in his eyes. He said “thank you doing that. He told me the executive did the same thing to my wife and he didn’t know what to do; because the guy is high up in the company.” My male colleague was collateral prey, rendered powerless. What about the men who witness sexual harassment? Is this a situation we don’t discuss, a conversation we don’t have? My other coworker spoke to me a little later and said he just didn’t know what to do. I told him, I wanted you wanted you to tap him on the shoulder and say watch yourself. Walk over to us and say, hey, how’s it going? I wonder did he react differently the next time he witnessed an incident of sexual harassment.

Stories of sexual harassment in the workplace have various forms. I was working with one of my company’s client to evaluate a vendor software solution. The day long process required all of us to travel. That evening, the vendor took us to dinner. As I stood up to leave, I could not find my purse. With a perplexed look, I asked, where is my purse, has anyone seen my purse? The president and founder of the client company, a former professional football player  who routinely boosted of his super bowl win said, give me your room number and if I find it, I will bring it up to you. I glared at him and looked at this business partner who was sitting across the table from me. Surely, he’d put an end to this foolishness. Alas, his business partner, a head coach of an SEC basketball team  and a father with two daughters my age who did nothing. Furious at this point, I shoved the company president as hard as I could and repeated, give me my purse. He laughed and said look at this little flea. I told you, give me your room number and I’ll bring it to you if I find it.  A reared back on my heels, did a sharp intake of breath and in a much louder, I’m going to make a scene voice I started with , you son of a .. “before I could finish the sentence, he reached into the planter beside the table and unwrapped my purse from a cloth napkin and handed it to me. Coach laughed and I left.  The “coach” was not a bystander. I don’t know if he was predatory or prey but I do know he was not a champion. If I’d asked him, “You have two daughters my age, what would you advise them to do in this situation?” I wonder what his response would have been.

Do men share stories of the indignity of sexual harassment?  Unless you are a champion, a person who fights or argues for a cause or on behalf of someone else, you are predator or prey. As a man, if an instance of sexual harassment makes you uncomfortable, forces you to be a part of something that is fundamentally contrary to your being, you are prey, you have been silenced and rendered powerless. This is not a judgment of men who become collateral prey. It’s an invitation to a conversation about sexual harassment, not as a bystander’s quandary, but as someone who has also been negatively impacted by sexual harassment. Start now. Discuss.






  1. Years ago when I was in the restaurant business, I was grabbed by a one of the regular customers. I reported it my boss and was almost laugh out of the office. No, it’s not okay.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a mother, this horrifies me. Sexual harassment, bullying — this behavior is unacceptable. Thank you for being courageous and sharing your story. It is NOT OKAY and we need to be aware of it and say it loud! Love you Sheila!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for writing.
    I especially love that you gave a series of suggested steps to bystanders : tap on his shoulder, challenge his behavior, say watch yourself. Place yourself between the predator and us, say how’s it going. THIS. Empower people to change the script. Show them and tell them a better way. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s happened to me so many times that I’m embarassed. Embarassed by the number of times and just embarassed at each episode. The one that springs to mind at the moment is when I was a brand new association communicator almost 20 years ago. It was a male dominated industry so I was thrilled that they accepted me so quickly. part of my job was taking the member communications professionals to dinner. One evening of those dinners one of the professional communicators, a man twice my size and age, grabbed me up physically and all but turned me upside down and said we were “dancing.” As he did so there were at least 10 other people in the room – all men. I heard one of them say “turn her all the way. Turn her until her —— fall out of her shirt.”

    A few of the men came up to me the next day to express their apologies for not intervening.

    What strikes me to this day: why am I the one still embarassed over that episode?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for sharing. Do the men who do not intervene, years later are they embarrassed that they did nothing? Is there any conversation they have about how they were unable to do anything and the impact or do they assuage any guilt under the mantle of “bystander.”


  5. Your story is true for a lot of us. I had a recent incident of workplace harassment from a co-worker. When I realized this was this person’s M.O. and it affected others, I decided to report it. I was told it would be handled. Instead I was told it was discussed with the individual who cried and claimed we were friends and if I pursued this they would do something about me. I was able to get a co-worker who witnessed the behavior to speak up. A few months later they gave the “harasser” a leadership role at the company. She then stalked and harassed another co-workers assistant. In the meantime, management wanted to meet with me as I had stopped attending company functions because I didn’t want to be put in the position of being publicly abused. I mentioned the stalking incident and the owner of the company said the “harasser” was just being enthusiastic. I made it very clear I was uncomfortable attending company events because the harassment had not stopped. I had to weigh the expense of leaving very carefully vs staying. I realized it didn’t matter as the cost of my self-esteem and safety had already been extracted from me and why let a creep harasser win.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing Jan. That is horrible. Sadly, many time companies fail to act and these predators have a pattern of repeat behavior. In the last day, of the responses I have gotten on twitter, Facebook, Instagram, only one said someone was fired immediately after an incident was reported. The current situation is not okay. You have helped move that conversation forward. Thank you


  6. This was a great post, thanks for sharing. I think in order to have real conversations about these issues, more women have to speak up about their experiences with harassment. It’s hard because we have be socialized to believe that somehow, men behaving badly is our fault. Even more sadly, the very people who should be our biggest defenders, other women, often are not. We see it today in the Presendential Election, women actually defending a man who has been proven to not only be sexist, but guilty of sexual harassment throughout his life! I’m baffled by it! I think these conversations with the various examples here, demonstrates the many ways we are harassed everyday. I imagine many will read it and be reassured that their reaction of disgust, fear, and intimation is normal. They will probably for the first time feel validated. It is not okay and I see a shift in our country about how these incidences will be handled. There is a new energy created by women everywhere who are saying enough!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Heavens, the bystander effect sucks. I’ve said it to someone else today, but I was thinking the same thing you were when you were talking about the coach and what you wish you’d said. The thing I find most interesting/frightening is a man will do such a thing to a women, but if he has a wife or daughter and some other man did that to them, he’d probably beat the crap out of the person for such disrespect. Hypocritical as hell. But yeah, there’s definitely some training that needs to happen–and not just what to do if it happens to you training, but what to do if you see it? VERY much needed. Hugs and be good to yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

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