Accused: My story

I waited, almost impatiently, for the #MeToo backlash, generally voiced as "But what if some men are wrongfully accused?"

As I pointed out to more than one worried man, there are laws pertaining to libel and slander that provide recourse. A video clip of Courtney Love, in which she is asked if Harvey Weinstein assaulted her, contains her fear-filled response, "I'll get libelled if I say it!"

My initial response, which arises in me more often than I like to admit, is Boo f-in' hoo, guys. Too many times I'd heard a man boast of a sexual encounter and knew that it never happened. Uncountable times I've heard a man make explicit comments about a woman's body or sexual history, with no thought about consequences to her.

I was reacting to witnessing fifty-five years of frequent, casual misogyny, which some of the accused say was "programmed into them" and "part of the culture".

But let's say a man is falsely accused. An online search pulls up a number of resources, depending on whether the alleged behaviour is workplace-related or private, and vary by jurisdiction. I wish those wrongly accused success in their redress, and acknowledge that once accused, the taint of wrongdoing lingers.

I know what this is like. Thirty-five years ago, when I was thirty-four and single, my boss accused me of sexual misconduct.

I worked in a large corporation. Eddie and Stewart, two colleagues from the UK office, came to Toronto on a two-week assignment. They shared a hotel room; both were married.

At the end of the stay, Eddie's wife would arrive on Friday to join him for a week's holiday; Stewart would book his own room for one night, before he flew home Saturday. Stewart came to see me at closing on Friday, embarrassed that he didn't have enough money for the room; he'd spent his trip cash and his wife had maxed their credit card. I think he had about $25 in his pocket.

He wondered if I could get him a pay advance, but that wasn't possible. Nor did he want to ask Eddie for money; Eddie was running short too, so his wife was bringing extra cash. (This was the era before international ATM networks and personal e-mail.)

I immediately offered the sofa bed in my living room; he gratefully accepted. Stewart bunked in for the night. On Saturday morning, I gave him $40 for cab fare and lunch.

Weeks later, my boss, "Marion", a whip-smart 40-something executive (and one of the few women at that level), reviewed both Eddie and Stewart's expense accounts.

Marion asked me why there was no hotel charge for Stewart for Friday night. I explained the situation. She immediately accused me of engineering a sexual liaison, and said, "You put your own needs ahead of the company", and "His wife is pregnant, how is she going to take this?"

She did not ask me, she told me it had happened, and also said that I had "gone after him", implying harassment.

I replied that her accusation was entirely false, that I had helped him in an emergency, and that if I'd lived alone, I might have thought about it, but because I had a roommate, I didn't view my hospitality as improper. (In hindsight, I wish I'd called Marion to apprise her of the situation.) When I said he'd been stranded without even enough money to get home, she said, "That's his problem."

I could feel myself losing composure. I said, "Look, if I wanted to spend the night with Stewart, I could figure out how to do it so no one would know." Then I was furious for digging myself in deeper by giving the impression I'd even imagine that scenario. (In four years, I had never dated anyone in the company; when I took that job I vowed that no one there would ever see me without my clothes on. One of my girlfriends called this strategy Four Hundred Men and Not One Penis.)

I also said, "You know I have a boyfriend, you've met him!" You say all sorts of things when you're cornered and unprepared.

I left her office reeling, furious, fighting tears.

I did not take my case to HR because in her role, she oversaw the corporate HR function. I considered getting legal advice, but waited to see if she would pursue it further; the usual process was a disciplinary letter, at minimum. When she did not, I thought, Well, that's over—but I suspected she still saw me as guilty.

Less than a year later, she left the company because her husband wished to return to the US; I was promoted to her role. I found my file, with her handwritten notes that detailed the incident. My guilt was presented as fact, my explanation was absent. She had capitalized phrases like "INAPPROPRIATE SEXUAL CONDUCT" and "MARRIED MAN".

The irony is that during the four years when I reported to her, I fielded scurrilous rumours about her: "You know Marion and Ted are having an affair, don't you?" I always replied: "Were you in the room?"

When I visited the UK office the next year, I told Stewart about the incident; he was aghast. He had never heard about it, from her or his manager.

He apologized profusely and wanted to speak to Marion. But she was gone by then, and if she didn't believe me, would she believe him?

Times have changed and I have, too. Today, I'd ask for an immediate investigation, because now I view her behaviour as bullying, and bullies thrive where no one can witness their moves. Following the investigation, I would demand removal of any notes concerning the incident, and ask that she be formally advised of the legal repercussions of slander and libel.

I am no longer so naive, and more attuned to how things can look to a person who assumes the worst—the corporate buzzword is "optics".

When someone raises concern about unjust accusations, I listen and remember. There will be accusations driven by retribution, confusion or psychological issues, or cases like mine in which a person is accused by a third party.

At the time, I felt nauseous when I thought of an investigation, viewed it as invasive; now I would see its purpose. We should address each charge and seek the truth, because to deny the prevalence of harassment is to support it.


Babycakes said…
Thank you for a different perspective.
fmcgmccllc said…
I worked in the automotive industry in the US, the sexual harassment and downright bully atmosphere is unbelievable. I really doubt it will ever change as there is no stomach for it and it is too ingrained. I have hundreds of stories. I feel sorry for any female still in that industry.
LauraH said…
What an rotten experience, must have felt like the ground opening up beneath your feet.

Yes I'm sure there will be false accusations, scores being settled but I bet not too much of that. From what I've read, it's pretty awful going through the process once a woman makes an accusation - I remember Anita Hill - and who would want to put themselves through that unless it was true. Maybe I'm a bit naive and some would relish the situation.
Duchesse said…
Babycakes: I have been wanting to write about this for years, because an unjust accusation can have serious career repercussions. I often try to imagine what went through her mind, but after many years of distance, because she was normally a logical, clear thinker who did not jump to conclusions.

fmcgmcclc: Oh, I'll bet you do. I hope women won't keep these incidents to themselves now.

LauraH: I think my shock helped, because I just went ahead and did my job. One thing we don;t hear much about is that when a false accusation is made at work, it creates a very tense environment even if a team does not realize what is going on.
Thank you for your perspective on this - that must have been so tough to deal with when you had only wanted to help out someone who was in a bind.
I must admit that I've been talking about all the recent cases with a lot of girlfriends and even the most liberal of them has voiced some concern over the possibility of a witch hunt and false accusations.
I think that in the past we would have accepted that due process would determine guilt or innocence but I think the concern now is that there is no presumption of innocence and that a drunken pass at a Christmas party is treated the same way as rape by a serial predator. And the fact that all of this plays out in the media - and in social media - with the resulting mob mentality is of special concern.
I want women to be treated fairly and properly - and I want men to be called on their behaviour but also want to know that the accused is given the chance to respond and defend himself and I want the punishment to fit the crime. I worry that the pendulum has swung a bit too far at the moment.
Duchesse said…
Margie fro Toronto: I think we have to go deeper than swinging from one end to another of a polarity.
But, "witch hunt" is a convenient label some (and I am thinking of Woody Allen) reach for when they would like a person or persons to continue to get away with behaviours that are now exposed. So I would ask your girlfriends, What is the alternative? That women stay silent and shamed?

I am not in agreement that there is "no presumption of innocence". Weinstein: not charged, Cosby, no conviction (so far.) Some men have lost their jobs, but in cases of proven harassment, this has been, in corporate life, cause for termination for decades. What has changed is that the pubic (and even some within a company) who would not have known what is happening, and now do.

The "name and shame" lists that have been circulated, sometimes within a specific industry, leave room for false accusation. Still, you have to ask, Is this better than silence? Many, many women knew Jian Ghomeshi was a "bad date", and one of the women approached is a close friend of the family. She was tipped off, so though that is but one story, I am glad women were talking.

I agree that a drunken pass is not equal to rape. And it is still unwanted behaviour, and sexual harassment. If your girlfriends wonder, as one man asked me recently, Where is the line? I'd say it is when the behaviour is •coercive•, for the purpose of eliciting contact for which permission has not been given.

You can feel how creepy the drunken pass is, and I do not write off behaviour with the excuse of being drunk.

une femme said…
Thanks Duchesse, for sharing your story. It does sound as if your boss had some "issues" of her own and perhaps was deflecting.

Regarding the comment that a drunken pass at a Christmas party is regarded the same as an actual assault, I'm not seeing it, at least as far as the repercussions. I think many people in positions of power have gotten away with varying degrees of harassment for ages, and it's negatively impacted women's careers and opportunities. The women (and sometimes men) on the receiving end of the unwanted behavior have often had no recourse. I agree with what Duchesse said about coercion; we know the difference between some friendly banter and someone who feels entitled to our attentions and even bodies.

Lynn L said…
I appreciate your story too. I am sure there will be a few false reports, but this is an attempt to change a culture. Given what so many of us had to deal with and which went unheard (or unheeded if we reported it)there needs to be some leveling of the playing field. In regards to drunken behavior, I once had a drunk boss put his hand down my shirt and his tongue in my mouth on the way home from a dinner. It certainly was not rape, but it was terrifying and affected my performance for months.
Duchesse said…
Margie from Toronto: Oh that's an apt typo but i did mean to write "public".

Sue: I wonder what they were thinking when they said, "treated the same (drunken pass at party and rape). It is not legally, though locales differ in how they classify harassment and assault. I will guess they meant is that the person is named, regardless of offence. So I would like to be in that conversation to learn exactly the person who says that thinks that a harasser ought to be named, and when not.

Lynn L: The "unheeded if reported" just breaks my heart. It's hard for those who have not had an incident like you have to understand how deeply disturbing it is.

Since all this has come out, I have not one woman friend who has not told me about an experience, sometimes speaking of it for the first time. #MeToo gave many women their voice.

The harassment was often like yours, but also included receiving e-mail propositions, sales persons being told sexual favours would be expected in order to secure business, being taken on business trips and then fending off advances, or having graphic remarks made about their bodies or sexual preferences. And that's just in the business world.

Beth said…
What an awful experience, and what unfairness. I'm glad it didn't go further than it did, but I can well imagine how you suffered.

I think we always have to ask ourselves what kind of society we really want to have. It is millenia overdue for women to finally feel freer to speak up about sexual harassment and coercion. I completely understand why many become angry at the calls for "due process" when women have not received equal treatment - pretty much ever. Human society lurches very slowly toward equality, with many casualties and a lot of suffering along the way. But when the dust settles, and it eventually will, I think we'll see that the only solution is transparency for everyone, fairness and justice for everyone, because without that, anger, mistrust, carelessness and lack of understanding just continue to breed more of the same.
Lynn L, what your boss did to you would be considered sexual assault in Canada. There are of course different degrees of it and different penalties.

You can find the legal text by searching sexual assault Canada, but I liked the layperson's explanation provided at the Edmonton Police site

I saw "pubic" too but had already played the tpyo game. I went over a text of mine at least five times to catch tpyos and at least two other people will as well.

And I agree both with the seminal importance of metoo and before it, rapednotreported and with the importance of the presumption of innocence.

There is an even starker movement throughout Latin America now, ni una menos, about machista violence that involves not only rapes (including gang rapes) but "femicide".
Duchesse said…
lagatta: Any professional work of mine is proofed multiple times; for this, I blame using myiPad mini and just being in a hurry.

Beth: Your wish is mine, too- and I wonder what shifts we will witness in our lifetimes. (My mother remembers when she cold not have her own department store charge card, and that is only a minor example.)

In my past, I have known of a number of assaults, including rape, where the woman was discouraged from reporting it, even by authorities. One of my university friends was raped at the beach, and the cops told her not to bother reporting it because no one would believe her, and made comments about her being in a swimsuit. Today, I don't believe Canadian police would do that. So things have changed, are changing.

And as lagatta points out, in other parts of the world the situation regarding women and violence is horrendous.
Duchesse said…
Beth (and lagatta): I seem incapable of correcting my typos... "could", not "cold". Typos seem to be catching just like a cold.
And I would like the comment box to have a spell checker!
Aren't they! And I'm mortified when I find one of mine in blog comments. This is the origin of our tpyo joke: another commenter who was an editor at University of Toronto Press had written it.

At least the job I'm working on now has me dreaming in Italian, which is a relief from the cold. But cripes do they have long sentences and paragraphs!

The police here have greatly improved their work with victims of sexual assault and of conjugal violence. Through training alongside workers in those fields, but also simply because there are far more policewomen now than even 20 years ago.
Duchesse said…
Margie from Toronto: Today, a friend sent me a link to an essay by Barbara Kingsolver, published in TheGuardian, and I thought of your friends' concerns about naming men who have harassed or assaulted women. You may want to share it:

She writes,
"Raped is not groped is not catcalled on the street: all these are vile and have to stop, but the damages are different. Women who wish to be more than bodies can use our brains to discern context and the need for cultural education. In lieu of beguiling we can be rational, which means giving the accused a fair hearing and a sentence that fits the crime. (Let it also be said, losing executive power is not the death penalty, even if some people are carrying on as if it were.)"

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