Recent events and commentary have led me to revisit and reprocess my personal experience of being the target of sexual harassment, something I have not spoken of for a quarter century.
Though I have titled and tagged my comments with #MeToo, I want to be crystal clear about something: I do not equate what happened to me with what has happened to women (or vulnerable minorities) over the years. I am not saying ‘what about me?’ I am not seeking sympathy or support. I am trying to re-process my own experience as a way to learn about and better understand what is going on. I am not saying that my experience is a reason to believe what women are describing as their experiences. My experience is not necessary for their credibility. We should listen to and believe people when they describe their experiences, regardless of whether or not we have shared that experience or something similar. My experience has helped me understand and empathize. I hope writing about it helps others.
What happened to me?
It began soon after I started the first rotation of my first year as a family practice resident in the mid ‘70s. Most of our hospitalized general medicine patients were admitted to 3-South, so I spent a great deal of time there, admitting patients, making morning and evening rounds, and making multiple visits at all hours to assess and address both minor and major changes in patient status. 3-South was staffed by a group of very competent nurses. They were good at their jobs, fierce advocates for their patients, well respected by all, and one of the most important sources of education for a brand new resident like myself. I came out of medical school with great respect for the work nurses do, often under terrible circumstances and without recognition. I saw nurses as trusted colleagues and allies who deserved respect. I was unprepared for what happened.
Within the day staff was a small clique of 5-6 nurses who had trained together and were good friends ‘on the outside’ and cohesive pace-setters on 3-South. Young, energetic, attractive, and among the best nurses in the hospital, they were a force to be reckoned with. I think it began as what would have been considered then (and probably now) as innocent and good-natured flirting: lots of smiles, asking me about my relationship status, and inviting me to join them for drinks after work. I recall being flattered by their attention initially. I was happily married and their day-shift ended 2 hours before I had any hope of leaving the hospital, so there was never any chance that I would join them, and I enjoyed but declined their offers.
I don’t remember any specific event or tipping point, but their invitations to join them for drinks after work escalated to embarrassingly public invitations, often associated with suggestive discussions of more than just drinks, and sometimes with demeaning comments when I declined. The more I declined, the worse it got. One or more of them would sit too close for comfort when I was charting, put a hand on my upper thigh to get my attention when I was on the phone, rest their hand on mine for an extended time while talking, or give me a neck massage or back rub that lasted too long and was too personal for the setting. On at least one occasion, a neck rub was accompanied by breathing in an ear. They would unnecessarily brush up against me when walking by, or lean and make unnecessary contact when we reviewed patient labs together. All this happened in full view of anyone in the nursing station or conference room. It went from flattering, to annoying, to distracting, and finally to oppressive. Any initial pleasure from their flirtatious attention was replaced by feeling teased, manipulated, objectified, demeaned, and powerless.
What was my response? Internally, I asked myself why I was being singled out, and what was wrong with me that I didn't enjoy this sexualized behavior from attractive women. It was yet another aspect of my life over which I had no control (on top of patient load, the pager, the mood of the attending, and the like). Externally, it was disruptive and unpleasant enough that I arranged my day to avoid being on 3-South between 1:00 and 3:30 when they left. I delayed making afternoon rounds until after they were gone, which often meant getting home an hour later than otherwise necessary. I dreaded running into them in the hallways and scanned the cafeteria before I picked a place to sit and eat. I traded admissions and tasks with other residents to avoid that floor. On occasion, I even offered to take extra night duty to avoid day-shifts.
My internal medicine rotation lasted 4 months. After that they lost interest and I was usually (but not always) treated like a garden-variety resident on the infrequent occasions I visited 3-South to see a residency patient. I gradually forgot how unpleasant it had been. Eventually, I forgot about it entirely - until the recent public discussions of the many forms of sexual harassment caused the memory to resurface.
What did I NOT do? I didn’t confront them in any way. I didn't tell them they were making me uncomfortable or that their behavior was unprofessional and inappropriate. I didn’t talk to any other residents, to my friends, or to my wife about it. I didn’t ask if it was happening to others, though I did wonder. I didn’t report it to the nursing supervisor, human resources. or my residency faculty. In fact, none of these responses ever occurred to me. I didn’t even consider that it was a ‘thing’ that could be changed. I just tried to manage my complicated life as a resident and assumed it was my responsibility to work around it or through it.
Why didn’t I do any of these things? As they say, it’s complicated. Young males are famous for not admitting weakness or asking for help. It was the very beginning of my residency and I was at one of the most vulnerable and least secure stages in my life. I had learned how to be a medical student where my role was to watch and to pretend I was doing things of consequence - but rarely allowed to actually have power. As a resident, I was suddenly expected to perform in a high-stakes endeavor, in public, and expected to do so with authority and accuracy, covering my inexperience with an air of solid competence. I thought I could fool the patients (I was wrong about that), but I knew I could not fool the nurses. As a male in my 20s at the inexperienced start of a demanding career, I was striving to feel confident and look expert. Admitting to doubts, weaknesses, anxieties, or the inability to handle situations were not part of my tool kit. Complaining that a sex/power game with a group of attractive young women made me uncomfortable ran counter to my need to feel good about myself as a man. I was dependent on the nurses to help me do a good job for my patients and learn medicine. I was acutely aware that if they didn’t like me, they could make my life (more) miserable. (All of us in medicine will remember more than one jerk of a resident, fellow, or attending who offends the nursing staff and suffers deserved but usually passive-aggressive consequences.) And, of course, in the 1970s there was no talk of sexual harassment, no classes for residents or staff, no reporting mechanisms.
What are my take-away thoughts?
- It was not about sex. Sexuality was merely an implement to capitalize on asymmetries of power and powerlessness, control and vulnerability. Even if I had been physically and forcibly raped, it would have been more about power than sex.
- There was no genital exposure or contact, and certainly never any threat of physical harm - yet it was intrusively unpleasant enough that I experienced it as oppressive. It added to the sleep deficit that was built into residency. It made me adjust my life patterns.
- I never felt that my professional career was at risk.
- It was made more unpleasant by a significant amount of self-doubt and self-blame.
- It was made more unpleasant by my isolation - yet there was no reasonable way for me to not be isolated.
- I am absolutely not surprised that many who experience harassment say nothing at the time. It isn’t really a choice. They can’t. Getting through the immediate experience is hard enough without having to imagine the consequences of doing the unthinkable, subjecting oneself to wider public harassment or retaliatory consequences. Medical practice has let me look back with patients at countless decisions that turned out badly but were, in fact, the most reasonable - or only - decision the patient could have made at that time, in those circumstances, with the resources and support available.
- My experience, though it made me miserable at the time, was minor compared to the experiences of those for whom it is not a phase, for those for whom this has been - and often still is - a constant and ongoing experience. Though it made me adjust some aspects of my daily behavior patterns, it didn’t undermine my career, or even threaten to. I never had any doubt that I would be fine once I was out of that specific environment. It did not damage me. I am fine. Many are not so lucky.
Why did I decide to write and talk about this now?
- Partly for selfish reasons. Remembering the experience was painful and surprisingly unsettling, given that it happened over a four month period a quarter of a century ago in the company of people I no longer know and never see. Writing and talking are ways I process things.
- Partly because I think harassment and other hateful and hurtful behaviors based on personal power differentials are complex and varied, and that society needs to recognize this and talk and think about the issue in multiple contexts. If it is only presented in terms of Hollywood or national politics, it is seductively easy for people to say 'that doesn't happen in the real world where I live.' It happens everywhere.
- Partly because I suspect that there are people in my intimate circle who will be surprised and may be triggered to think about the issues this raises. Or ask their friends, relatives, or colleagues about their experiences.
- Partly because I want to make the point that it is not just common but normal that traumatic experiences are ignored or minimized at the time they occur, but have lasting impacts and only surface and need to be dealt with later. Delay is not deception, it is defense and survival.
- And partly because I would like to think that someone out there, reading this, will benefit by understanding they are not alone. Knowing that I was not alone, and especially having someone to share with and learn from, would have been really helpful for me at the time.
If something has happened to you, I encourage you to talk about it. Not just whine about it (though whining is permitted) but share it with people you love and trust. Help them understand what you experienced and the impact it had. Let them help you understand and believe that you are ok.