Sexual violence and the workplace

By Buffy Queen • Guest Columnist

“Sexual violence is a societal issue that requires systemic change. Sexual violence does not occur in a vacuum. It is influenced by our larger social systems, including the workplace.”

(National Sexual Violence Resource Center, Sexual Violence & The Workplace, 2013)

It started with a word. “Sweet!” he exclaimed.

Followed by a wink and grin.

What a joker, Mackenzie, 23 and a single mom of an 8-month-old, thought to herself. He was her new (married) boss at a job she had finally found in a very tight job market. She was wearing a colorful, trendy top she had just bought with her second paycheck, her one tiny splurge to celebrate being able to support her baby.

Over the next few weeks, though, she noticed whenever her boss talked with her, in the hallway or when he stopped by her desk, he lowered his voice so she had to lean in to hear him. His eyes were like laser beams, scanning her up and down, and made her feel uncomfortable. But no one else noticed and his reputation with the other employees seemed good. Maybe I’m overreacting, she thought.

One day, right before the office closed, he paused at her desk and asked her to stay a few minutes afterwards. He wanted to discuss a project with her. “Something,” he whispered, “you would be perfect for…”

Mackenzie watched everyone else gather their things and head out. She called her mom to pick up her baby from day care then took her tablet with her to his office for notes, excited that he had noticed her hard work.

When Mackenzie walked into his office, it was empty. Then she heard the toilet flush in his private bathroom and water running. He opened the door and walked out, his jacket off and tie gone. “Oh, hi! Have a seat, hon, get comfortable … this is gonna take a minute.” She began the voice recording on her tablet to not miss a single instruction. Her boss walked over to a cabinet behind his desk and poured himself a drink. He turned to look at her over his shoulder. “It’s after five, right?” he laughed. “What’s your pleasure?”

Mackenzie hesitated, trying to remember some drink names from her largely non-drinking college days. He didn’t wait for her reply but poured her a double. He brought it over to her then sat on the edge of his desk, directly in front of her.

“So, Mackenzie,” he began, “I need to get to know you better, if we’re going to do this project together.” He winked at her, set his drink down, then walked around behind her chair and began massaging her shoulders.

Mackenzie’s heart started racing. This can’t be happening. She tensed up, the minute he touched her. “What type of project?” she asked.

“Darlin’,” he calmly said, his hands by now moving down her back, “you’re a smart, beautiful girl. You’ve got a great future ahead of you here. Let me be your … mentor …  and I’ll be sure you get every opportunity I can throw your way. But you’ve got to learn to relax, honey.”

Mackenzie was frozen. She was scared that anything she did would cause her to be fired. She heard him unzip his pants and start to walk around her chair. This time she didn’t hesitate. She started screaming.


Powerful men sexually pressuring employees or potential employees who are in some way dependent on them — this type of scenario is so frequent it is almost a cliché. What begins with just a flirtatious word or gesture, often ends in uncomfortable, pressured actions at the least or sexual assault at the worst. One study of employed women found that “38 percent had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace” (Potter & Barnyard, 2011).

In traditionally male-dominated industries, including the military, sexual harassment of and violence toward women are even more common. Women who are working poor, immigrants, are transgender, is bi-sexual, of color and/or are between 16 and 24 years old are particularly vulnerable.

Sexual assault is any unwanted, forced sexual activity, without the person’s permission or knowledge. It is not about passion but violence. It is not about how “cute” someone is, because anyone can be sexually exploited. As with all abuse, it is action used to gain control or power over someone or to hurt someone. It can range from sexual harassment that creates a hostile work environment — for instance, showing lewd pictures or telling off-color jokes in the break room that knowingly make someone uncomfortable — to outright physical assault. And it is all illegal.

Sexual violence, including what happens in the workplace, is almost always done by someone the victim knows: a boss, a manager, a fellow employee, which is what makes it so devastating. When someone is attacked by a stranger, (less than one-third of rapes are stranger rapes), as horrible as that is, the victim can take some comfort in the randomness of it — “wrong place, wrong time”. But when it’s someone the survivor knows and trusts, works with on a regular basis, is counting on for his good will, then that acquaintance assault destroys the sense of safety in the workplace to which every employee is entitled.   

Some common characteristics of sexual assailants:

• Most are repeat offenders, with an average of six victims/offenses.

• Most have a “typical” M.O. (modus operandi) and use the same tactic over and over — think of Weinstein’s unwanted massages or Cosby’s drugging his victims.

• Most are Caucasian (57 percent).

• They tend to lack a social conscience.

• They engage in manipulative, immature, irresponsible and exploitative behaviors.

Survivors of workplace sexual assault are affected in different ways: job loss, seniority shattered, work interrupted, financial decline, loss in productivity, time off due to PTSD and/or therapy and general stress and anxiety as a result, which can lead to long-term unemployment, homelessness and even suicide (13 percent of female rape survivors will attempt suicide).

Where do sexual abusers in the workplace get the idea that this heinous behavior is OK? Perhaps they saw their bosses do it and get away with it. Perhaps they think that is just one of the unnamed “perks” of the job. Perhaps they have done it before and never suffered any consequences. For whatever reason, due to the availability of social media now to expose these serial abusers, (#MeToo), women and men of good will have the means to “out” abusers and call for a stop to this oppression and illegal activity.

As for Mackenzie and her boss? Someone from next door heard her screaming and came to her aid. Mackenzie’s boss was “laid off” the next day, so he could collect unemployment. Unfortunately, Mackenzie was so traumatized by the attempted assault, she gave her notice, unable to face walking into the office without terror. Once word got out, four other women confirmed that her former boss had tried the same thing with them. Mackenzie found another job six weeks later, at lower pay. She started drinking alone at night, trying to wipe out the memory. Her boss? He moved across the country and got a 20 percent bump in salary at his new company.*

(*This is a fictional story, with elements introduced to reflect the reality of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace.)

Queen is the Community Educator for REACH of Haywood County, which is the domestic violence/sexual assault/elder abuse prevention and intervention agency. Contact them by phoning 828.456.7898 or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Facebook: REACH of Haywood.

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