As a woman attending the University of California, Santa Barbara, I am privileged in many ways; multiple resources for victims of sexual violence exist, catcalling and any sort of harassment is heavily discouraged and discrimination of any kind is condemned on a widespread basis (although microaggressions do exist here and there, at least to some degree).
So, let’s say that when I was applying for a job at a national park general store last summer, I wasn’t exactly expecting it to be nearly as socially liberal as UCSB. That was fine, I thought.
Until it wasn’t.
On my very first day on the job, one of the first things that my (only) female coworker warned me about was to watch out for “Lalo.” “Who?” I remember asking.
She told me it was because he had a tendency to not just flirt with his female coworkers, but that, on occasion, he would stand closely behind her, brushing his body over her ass — a weird sort of “closeness,” to say the least.
I listened to my friend and said that I understood, and that I would try to avoid him.
At the onset of my job, I fortunately did not experience any of Lalo’s “closeness.” What I did see, however, were undeniable signs of patriarchal privilege; more times than I could count, I saw all of my male coworkers lounging in the storage room in the back, relaxing while I or any other female-identifying coworkers (though for a long time I was the only one) would be constantly bent over, scooping ice cream. Although scooping ice cream was the simplest task, it was the hardest one; at the end of a shift, I was rarely allowed the privilege of taking a small break.
What was especially annoying, however, were the criticisms I received regarding my ability to manage tasks other than ice cream (for example, cleaning the coffee machine)— I was left scooping ice cream so frequently that I wasn’t even taught how to perform other tasks — and, to add a nice dose of sexist salt to the wound, I could often hear snickers and quiet remarks that my incompetence as a woman is what left me with the task of scooping ice cream. I almost never saw any of my male colleagues treat each other that way.
The worst part of it, though, was the part that I don’t want to talk about.
I began to grapple with the fact that I was facing the issues discussed so frequently at school.
I began talking to Lalo a few weeks after the coworker who had initially warned me about him left to work elsewhere. Although I had caught glimpses of the “weirdness” my friend had told me about, boredom prompted me to have a conversation with him one day and I was somewhat hopeful that whatever “weirdness” he’d shown earlier had somehow died away.
Lalo was surprisingly friendly when I began talking to him, and we went on mostly about life in our respective countries (he was from the Dominican Republic). It seemed safe at first.
And then things became weird.
As I was facing the counter, he began pinching my waist. Not once, but several times. He also began brushing his body closely against mine as I stood out from the fountain — very closely, to the point where I could feel him slightly push against my ass.This was the first time that he had physically touched me. He had done the same to other women with whom I had worked, including my friend who’d left.
Yet when I complained about it to my two male friends of mine (one of them a coworker), they simply shrugged it off.
At first, it came as a shock to me. But then I began to grapple with the fact that I was facing the issues discussed so frequently at school. I realized in a short amount of time that I had really and truly left the Santa Barbara bubble, having witnessed and experienced what it really felt like to be a woman in many parts in the world.
From working in a national park over the summer, I saw with my own eyes the pervasiveness of the issues which we so often learn about on campus; as I had learned at UCSB, I grew to realize even more so that sexism and sexual harassment, like racism and queerphobia, do not end with social media hashtags or marches in the street. While these efforts are crucial in helping us along the way toward eliminating such issues from society, we must also recognize that there is still so much more to accomplish in promoting an environment in which victims feel empowered to speak out against the abuse they’ve suffered. It is one thing to claim the existence of such an environment, but it is another thing for an environment that promotes empowerment to actually exist in the real world — it certainly didn’t exist for me last summer. I know that next time I witness or experience instances of discrimination or sexism, either in or out of the workplace, that speaking out is not a choice, but a necessity; after having emerged from these circumstances with a newfound level of determination, I am motivated to encourage other women (or any victims, for that matter) to speak out against any instances of abuse they may have faced as well.
I saw with my own eyes the pervasiveness of the issues which we so often learn about on campus; as I had learned at UCSB.
So when people ask me if I regret working in a national park, I say that it was challenging, to say the least. It was challenging to wake up every morning to go to work, knowing that for eight hours, I would be working in an environment where coworkers would look down upon me, inducing feelings of shame, belittlement, and even physical harassment. However, after realizing the ongoing social injustices that still persist in society, I see my experience not only as an opportunity to increase social awareness, but also as an opportunity for personal growth. Because of this experience, I am a stronger and more (righteously) pissed-off woman. Now, I am more determined than ever to do my part in acknowledging my own privilege, in speaking out against any and all sorts of gender-based discrimination and in taking pride in the fact that in spite of all I’ve seen and dealt with, I’m still alive and kicking.
While sexism may exist, so will my vagina, and I guess, in the end, nothing can really change except my attitude. I know that it’s kind of cheesy to say this, but I’ll just wrap up my thoughts by saying that what doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger (or at least, in my case, more socially aware and determined to fix things). Maybe this has all been said before, but experiencing it for myself makes it my own. Coming to terms with all the fucked-up things that there are still in the world today makes me realize that there is so much to be done and that there is so much I can do — that we all can do — to help prevent it.
Ciera Jaemison wishes that all Gauchos would speak out against any patriarchal privilege they have seen or witnessed in their lives.