I Didn't Want to Get Anyone in Trouble
Why we can’t stay quiet about sexual misconduct
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**Content warning: sexual harassment and misconduct**
I need to address a few things before we begin.
Below is a story I wrote almost four years ago to the day. I originally posted it to Medium, but I wanted to share it again for a few reasons:
This story still plagues me. I think about it constantly.
People still don’t know what to do with themselves when they hear stories of sexual misconduct. I recently shared part of this story with someone and they completely gaslit me. I’d like to think I’m strong and assertive—in that moment, I couldn’t even speak up. I had no voice. I walked to the local coffeeshop and cried by myself.
There’s a component to this story that I think even I overlooked—age and experience. There are so many things I didn’t know when I was younger, and so much of the terrible shit that’s happened to me happened during a time where I lacked the language to describe what was happening. It took me years to realize that what happened to me was wrong, and I think part of that is because I had never seen instances of harassment or assault that weren’t violent and clear cut. There was no language for the gray area in the middle.
The only edits I made to this piece were for clarity and swapping out certain terms for more inclusive language.
The gray area of sexual misconduct is a field I’m not sure how to navigate through
I used to work in a pretty typical neighborhood coffee shop when one of my regulars, who I’ll call J, invited me over to grab some old jackets he was giving away. J was an older gentleman that I had very pleasant and generally innocuous interactions with. J came to the café every day, and we’d generally chat about the day’s events. I knew a fair amount about his life and him mine, and I had mentioned that I was looking for a new jacket. He was about my size and thought this one old jacket that he had might fit me. J said he was going to give it away and that I should come by and check it out.
I texted J later that day and went to his apartment, which was about a block from the store I worked at. As I walked in, he was drinking wine and offered me a glass. I had just finished work, so I agreed and he started asking me about my day and other personal questions about my life. When I began to feel uncomfortable, J would refill my wine glass and tell me he was just being friendly. He kept saying he was a nice guy.
This is probably a story whose ending you can begin to piece together.
Things were not as they seemed, and J was not as harmless as I thought. I was in a situation where I quickly had to discern between what was safe and real and what was being forced and coerced, and those lines quickly began to blur.
I didn’t go over to J’s house thinking anything like this could happen. This was someone I knew. Someone who came to my coffee shop every day. Someone who I trusted and was close with the owner of the store, and there’s no way I could have even guessed things would get out of hand until they did.
I was in his home for a little less than two hours, and it didn’t come together that something terribly wrong happened until much later. In the two hours I spent with J, I wasn’t sure how to see past the drinking, past being alone in someone else’s home, past the fact that this was someone I knew and respected and I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt because I didn’t want to upset him or accuse him of any wrongdoing. I told him I was uncomfortable, and he told me I was being crazy.
[2020 UPDATE—This person texted me for years after this happened to me. He saved himself in my phone as “Handsome J.” And for years, I couldn’t erase his number. I think I needed a reminder that this actually happened. I didn’t want to forget—not because I wanted to remember but because I couldn’t handle doubting my own experiences.]
This was not the story I meant to share. In 2016, I competed in the United States Barista Championship in Atlanta—this is a popular industry event and brings out members of my professional community from across the nation together under one roof.
While I was in Atlanta, a person who I’ll call T was there. In 2012, I was at another industry event, and something happened between us which I can’t quite classify. It wasn’t harassment and it wasn’t assault, but it wasn’t…right. When it happened it 2012, I was unable to talk to this person about the situation. For years, I did my best to ignore him and shrug him off over the years.
At the competition, however, T attempted to talk to me. I was paralyzed with fear and had no idea what to do, so I sort of shrugged him off and didn’t engage in conversation. Although I tried to ignore him, I didn’t walk away unperturbed. I felt angry that this person didn’t apologize to me, then or now, or acknowledge that he did something wrong.
From the moment this incident happened in 2012 to now, I’ve had very little interaction with T. I’ve been confused and conflicted as to how to deal with it. But there he was, standing next to me at this industry event, and I couldn’t ignore him. All these feelings of resentment and anger came out.
I’m not sure what the solution to this problem is. I do know that I expected something out of him—even just an acknowledgment that something bad happened. There were times during competition where I fantasized about going up to him and saying, “You owe me an explanation. You owe me an apology.” But I didn’t. I felt like I couldn’t call him out in front of others like that. So I did nothing.
Once I returned home, I was at a party and I shared this story with two of my friends, who also are in the coffee industry. One was supportive of my need to talk to T, and encouraged me to reach out and have a candid conversation with him. The other person thought I was letting T have too much control over my emotions, and that by acknowledging it, I was validating that control.
[2020 UPDATE—I was at an industry event once and a member of my profession’s guild was there. They talked about the need for codes of conduct at industry events. I went up to them and thanked them for giving voice to the need for codes of conduct. She then said, “I know what happened to you, and it wasn’t harassment.” She then told one of her work colleagues that I was lying about my experience and that I was a bad feminist.]
Both are right, in some ways, but I think the latter advice is one of the many reasons why sexual assault and misconduct don’t get reported or at least talked about. Yes, by acknowledging my hurt and frustration I was letting him win over me, but if I didn’t say anything, I would let him win over everyone. Saying nothing wouldn’t minimize the hurt I felt, and he’d never know how terrible and upsetting this whole thing was for me. Saying nothing would trivialize all the confusion I felt immediately after and still feel today.
I can’t ignore those feelings. I can’t go backward and scold myself for allowing him any control, and I certainly couldn’t just say to myself, “Hey, you stop feeling these things!” He’d be free to do this again to someone else, and by confronting him I know that he won’t do hurtful things to others because of my refusal to call them out.
As I sat down to write this story, the incident with J came to mind. Like what happened between me and T, I could never figure out how to talk about what happened between me and J. Mostly because I could never pinpoint them as a definitive “thing.” They didn’t fall into the neat categories of rape or sexual assault (and when I say “neat” I don’t mean nice but I mean in a way that harassment and assault generally need to be “clear cut” in order for an incident to be understood or categorized or taken seriously by others—and oftentimes these incidents are incredibly messy and complicated).
With J, I couldn’t confidently say I didn’t agree to go over, because I did, or that I didn’t accept more alcohol, because I did, or that I didn’t willingly take off my clothes, because I did, or that I didn’t have sex with him because I did.
I don’t want to cause a scene. I don’t want to make something out of nothing. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.
I’ve repeated these declarations in my head over and over. It’s these thoughts, however, that cause folks, myself included, to shut down when something questionable happens to them. Because we’re not sure how to categorize certain situations, we instead err on the side of caution to avoid making someone look bad or being labeled something ugly. That doesn’t make it go away.
This is especially true when something happens to you within your community, professional or otherwise. Talking about a stranger being creepy or touching you inappropriately is still traumatic, but the cost of pointing the finger at the perpetrator is different when it’s someone you know. It’s a huge risk to call out these incidents within a professional community or a tight-knit group. Sometimes, it’s easier to live with the shame and disgust of the attacks on your person and your body that it is to call for accountability.
As time passed, it hurt me to see either J or T in leadership positions, succeeding in their careers without having to own up to their wrongdoings—especially T, who I had to see at professional events. I don’t think either of them deserves to be condemned indefinitely, but I do think there needs to be a way to talk about these things, to sort them out and open up a discussion.
Would I feel better if I confronted both of these men? Perhaps. Do I feel like I can? Now? Yes. Then? No.
I’m older now. I’m more established in my career and time has helped me feel more comfortable addressing these things. But at the moment, when these things were actually happening to me, I felt completely powerless. These things happen to me because there was an imbalance of power, which will continue to exist for the most vulnerable members of our communities—the people our society continues to marginalize daily.
Today, I feel confident I can write these ideas and say that these things were wrong. I have the confidence to know my story matters, regardless of who listens. But could I say that if I were still a minimum-wage barista working on the floor daily, having to confront people like J and T daily? Would I have the power to speak truth to my experience if I worried daily about my job and potential repercussions?
I think the incident with J highlights how power disparities obscure power dynamics and sexual harm. I was 24, and he was 43. It took me almost five years to identify that this was something wrong he did to me as opposed to feeling stupid for letting it happen. I thought if he was older, if he was telling me that this was fine and that he was a nice guy, that if my coworkers and bosses liked him, then it was my fault that I felt bad. I was the one who was wrong.
J came to the store the day after I went to his apartment. I couldn’t talk to him or look him in the eye. I had another barista serve him, and I continued to avoid him day after day. He texted me a few times, telling me I was sexy or wanting to know where I was always at some ridiculous hour of the night, and I never responded. Eventually, he stopped coming in and I stopped thinking about him. But seeing T at this professional gathering brought up all those unresolved feelings of disappointment, anger, and disgust.
There’s still a power imbalance between myself and T. He’s a business owner and well-respected individual, and often represents members of our community in large-scale events and forums. I still feel hesitant to share my story because of this dynamic. And yet, I feel that this could be a teachable moment. Yes, something happened that was wrong, but how do we address it in a meaningful way and ensure these power dynamics aren’t abused again?
I don’t think J or T should be punished forever. I don’t see J anymore because I don’t work at that café any longer, but I still see T from time to time. And I do think he still owes me an apology. It’s been eight years, but there’s still time. He still can and should address this.
As for me, I hope I’m doing my part in sharing and opening myself up. I see trends in the coffee community, especially increased attention to customer service. This can be great, but without dialogue around how customers can abuse their power, the conversations feel hollow and potentially dangerous. Service workers need to know their leaders will protect them.
[2020 UPDATE—So many more people are talking about abusive customers and the need to protect service workers, which is an incredible conversation that needs to continue happening. There’s still a lot of work to do, though.]
Customer service is important, but service workers need to know that the leaders within their organizations will support them if an interaction with a customer gets uncomfortable. If I had confronted my boss with what had happened between me and J, he probably would have told me there are two sides to every story and that he couldn’t ban J just because he made me feel uncomfortable.
So let’s talk about this! To heal and to make things right involves both parties. It’s hard to admit when things aren’t working, and it’s difficult to bring up a problem when it seems like everything is as it should be. But the structure of power within our industry isn’t working, and accepting that it can’t be any better validates these power dynamics. Things don’t have to be this way. We can, and should, recognize our privileges and powers to correct abusive and manipulative behavior.
[2020 UPDATE—To T: You know who you are. You can still apologize.]
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