Part III: A Tale of Three Harassments — Sexual Harassment is built on Sexism
What it Feels Like to be Sexually Harassed at the World’s Most Prestigious Security Conference
A Metta Space Article Series: Part III of IV
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We’ve already established that sexism stems from a constructed patriarchy which treats women as second-class citizens. Sexism is all around us, and it manifests in different ways. It can be a small comment about women’s intelligence; it can be a look that stares for too many seconds; it can be a joke about a woman’s blonde hair. But allow sexism to manifest for too long, by too many people, in a big enough space, and sexism turns into sexual harassment.
Put it this way: sexism is the seed, that you water, nurture and feed for long enough, taking care not to destroy the environment upon which it survives and thrives. The seed then grows into a plant, with different branches. While we call the plant sexism, its branches can be called rape or sexual harassment, the glass ceiling or gendered discrimination.
And the Munich Security Conference, like many other working environments, took care not to break the system and the environment upon which this sexism was built. At least not in 2018, when I was working there.
This was especially evident to me on the third and last night of the conference. As volunteers, we were invited to be part of the “Bavarian Dinner”, a night where all volunteers got some time off and could relax and drink a bit.
That much testosterone, that many hours, that much alcohol? Not a safe space for an already hurt and apprehensive young girl whose confidence had just been thrown by her female colleague telling her she was “flirting” with colleagues. But I picked myself back up, made my rounds and tried to network.
It was all going well until I met a nice journalist from the United States. We started chatting about the conference, about politics, and realised we had very similar views. As a journalist he was invited to take part in some of the more exclusive talks. He said he’d be able to get me into one of these more exclusive talks, which I was ecstatic about.
Until I slipped into the conversation that I had a partner.
His response? “Oh, well then nevermind. I only offered cause I thought you were up for grabs”. For the second time that night I was shocked. Outraged. Flabbergasted. It was the classic scenario of sexual harassment which we have heard so often about. Offering favours in exchange (or hoping for exchange) of sexual acts.
And do not misconstrue my words here. Although he did not explicitly say “I will do X if you do Y”, the intention was there. The favour and the offer was in the hope of having some kind of flirtatious (of which I was known for by now, apparently) interaction, leading to some kind of sexual or intimate exchange.
But the problem is, we often do not believe women who take a comment like that and call it sexual harassment. But that’s the thing about how we define sexual harassment. To the journalist, it might not have been sexual harassment. This was not his intent, nor would he confess it was his actions.
But that’s why it is important to define sexual harassment as any act with a sexual intent that feels wrong. If it feels wrong, it is wrong. And that felt completely wrong. Let me explain why.
The first part is obvious — the second I mentioned I was “taken”, he threw away his interest of even continuing the conversation with me. That means that the only interest in speaking to me in the first place had nothing to do with our conversation, and everything to do with the hope of sparking some kind of action.
The second part is also obvious, but maybe less so. At a security conference, you are hoping to also network, find connections that might progress your career. You strike up conversations with everyone in the hope to maybe find out more about their field and whether that is something that might interest you. For them to turn around and say that this seemingly unspoken bond was not their intent at all, is not only disrespectful, but hurtful.
On the one hand, you start questioning your own dignity. Am I only interesting because I look interesting? Am I only worth a conversation because they believe they can attain more from me than just a conversation?
But on the other hand, you start questioning everyone else. This one person ruined my confidence for the night to continue networking. With people, and especially men, who might have absolutely no sexual intent. Who could actually be worthy of networking. Who are themselves trying to break down the patriarchy.
And that’s why this type of sexual harassment is so dangerous, because the consequences of it leave such a lasting impact. Especially when they happen to a young woman, who is already facing daily sexism, and is fighting to be taken seriously, despite the patriarchal values subjected upon her.
But let’s return to the night. At this point, I wanted to leave, I had to get out, I could not deal with my appearance overpowering my intellectual capacity. With men not seeing me for what was coming out of my mouth, but how my mouth looked. To make matters even worse, I had one more run in with sexual harassment on my way out.
One other volunteer, let’s call him Harry, with whom I had worked over the weekend as well, stopped me, and asked where I was going, why I was leaving. He was clearly intoxicated. He tried to introduce me to everyone at the table, with overflowing compliments — least of which actually were about my intelligence. All the while having his hand on my lower back, moving further down slowly but surely.
I felt sick, I mumbled something about having to get home to my parents and ran. And cried, and ran. Not long after I was home, Harry texted me, wanting to know my exact address, where I was staying and why I had left the party so early. His intentions were clear to me. I could not believe what I had experienced.
This was black and white sexual harassment. Up until that point, I had feared that everything that had occurred would not be considered as such. Because that’s the other problem with sexual harassment. Those who have experienced it, especially women, often feel that it is not worth calling out, or report.
The problem is two-fold. Firstly, if we call these actions out, we often feel that we will not be believed, or we will be made to look dramatic, hysteric. Those who have not experienced, might not understand what a comment from the journalist might mean to us. What a rumour about flirting might do to us.
They don’t understand that these actions have deep-rooted consequences for us personally, and professionally. So if we call out the harasser, we might get a defensive response, or might even instigate anger.
Secondly though, if we do decide to report them, we might not be taken seriously. As no “black and white” sexual harassment has been done — outright physical touching, sending an explicit message, or pressuring to have a sexual relationship — the supervisor might not feel it important enough to report.
It might be categorised as sexist behaviour, but not sexual harassment. Or it might be discarded altogether and you, as the one reporting it, might face backlash for stirring up trouble.
So we keep quiet. Waiting, expecting, and fearing worse behaviour. The one we know is coming because the environment is fostering and nurturing the seeds that will eventually grow to sexual harassment. The one the Munich Security Conference let grow until I was sexually harassed. Outright. Black and white.
To read the rest of the story, await the next article of our series.
Written By: Paula Koller-Alonso, Head of Research & Development at Metta Space Edited By: Eleanor Manley, Chief Technology Officer at Metta Space