He was sniffing my leggings, again.
As I walked into the office, I watched him fold them on the back of my chair and move back to his desk. It was a routine we were both used to, and one I found both curious and unsettling. Curious because I ran the commute to work, making use of the staff showers and leaving my (sweaty) clothes in the office ahead of my run home. Unsettling because nothing else was said. The first time I caught him with the crotch of my leggings to his nose, he looked at me with no shame or surprise in his eyes, and calmly folded them before returning to his seat and began typing.
I caught him several times, always with the same unsettling calmness. Other times, I knew my clothes had been touched: folded in a way different to how I left them.
Uncertainty over what I had witnessed always prevented my ability to confront him, and so I continued with my job. Silent. This continued for months.
Over time, things escalated. We had a work WhatsApp group, and he would message me directly. It started very benign; ‘do you want a coffee’, ‘where are the keys to the lab’, ‘can you help with marking assignments’. Nothing more than work-focussed chat between colleagues. One day, things started to ramp up. Intermittent comments within a conversation on WhatsApp. Initially perplexed with the overt sexual implications of the comments, I ignored them and focussed on other elements within the chat or conversation. In person, his behaviour didn’t change. He was charming, like there was no other conversation. It made me doubt myself, and my reaction to his message. But they continued. I stopped contacting him directly and used the work WhatsApp if I ever needed to approach him for anything to do with work. His messaging persisted, sometimes directly in response on what had been said in person, or on the work WhatsApp. In person, his behaviour did not change towards me, ever the professional. On WhatsApp, I would decline his invitations to meet. I then started ignoring him altogether. He persisted. I stopped running to work. His language on WhatsApp became more overtly sexual. I continued to ignore him. I changed my work routine, starting work earlier in the day, or working later in the evening to reduce the chance that I would see him. He had never said anything in person, but the nature of the messages meant I had no intention of being in a situation on my own with him.
However, that changed one evening. We were both guests at an event away from work and I passed him in the corridor. We were both alone. Still colleagues, I acknowledged him and fixed my gaze as I continued to walk down the corridor. I was staring intently ahead when I felt him push my shoulder to the wall, holding me there. His hands on my shoulders, his face centimetres in front of mine. He rubbed his crotch against my thigh. He said things to me. I could smell the alcohol on his breath. Then, it was over. He walked on down the corridor like nothing had happened. Whistling.
On my return to work, I informed the head of department. I admired the head of department, for all she had accomplished in her career. I was certain she would have navigated similar issues before. Whilst apprehensive, I was confident she would be able to guide me through the next steps. I was ready to report him. Armed with the WhatsApp messages, and a written account of the week before, I sat in her office and relayed the experience. I was upset. I had felt so alone in experiencing this and was relieved to finally talk to someone. She listened, she read the messages. She asked me questions and took notes. I started to relax, feeling a weight I didn’t know I was holding come off my shoulders.
She looked at me, empathetically, as she spoke. The best course of action, she said, was that I should delete the messages and move on. She suggested I avoid running to work, to avoid tempting him. She also suggested that I should avoid wearing dresses, so he wouldn’t see my legs. I needed to stop encouraging him. She was conscious of the impact my allegations could have on his career. She was confident he would stop, in time, if I stopped tempting him. That was it. Meeting over, case dismissed. I was stunned. Of all the outcomes I had considered, I never expected this.
Within six months, I had resigned, changed my phone number, and accepted a new role in a new workplace.
Is this sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment broadly ranges from small infringements of personal space to overtly criminal activity. It can present in any place, in any setting, and to any paramedic. Sexual harassment is typically defined as the unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature (1). This unwanted behaviour will have either violated someone’s dignity, or created a hostile environment for them, whether it was intended or not. Sexual assault is when a person is coerced or physically forced to engage in sexual contact against their will, or when a person touches another sexually without their consent. Touching can be done with any part of the body or with an object (2).
A problem frequently encountered with sexual harassment is that the ‘milder’ end of the spectrum is often underestimated and commonly excused. I found the sniffing behaviour totally perplexing: violation of my dignity was not my first thought. Others may experience sexual harassment involving ostensibly positive things, like commenting on appearance (‘nice legs’). Despite being positive remarks, they objectify the person rather than valuing them as a professional. But, when in doubt about the intentions (or not being able to face what these intentions may be) there are a variety of social reasons why ignoring remarks or acknowledging them with a smile is considered easier thing to do than to speak up against unwelcome behaviours or attitudes.
Sexual assault is a form of sexual violence in which the absence of consent defines the crime in legislation in both Canada and the United Kingdom.
Sexual harassment and paramedicine
Over the last year, the UK paramedic community has heard a worryingly high account of experiences of sexual harassment, and assault, from its student paramedic members. Within this tsunami, experiences of paramedics across a range of clinical settings and workplaces have also spoken about their experiences. In some cases, their experience has been from patients, in others it is from mentors, mangers, or colleagues. Regardless, what is clear is that the experience of unacceptable behaviours in the workplace is a plague within the profession.
Now, more difficult conversations need to begin.
Moving forward, not only do we need to accept that this issue exists, and is experienced in a variety of different ways, but we also need to install within our profession a duty to attempt to address it. To move forward we need to normalise challenging these behaviours, at individual, community, and managerial levels. Regardless of whether you have personally witnessed or experienced these behaviours or not, creation of psychological safety at every level is paramount to creating a culture where the experience of such inappropriate behaviours can be voiced – and those voices heard. No one should experience what I did – I could not even raise a report. The advice was to adjust my life, not his behaviour. The significant power, and trust, that is installed in leaders and managers can silence even the most confident voices – and the success in raising such a culture relies on senior leadership to set the tone and own the problem.
Don’t hold your voice
This article is a call to action.
I hope that it sparks further, uncomfortable conversations, and challenges us to think about how to move forward and to make things better, and safer, for all of us.
If you are reading this and think, ‘well, I’ve said something like this’ then change. Your behaviours, whether intended or not, are inappropriate and unprofessional. We will not tolerate it any longer. If you have assaulted a person, then report yourself – and refer yourself to your regulator. You are not fit to practise in our profession.
If you are reading this and think, ‘this happened to me’, then do not hold your voice. Tell someone. Family, a friend, a colleague. Report it, if you can. You do not need to navigate this alone.
To make workspaces safer for paramedics, every member of our community needs to refuse to tolerate these behaviours. This means taking action in the form of informal conversations, implementing awareness interventions or, for the more harrowing behaviours, immediate disciplinary action. We should be clear: There is no place for sexual harassment, or sexual assault, within our profession. It is time for all of us to speak up against it.
1. UN Women (2013) Prohibition of discrimination, harassment, including sexual harassment, and abuse of authority [Online]
2. World Health Organisation (n.d) Chapter 6: Sexual violence. In World Report on Violence and Health [Online] https://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/global_campaign/en/chap6.pdf