A few weeks ago I was so sick I needed to go to Urgent Care, where I was prescribed antibiotics to be filled at a local CVS.
While in line at the pharmacy counter, I was “approached” by a man. He spoke softly, so just a few of us could hear–me, and possibly the old lady behind me.
Him: (probably drunk, possibly high, not really steady on his feet) Hey girl, what’s up? How you doing?
Him: How you feeling?
Me: (hoping responding in a curt manner would cut off this little exchange) I’m in pain.
Him: Awww, tell me where it hurt, girl. Maybe I can help.
Me: (just looking at him, nonplussed)
Him: (moving closer) Where does it hurt? Huh?
Me: (continued silence, some eye-rolling)
Him: (glancing towards my crotch) Bet it’s real nice down there, nice and soft…
For those who know me, you know I’m not shy. In fact, I think most would classify me as a "strong woman." However, to be perfectly honest, at that moment I didn’t feel strong. It was after 10 p.m., I was tired, and after having been at Urgent Care alone, I just wanted to get home and to bed.
Except there was this situation, standing right in front of me. If it were the subway, I’d get up and move; if a store, I’d move away. But in this case, I was stuck. I was in pain and needed the antibiotics.
I was also having trouble grasping that this was going down in such a public place. It was a well-lit store with plenty of people around, yet I still felt threatened. As he continued to get closer and closer to me, I could feel my heart rate going up, my adrenaline spiking. I was also concerned because I felt like the situation was escalating. Unless I did something, I didn’t know what would happen.
Finally I did the only thing I could think to do: I named it.
Me: (looking straight at him) This is harassment.
Him: (silence, eyes darting around a bit)
Me: (louder) What’s happening here is that you’re harassing me.
Him: (silence, hurrying away)
That was it. He left. Scurried away like the rat he was.
I’d love to say this was my plan all along, that I knew exactly what I was doing. I’d like to say I had the whole thing orchestrated, that it was easy for me to determine what would make him leave me alone.
But that’s not true. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know what to do. I just knew I had my dignity, and didn’t want someone taking it away without my consent.
I think the people around me admired my response. The lady behind me nodded vigorously. The male pharmacist fulfilled my prescription in record time.
While I waited, with 1% battery left on my phone I texted my male housemate: “At CVS by metro. Please come get me. Don’t feel safe walking home alone.”
Then, do you know what I did, big strong woman that I am, big, powerful, I-stand-up-for-myself-and-all-women woman? I cried. I popped my antibiotics and sank down against a wall and cried. I cried from relief that the situation was over and from sadness and anger that it ever happened in the first place.
You may be wondering why I’m publishing this on LinkedIn. After all, it’s a business platform. It could seem like it’s not “relevant.”
It is. We’re kidding ourselves if we think this kind of thing doesn’t happen in office buildings just as much as it does in subway stations. It happens on the public street and it happens on Wall Street. It happens at CVS and it happens at Goldman Sachs.
When something like this happens, you are not the one at fault. Fear and shame and guilt like to live in the shadows; they start to die under the light. So name it. Even if just to yourself at first. Say what is happening. Then say it aloud. Then say it loudly. Speak your truth, even if your voice shakes.
This issue crosses age lines, cultural barriers, and workplace boundaries. It is pervasive and disturbing and wrong. It is also solvable. We are not powerless as a society or as a culture, just as I wasn’t powerless in that pharmacy line.
More and more women are speaking up and speaking out, and more and more men have their backs. #AllMenCan support #YesAllWomen. This piece [about Jian Ghomeshi] is the most clear-headed explanation of the root cause of this problem I've seen.
My takeaway from it is that it will take all of us working all at the same time to do it. It will take parents and teachers and politicians and comedians and physicians and CEOs and managers. It will take fraternity brothers and sorority sisters and Hollywood and therapists and thought leaders and bus drivers and cops.
It will take real support of little girls and little boys. It will take things like The Authentic Man Program and The Mankind Project and The Good Men Project. It will take education and determination. It will take a new definition of masculinity.
It's a big, heavy issue, but I think we have what it takes. I personally commit to doing my part by listening and by sharing my truth and by naming it.
Thank you to all those who are with me, all those who fight the good fight both within the workplace and outside of it. Together, I believe we can win.
Melanie Curtin is seeking to redefine what it means to be a modern, empowered woman (and man, for that matter!). You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter, or join her list for exclusive content.This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.