The current torrent of women spilling their painful stories of unwanted aggressive sexual behavior in the workplace has forced me to reexamine such incidents in my own life. One in particular comes to mind, even though I did my professional best not to let it bother me at the time.
Many years ago, I was a young stringer in a bureau of a major newspaper. One day, the bureau staff was invited to a dinner held by a candidate for the American presidency. He and his wife were hosting a prime minister and some of the members of that leader’s cabinet.
I was thrilled to be included in the invitation. I’d been covering the presidential hopeful off and on for several years, occasionally conducting brief in-person or phone interviews. But I’d never been invited to an on-the-record dinner at a private home with such an esteemed guest list. I recall that I ran out of the office early to buy a dress that would be appropriate.
When I arrived, I was greeted by the Secret Service, and then joined the other guests milling around the backyard holding drinks. Security personnel, holding rifles, were perched in the trees and the setting sun cast their shadows on the ground. Eventually we were whisked inside the house and the bureau chief and senior reporters, from my paper and another, were seated at the dining room table along with the host and the foreign dignitaries.
I stood with others as the evening’s conversation unfolded, nibbling from a plate which I held in my hands. Suddenly, strong arms enveloped me from behind and a man’s body pressed up against my posterior. I looked around, startled. I was stunned to see it was our host, the presidential candidate. His eyes were fixed on the prime minister at the table and his face expressionless except for a small smile that played around his lips.
No flirtatious repartee or eye contact had preceded this “embrace” at any time, and I was completely taken aback. Young, with no idea what to do, I froze. If I thought of anything, it was of not making a scene. I also was under the illusion that not responding would communicate my lack of interest and he would let me go. Of course, such subtle messaging didn’t register: The candidate brazenly held me for what seemed like several interminable minutes. Then, just as suddenly as he had enfolded me, he released me and walked away. I smoothed my dress and stood tall, trying to pretend that nothing had happened.
Let me stress that this encounter occurred in a dining room crowded with reporters, high-level foreign leaders, Secret Service men, wait staff and, yes, the host’s stoic wife, who had walked by us—pressed together—on her way into the kitchen. No one said a word or made eye contact, let alone came to my rescue, although my discomfort must have been obvious.
After the dinner broke up and people began to move around the room again, a middle-aged woman, perhaps a friend of the family, materialized at my side. “Don’t go there,” she whispered. I was again taken aback: Her words implied that I was complicit, that I might want to pursue an intimate relationship with the candidate. Flustered, I assured her I would not: I had a deep distaste for philandering men, in this case intensified by the candidate’s callous disrespect of his wife. No one else commented, and I didn’t say anything either.
Unlike other women in similar situations, what happened did not hurt my career. I continued to cover the candidate when he was in town, although I carefully kept my distance. It never crossed my mind to blame myself for what happened: I was simply the youngest woman present and the lowest on the power totem pole, the perfect combination of attributes. But sadly, I took the candidate’s belittling conduct in stride. I accepted behavior such as this because I had made a choice to work in a man’s world. Aggressive and unwanted sexual advances were but one of the prices to pay.
I remained silent for years. The cost, however, of silence has now been rendered visible for all to see, and I too see things differently. Why should women accept and pay this price? We need to make clear to powerful men that this behavior is not flattering—and that their unwanted advances are never appropriate. And just as the candidate was in the wrong, so were the onlookers. I am quite certain that a roomful of eagle-eyed reporters and Secret Service staff—almost all of whom were men—didn’t miss that the candidate was rubbing himself up against a young woman in their midst. Today I hope they would speak up, and address not just the victim but the perpetrator.
I know I haven’t said his name. It doesn’t matter who he is. (Not surprisingly, his political career eventually imploded due to womanizing.) What matters is that once and for all, we stop buying into the “way of the world” argument. What matters is that we change the politico-sexual culture, now and for future generations. What matters is that we make sure many more women populate the top tiers of government, media, law and business to ensure that this kind of behavior never becomes acceptable again—and even, dare I add, to raise the overall quality of our leaders.
Nadine Epstein is the editor-in-chief of Moment Magazine.