So you think you are sexually harassed…

Well, that may be true, but is it systemically aimed at all women? And is it truly to put you in your place? And is it really misogyny? At what point does a high levity work environment become directed sexual harassment? And should one’s delicate feelings dictate the level of tomfoolery in a workplace that is already naturally serious?

Boys and men have “blow-off” levels, and when it’s kept bottled up, bad things tend to happen. These things aren’t always abusive or violent, or even so much as critical, but can easily escalate preposterously.

I don’t know, personally, how women operate together within a group, because I usually avoid gaggles of women and girls. Having been the victim of gaggles in high school, I have every reason to avoid them now. Being the only male – or one of a few – makes one a target, having no recourse but to put up with the objectification, or shaming, or jokes, or what-have-you, lest you’re accused of sexual harassment for your unsolicited wit; or worse, a significant other confronts you later for “hitting on” his girl/woman/wife, and having to either knuckle up or try to explain that you have no interest in her without making it sound like she’s not interesting (and I’ve encountered bastards who just want the excuse to knuckle you down, so talk is pointless). Sexual harassment works both ways ladies; moving on.

I am a tradesman, I work for a living; my trade requires both mind and body, and a certain level of one-on-one social skills. The blue collar workforce is dominated by men, and point of fact, dominated by men with more testosterone than your average college geek, coffee shop espresso latte master mixer, and grocery bagger. The average BCW (blue collar worker) will find his “better half” at some bar or party, or possibly some friend of a buddy’s SO. Why the bar? Because after a grueling day of muscling and measuring and blistered palms and munched fingers, a brew is a nice way to unwind; extroverts like company to recharge, introverts like myself, prefer to be alone.

On a typical construction site, you’re going to find a certain level of good natured derogatory speech aimed at one another. It’s not to one-up each other, or to self-ego boost, or even so much as to climb any imagined social ladder. It’s to keep the mind sharp, help with levity in a dangerous environment, and to generally enjoy the hard fought benefits of “free speech”. It can be things as silly as mama jokes, or as aggravating as finding your tape measure at the bottom of a bucket of drywall mud (keep track of your shit, or you’re wasting time looking for it!). Sometimes you’ll find a broom-handle up your ass while you’re climbing a ladder, not to speed you up, but to raise your awareness in a precarious predicament; how are you gonna handle a swarm of yellow-jacket wasps bursting out of a roof when you’re twenty feet up? Even mocking each other’s vehicles; hint, utility usually wins out over economy and features. And it’s not just in the work force that men encounter “trigger warning” speech.

My stepfather bought a house just as I started high school, and he regularly commandeered my aid to help him do this that and whatnot around the place. I was half his size, and had grown up in rentals and apartments, yet I was expected to suddenly be a man. “Fuck, man, what’d you do that for? Use what’s between your ears for more than keeping your skull from collapsing!” “quit pulling like a girl, put your back into it!” “it’s gonna take you forever to unload that, pack more per trip!” “is that all you got? Lean into it, PUSH!!!” This might sound like tyranny, and at the time, it felt like it, but he was there beside me doing the mule’s share of the work.

When I began my trade, I was 160 pounds and soft; when you’re over six feet tall, that is scrawny. I struggled doing things that now I look back on and laugh. I remember my journeyman telling me to go get a roll of carpet from the van (The roll was twelve feet long, but it had fifteen lineal feet rolled up in it); for context, it wasn’t a killer carpet, it was light weight and rolled up reasonably tight, so even given my own wiry frame I could pack it into the house if I balanced it properly on my shoulder. It was bulky, not heavy, and its length made it unwieldy but not unmanageable; and I was thinking my boss was an asshole – which he was, but carrying carpet was a lesson I would have to learn regardless. I’d watched him carry rolls of carpet before so I knew the basic mechanics of it, but theory and practical are rarely so cut-n-dry.

So there I was fighting this roll of carpet out of the van, and then fighting to get it up on my shoulder. With no mental meter to gauge “half-way,” I found myself thinking this carpet was insanely heavy, and then I discovered the boss and the homeowner were at the door smoking and laughing at me and my struggles, and he shouted, “move it forward, move it back, forward back, whatcha doin?” I was mentally cussing at him, which meant I wasn’t focusing on what I was physically doing, which translated to over-compensating and missing the halfway point. That’s when the worst happened, the roll broke (we call it a break, but really it just bends over while on your shoulder), and he laughed some more and said, “there’s nothing for it, that’s how it’s coming in” (meaning, even if I’d found the mid-point after, the break made the roll unbalanced and unwieldy. So I moved back and extracted the rest of the roll from the van, only to discover the heavy end was behind me; so I had to hunch forward to keep it from snapping my back, while pushing the “light” end forward to keep it out of the dirt. With my feet spread wide, and every part of me hyper extended, I quickly realized the inherent instability of bipeds; every step was a fight against myself. I couldn’t see where I was going, I could only see the dirt right below me – so with best guestimate I turned the roll and began trudging. When I got halfway I heard his voice off-center saying, “you taking that to the river or what?” Followed by laughter and, “we better go rescue your carpet.”

My job requires a lot of clean-up before during and after completion. There were a number of times during my training period that my boss would look at me and say something like, “well aren’t you a good little bitch,” “you’ll make a good wife someday.” Different skills required different positions, activities and, not surprisingly, different commentary, like, “quit wiggling your ass at me.” Or just outta the blue, for no real purpose at all, I’d be told, “you know you got blowjob lips don’tcha.”

I finally cut myself loose from him and with a single tool box, and a borrowed work van, struck out on my own. Now, until this point I’d had to stay clean shaven and have a buzz cut; neither were my choice because I have a baby face, it’s a hindrance on so many levels, but let’s keep this professional. I quickly learned that even though I had five years experience, and was twenty four, I still looked like I should be in high school, and greeting my customers bore that out, “you’re doing this job? You seem awful young, are you just doing the prep work?” I grew my hair and face as quick as I could, being a native half-breed, the hair grew fast, but not the face (thanks mom); and I noticed a shift in how I was perceived, I became an adult in people’s eyes, my words carried weight in regards to my skills.

Around this time, I had a sales guy who was fun to torment and who took it in stride and gave back just as good. One day I pulled into the back of the shop and saw his car sitting there, all by its lonesome (can’t have that); so with my well trained reversing skills, I backed up beside it and parked my van with a foot to spare. He came up to me the next morning saying I’d parked too close to his car, he had to climb in from the passenger side, to which I grinned and answered, “yeah… that was kind of the point.” He shook his head laughing and said, “get the fuck to work.”

I recently did a job, where the homeowners, general contractor, my boss, and I were discussing a carpet manufacturing flaw. There was a pattern bow in the carpet, and it stood out horribly in the hallway… where I’d had to seam it together. My boss is down on his knees measuring and taking pictures, I nudged the GC and said covertly, loud enough for all to hear, “you know what happened eh, I just tucked this part, then I kicked the piss outta that part, and then got lazy towards the end.” Followed by more banter between serious talk, like when I looked at the GC and with a completely serious look on my face, I said, “you know what the problem is, the house is crooked, fix the house.” Everyone had finally come to terms and my boss was at the door, the GC was wandering off, the homeowners looked at me sadly; then I looked towards the retreating GC and bellowed, “That’s it, I’ve had enough of your crap, I quit, I’m taking my toys and going home… I’m telling my mom on you!!!”

I remember a time I showed up at a job site, some construction was going on, about half a dozen guys were there bustling about. I just needed to get into the basement and slam in carpet in a bedroom; but the driveway was all blocked up with trucks. I only really needed one truck moved so I could get to the basement door, so I got a hold of one of the guys and let him know, in much less PC but more humorous manner. The guy called for the site’s “Toby” (the FNG, greenhorn, lackey, etc) and told him to move the truck, “ok, uhhh… is it an automatic?” The guy looked at the Toby flabbergasted, “what, you can’t handle a stick?!” Well as I waited for the guy to move his standard pick-up, I got to hear chorus of ribbing about sticks and girlfriends and how a man should be able to handle a stick in sticky situations; one of them going so far as to describe intimately the motions of shifting, “… if she wiggles or bucks, you’re in good; if she hops and gags, you’ve done it wrong; you want her to purr, not choke”. The poor Toby was beat red as he attempted to go about his job.

My biological father was telling me a story one day about electrical work. He was roughing in a house (running wires through a house frame before the drywall goes on) and he told his Toby how he wanted the ends cut. “I told him, ‘when you run the wires into the outlets, leave enough hanging out that I work with when I get back to do the rigging’ he asked me how much is enough, so I told him, ‘about the length of your cock’ and then I went about rigging up the power box, I thought for sure there’d be like eighteen inches of wire hanging out of each outlet, but when I got back to inspect his work, there was more than two inches, man I tell you, I felt so sorry for his girlfriend.”

If you don’t understand banter, or levity, or ribbing, or refuse to acknowledge such communication, then everything a man says will be construed as sexual harassment. We often use banter to relieve work stress. It’s pretty sad when banter you’re not even involved in, is grounds to get a man fired. So the next time you see the office Toby humping the photocopier, unless his pants are down, ask him about it before running to HR to file a complaint; I seriously doubt he’s sexually assaulting the equipment, or sending you telepathic patriarchal messages about his intentions towards you, or running off copies of his penis to remind the office gals who’s in charge; perhaps it’s giving him grief, or maybe he’s bumping it back into place, or maybe, oh I don’t know, the poor guy IS running off copies of his penis, because the boss lady told him to or lose his job.

Just some things to think about.

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