When community advocates and writers Rachel Richardson and Cami Roth Szirotnyak were sexually harassed by the same man, they devised a plan to take down their harasser. With the help of female advisors, mentors, and a small but incredibly mighty following of supporters, they brought public disgrace for their harasser, leading to his eventual resignation.
On Drowning Rats: How Two Women Took Down a Sexual Harasser and How You Can Too Demystify What to do when You’re sexually harassed at Work or in the Boardroom. Rachel and Cami discuss the personal and professional struggles they dealt with coming forward, the challenging conversations they had with their peers and family members, and the inevitable scrutiny from a community eager to keep the status quo. The delivery of levity and humor alongside a well of compassion and righteous anger is a way to connect to the generations of women and people impacted by harassment.
Their book, On Drowning Rats: How Two Women Took Down a Sexual Harasser and How You Can Too, launched officially on April 27. Below, they share an exclusive sneak peek of their book. To read the rest of their book and personal stories, along with what you can do when you’re sexually harassed in the workplace or volunteer space, get your copy at one of the area’s local woman-owned independent bookstores, Gathering Volumes or People Called Women.
The Whats, Whys, Hows, and WTFs of This Book
“If we keep on ‘making statements’ and not really doing the work, we are going to be in trouble.” -Tarana Burke
“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” -Angela Davis
You’ve been sexually harassed. Who do you tell? Who don’t you tell? When do you tell? What if it wasn’t totally clear whether or not it was sexual harassment? What if it was your boss who sexually harassed you? Okay, so what if it wasn’t your direct boss, per se, but your boss’s boss, or some prominent chairperson of an organization that doesn’t employ you but works alongside you?
What if the person who sexually harassed you is heralded a local hero or a national figure with celebrity endorsements? If they help other people, does that invalidate the harm they caused against you?
It seems like everything we stream, click on, or read when it comes to incidents of sexual harassment starts with a series of injustices against the victims followed by self-righteous denials by the harassers. If the harasser is charismatic or edgy, their supporters take up the task of defending their leader. Social media threads weave together oversimplified hot takes from perspective-less trolls. Family members chime in to defend the victim with the best of intentions, but victims often find themselves comforting them (or worse, minimizing their experience) instead of tending to themselves. Complicated, never-ending debates ensue about the validity of the allegations, and inevitably, someone bemoans the “court of public opinion” and “cancel culture.”
Sometimes, the victims are actually believed…
…but usually not before having to retell the same humiliating story a gazillion times and encountering unpredictable levels of scrutiny from people in various positions of power—all while likely not being able to take time off to process the trauma they experienced and probably having to continue working with the harasser. Daily, the victim fears retaliation, a defamation lawsuit, an attack on their character, and how this will impact their career trajectory. Or their partner’s career, or their children’s safety, or their own safety. The image of the victim is distilled into one of a harpy who, at best, misinterpreted the harasser’s intentions, and at worst, should be grateful for getting any suggestive attention from the harasser at all.
It really isn’t a mystery why ninety percent of people do not formally report incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace, as shocking as that statistic is. Folks have the same question we did when we were sexually harassed:
Exactly what in the hell are you supposed to do after you’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace or the boardroom?
When we met to start this work, our primary desired outcome was to publicly get a serial sexual harasser out of power so his legacy of harm couldn’t continue to be minimized. We knew the process was going to be ugly and unwieldy and that it would take focus, strategy, and teamwork. We also knew that incidents of sexual harassment involving our harasser weren’t isolated—it was clear that his abuse extended beyond us. And yet, like us, the victims bore the emotional cost of the incidents while The Harasser maintained his status and position of power. So, in our very first meeting together, we agreed on a secondary outcome: to create a framework that others can use to take down their own sexual harassers. We shared our progress in a blog we created, titled On Drowning Rats.
Our blogs kept the theme that incidents of sexual harassment are never about sex. They are about power—the brand of power that is used over people rather than with them. You don’t have a choice when you’re sexually harassed. The harasser chooses for you that they are going to strip you of your power in order to retain their power. The power of a harasser is held over their victim to demean, crush, control, to shame. That is the rush, the high, the thing that emboldens them to choose harm as their form of power.
What About the Laws? Don’t They Protect Us?
In theory, yes, they should. However, the reality is that the application of these laws depends on the definitions in state codes, federal regulations, and an employer’s necessity or desire to comply. For example, did you know that small businesses—defined as having fewer than fifteen staff—are exempt from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal law prohibiting sexual harassment? The law also exempts vendors, contractors, gig workers, and other organizational stakeholders, such as volunteers.
That does not preclude your employer from developing its own policies that include zero tolerance for sexual harassment, along with clear reporting procedures, anti-retaliation policies, and frequent leadership and staff training. “Sexual harassment policy should set clear expectations of employees… [and should] specify the elements to be included in the policy. A comprehensive sexual harassment policy should clearly define what the organization qualifies as sexual harassment” [emphasis ours] (Beaton, Erynn E., LePere-Schloop, Megan, & Smith, Rebecca, et al.). In our experience, however, this has never been the case. While one or some elements may be present, there wasn’t one place in all of Rachel’s or my entire career experiences that have included all of the above elements.
It makes us wonder why. Why is it so hard to want to protect your employees and volunteers? After all, sexual harassment is expensive for employers. In Sexism at Work, Duchess Harris and Gail Radley state that:
“When people are suffering in the workplace, their job performances tend to suffer as well. They tend to be distracted and nervous. They’re late to work, early to leave, and take more days off. When supervisors seem to create or permit such a climate, women’s opinions of their supervisors worsen… One estimate puts the financial cost to companies from employees’ lack of productivity at $300 billion annually.”
Anita Hill, the OG of sexual harassment policy development and reform, added to the statistics in her book Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence:
“A 2020 Marketplace poll found that nearly 50% of women who have been [sexually] harassed leave their current job or switch careers because of it. Author and businesswoman Nilofer Merchant warns that sexual harassment can have insidious economic effects not only on the individual but on the entire economy. And, as with sexual assault and rape, not all of the costs owing to sexual harassment are economic. It has also been linked to increased incidents of illness, injury, or assault.”
And if your first job was like our first jobs as teens and young adults, you’re really not going to like this next statistic from Gloria Steinem’s updated response to the article that made her famous in the early 1960s:
“One in two Americans will work in the restaurant industry at some point in their lives, and it will be a first job for at least one in three. Because restaurant employees are tipped, they are exempt from minimum wage laws and become even more dependent on customers’ approval. No wonder they now form the single biggest occupational group protesting sexual harassment.”
Having worked in all types of food service—from fast food, to quick service, to jazz clubs, to bars, to posh restaurants—we can comfortably say that training on defining, preventing, and reporting sexual harassment was never included as part of our employment.
Getting accountability and justice after having been sexually harassed—if you’ve even been trained as to what constitutes sexual harassment versus a ‘rite of passage’ as an employee— is unnecessarily confusing and frustrating. But it doesn’t have to be.
Excerpt from On Drowning Rats: How Two Women Took Down a Sexual Harasser and How You Can Too By Rachel Richardson and Cami Roth Szirotnyak
Shared with permission by Girl Parts Publishing & Productions (©2023 all rights reserved)
Rachel Richardson (girlpartspp.com) and Cami Roth Szirotnyak (candybroth.com) both live in Toledo, Ohio, where they are recognized as community activists, volunteers, and dedicated public servants. Rachel is a professional advocate for victims of domestic violence, having co-founded Independent Advocates, as well as a professional art coordinator. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus on Sociology and Non-Profit Management from the University of Toledo. Cami is a published writer, policy consultant, and life coach. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Lourdes University and a Master of Arts in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University.