The Sexual Harassment I Experienced As A Corporate Lawyer Inspired My Romance Novel

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Woman quitting corporate law after sexual harassment and taking back her power with romance novels

I thought I was immune to sexual harassment in the workplace. Sure, I had suffered the occasional butt-slap as a baby lawyer, warded off partners' late-night meeting invites to discuss "personal matters," and even reluctantly laughed when my colleagues half-heartedly joked I should not return from maternity leave "so heavy." 

But who hadn't? Such were the realities of being a woman in the corporate world. Such were the broken roads I was willing to travel on my path to career success.

And career success came easily for me. By thirty-four, I was an attorney for a Fortune 100 company, regularly presented at national law conferences, and had that fancy office with the big desk and the ergonomic chair. I also had a new boss who only looked at my chest when he spoke to me — but what a small price to pay for legal accolades.

Like most things in life, though, sexual harassment evolves whether you're paying attention to it or not. My new boss' eyes began to travel from my chest to my lap and I was often left squirming as he inspected my body through meetings that were as endless as they were pointless. His daily body-inspection rituals then moved from the office to my home, where he liked to show up unannounced with offers to "help with man things."

RELATED: Just Saying 'No' To Sexual Harassment Never Worked For Me

I did not report this behavior to HR. I was the powerhouse that had sold my dignity years ago. I was valedictorian at the school of suck-it-up-and-laugh-along-with-them. I was going to tow the company line even if that line was already wrapped securely around my neck.

But one brave colleague heard my story and, with my reluctant consent, included it in a report to HR of the sexual harassment and various other indignities our fearless leader had inflicted over the years. And this, friends, is where the real "fun" began.

Ah, the world of corporate HR, which far too often is dedicated neither to humans nor their resources. What did they do with my story? They wrote it down and shoved it into a folder. What did they do with my boss? Rumor had it they sent him to management counseling. What did they do to my career? Well, they tanked it, obviously. Fancy offices are not reserved for the loudmouths or the complainers.

I'm not sure what made my soul break first — the company's defense that, "You have a beautiful body and should get used to men staring at it,” or its explanation that, “You were on step fifty of a hundred-step career and we just moved you back to step twenty." 

But radical change is not born in times of mild discomfort. Somewhere between diving into HR's vat of waste and paddling through its nuclear BS, I found my superpowers.

RELATED: What Happened When I Was Sexually Harassed At Work — And Actually Reported It

After months of subsisting on little more than black coffee and anxiety meds, it had finally occurred to me that I could steal back my control. If they wanted to leave my legal career bloody and battered, screw it, I would deal the final blow to put that career out of its misery.

I quit my job and started writing my first book, The Porn Star’s Daughter — a new adult romance novel that tackles self-acceptance in a slut-shamer's world.

And the process of writing that one book saved me. It became a warning message to my younger self that forward progression without integrity will never constitute success. It was a public declaration that I would no longer remain silent about the exploitation of power disparities.

And it was a lot more fun than suffering through the modern-day witch trials we commonly refer to as sexual harassment lawsuits. I dropped the anxiety meds, gained back the twenty pounds I had lost, and found a new career.

RELATED: The Actual Definitions Of Sexual Assault & Harassment (For People Who Think The Rules Have Changed)

Let me be clear — I am aware my writing will not cure sexual harassment.

Bullies exist in our society and they rarely shop the new adult romance aisles. But my experience gave me a voice and my novel has given me a platform. And if this shaky little soap box I've built sparks any meaningful discussion around sexual harassment, that platform will have given me purpose in my chaos.   

I am further aware that many victims of workplace harassment do not have the option to walk away from their jobs. In my case, it took the rare combination of a lawyer's salary and a pre-disposition to extreme frugality (shout-out to my depression-era grandparents).

But if you are the victim of unresolved sexual harassment in the workplace, know that you are not powerless. Start creating a contemporaneous timeline of events that incorporates an electronic timestamp — the more detailed, the better. If your governing laws permit, buy that twenty-dollar digital recorder you’ve been eyeing, hit record, and wait for the magic to start (bras are only useful when carrying recording devices anyway).

The hard truth is most people won't acknowledge sexual harassment until you have irrefutable evidence to prove it. So go out and get it for them — just make sure you play it loud for the disbelievers in the back.

Take back your control. Find the purpose in your chaos. And know that those of us who have already jumped to the other side haven’t abandoned you. We're furious, we're loud, and we'll keep screaming until society hears us.

Sexual abuse is very common.

RAINN reports that every 68 seconds, an American is a victim of sexual violence. Females are far more likely to be abused and assaulted, and 90% of victims who are adults are women. This is especially prevalent among women who also happen to be college students, which makes their risk three times greater.

Anyone affected by sexual assault can find support on the National Sexual Assault Hotline, a safe, confidential service. Contact The Hotline or call 800-656-HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member.

RELATED: 5 Subtle Ways Men Make Women Feel Uncomfortable In The Workplace

Kay Stephens is a romance author and former law professional.