“Think of yourself as a fluffer,” I was told.
Sean laughed. “They’re the warm up girls on porn shoots. Look it up.”
So I did. Fluffers are the women employed to head off the male actors to get them hard for their “love” scenes and keep them afloat in between takes.
While on the shoot the following day, I went to the bathroom in our rented trailer to adjust my headwrap. I was going through a particularly modest phase where I insisted that my hair, arms and legs be covered at all times—even in September humidity. I went in the tiny facilities room, began to untie my wrap, and Sean followed me inside and pulled the door behind him while cutting the lights. I screamed holy hell and he flicked the light back on, but didn’t leave. I didn’t know what to do. I was scared. He played it off like it was a joke, like I was overreacting. Was I? I had (and have) no idea what his intentions were, but I insisted he leave and he did. Neither one of us ever mentioned the incident.
Common sense says that I should never have gone on another shoot with Sean, but I did. He had the knowledge that I was trying to learn and he had a job in the industry that I was trying to get into. Complain? It never crossed my mind. I just made a point to make sure we were never alone in the same place.
He was fired a few months later and I didn’t know why. I just showed up to work one day and his office was empty, all of his posters and photos gone. I heard later that it was for sexual harassment and I’ve always wondered exactly what he did.
Many years later, I was actually working for a media empire in a division that employs mostly young (avg. age was 27), African-Americans. Every day of work was like going to the club. There was loud music, plenty of people, du-rags and caps and mini-skirts and lots of cleavage. There was occasional dancing and if ever you worked past 6:30, usually some liquor. There was a guy, Ivan, who worked in the offices next to mine that made a point to stop by my cube almost daily to tell me how “sexy” I was. I thought he was a little creepy, but it didn’t really bother me. He meant it as a compliment, I think. He asked me out a couple times; I declined.
One day, after I’d been working about four months, he stopped by my desk and asked me if I wanted to see a picture on his phone. Judging by his excitement, I figured it was a picture of him with his shirt off (he was hella built) or a picture of naked woman. I finally gave in. Turns out it was a picture of his erect dick.
Fun. I looked and without giving any expression, passed the phone back to him.
“It’s my dick,” Ivan told me lest I assume it was someone else’s dick in his phone.
“Hmmm? That’s it?” I think he wanted me to be impressed by its length or width or girth, which left no impression on me one way or another.
“Yah.”I rolled my eyes.
Ivan went away and I went back to work.
A couple weeks later, I was working late on deadline and had finally decided 9PM was late enough to call it a night. As I was on my way out, Ivan stopped by unexpectedly and asked for a hug.
“Why are you always so mean, D?”
I scrunched up my face to give him the ‘nigga, are you crazy face.’
“Come on,” he said, approaching me a little too forcefully for my comfort.
I pushed him away, but he insisted on coming at me again. I pushed once more and he stayed back.
“What is wrong with you? You’re not leaving until I get a hug.”
I realized then that he was blocking the entrance to the hallway I needed to walk down to exit. And I realized that it was 9PM, no one knew I was still in the office, the rare silence signaled most if not all of my co-workers were gone, and though short, Ivan was much, much bigger than me.
If I hug him, then he has me in his embrace and if he’s got any intentions beyond a hug, I’m easier access. Or he could let me go. Something told me that the former was more likely to happen than the latter. If I don’t hug him, we could stand here indefinitely. The later it gets, the worst my options.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
I was saved by the bell. Well, actually my Sex and the City ringtone. I snatched my phone from my pocket and answered, informing my caller (if you can piece together the timeline, you’ll know who) that I was still at work, getting ready to leave, and most importantly, “just in the office with Ivan.” God forbid if something happened to me, at least someone would not where I was and who I was with.
Ivan walked out the office then, leaving me to my call. I stayed on the phone until I got to the lobby. As I walked the three avenues back to the subway, I questioned whether I was overreacting. Was I being frigid? Was I jumping to conclusions? I mean all the man asked for was a hug. But then why did all my sensors go haywire? I dunno.
I never told anyone at the office what happened and I stopped working late and took my work home with me when I had deadlines. Ivan stopped by my cubicle a couple times after that during regular hours, but after a couple “what the fuck do you want?” lines with the official Black woman stank face, he decided I was somewhere along the lines of a bitch and made a point not to speak to me.
A few months later, he was fired. Seems a bunch of women that worked for the same company, but a floor under ours had complained he was “too aggressive.”
After I moved to a new job, I was at dinner with the girls and we were talking about the crazy shit that happens at the office. I told the Sean story, and then, the Ivan story.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Nel asked. At the time, she worked in HR. “What happened to them?”
“What do you mean?”
“When you complained. Were they fired?”
“Um, I didn’t tell HR.”
“Why not? You didn’t think that was sexual harassment?!”
“I guess…I dunno.” I shrugged. “I never thought about it.”
“Uh, it was, hon.” She just looked at me. “Wow. I can’t believe you didn’t say anything.”
Nel was baffled, and really so was I. I still don’t know why I didn’t complain—at least about Ivan. (I kinda knew what Sean did was fucked up.) Maybe I just chalked it up to what happens in the workplace. Or a part of life you just deal with as a woman. These were the only times I’d felt threatened in an office setting, but it was mild to what you can encounter at a club. And beyond about three minutes in total of being scared shitless nothing ever happened that was all that bad.
Is that’s harassment?