How do I survive this mild verbal sexual assault?
March 7, 2011 8:33 PM   Subscribe

I was the victim of a verbal sexual assault on my job's telephone yesterday. How do I handle this, in two parts?

1. I have the phone number used to make the call. The caller ID comes up with the name of a City, State. I spoke with a police officer friend of mine, who told me to file a police report and then take the police report to the phone company and they would "file a process against the phone that was used to make the call". What does that mean? Is this worth my time? Will there eventually be legal closure, or is the police report intended to be the closure?

2. I've received a call like this before, but for some reason then it was easy to blow off and now it isn't. I'm finding it difficult to will myself to pick up the phone at work now. I'm worried about what will happen next time I have sex with my boyfriend, if some of the words that we usually use during sexytime will be tainted by this. How do I remove the stigma from the words that were said to me so I can enjoy them again? How can I relax and forget this happened?

posted by Night_owl to Human Relations (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Was the call directed at you personally or just at whoever happened to answer the phone? Either way, it's upsetting and I'm sorry it happened to you, but the circumstances make a difference as to how much closure you can realistically hope to achieve.

You can report it to the phone company without a police report, but if it was an isolated incident there's probably not much they can do. You can report it to the police as phone harassment, and they can keep the information on file in case it becomes a pattern, but there's not much they can do at this point unless the caller was known to you. Caller ID spoofing has become ubiquitous and so have disposable and untraceable cell phones, it makes it easier for people to harass others anonymously.
posted by amyms at 8:49 PM on March 7, 2011

Yeah, as far as I know it was just a drunk asshole dialing phone numbers til he got a female to answer.

Good point about the disposable phones and caller ID spoofing. I hadn't even considered that.
posted by Night_owl at 8:54 PM on March 7, 2011

I'm worried about what will happen next time I have sex with my boyfriend, if some of the words that we usually use during sexytime will be tainted by this. How do I remove the stigma from the words that were said to me so I can enjoy them again? How can I relax and forget this happened?

Time and wine, as they say. Without knowing the specific words or the extent of the abuse, I'd say try not to anticipate damage where you're not sure any exists, for fear of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you hear those words (during sexytimes or otherwise) and you feel real pain, then stop what you're doing and deal with it. However, if you catch yourself thinking about it too hard, ask yourself: "Am I hurt over this, or do I just feel like I ought to be? What exactly am I feeling?" Don't back out of anything (or go forward) just because you feel like you should.

Asking your boyfriend (and your boss) to be delicate with you for a while should give you a little room to figure this out.
posted by hermitosis at 8:57 PM on March 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yeah, as far as I know it was just a drunk asshole dialing phone numbers til he got a female to answer.

Okay, good, because at least in terms of your own safety and your own emotional well-being, an anonymous drunk asshole on the phone is much easier to get over. I'm not trying to minimize what happened to you at all, but try to remind youself that he wasn't saying those thing to you as in you personally. He was just randomly saying them to some anonymous female

If the words stay in your brain, try to separate yourself from them, as if you had overheard them in passing or in a movie, anything that can help you to know that they were not directed at you (and I know that's easier said than done).

You didn't say whether you had talked about it with your boyfriend, but that might help (if you feel comfortable doing so). Additionally, you can try to unburden yourself by talking about it with close friends, or anyone else who might understand and who will help you feel like you're not having to carry it around in your head.
posted by amyms at 9:06 PM on March 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

You can spoof CallerID™, but you can't spoof the phone company. If presented with a warrant, subpoena, or polite request from the police, the phone company can and will provide the real originating phone number.

I have no idea whether your police agency will investigate the case, but if they do, they can quickly and easily get the phone number.
posted by Dimpy at 9:11 PM on March 7, 2011

I used to work as a paralegal, and one day we got a phone call from a complete whack job through the bar association's referral service (random people call the city and say I need a lawyer for X and they connect you to one--so no one knew who this guy was). Anyway, being low man on the totem pole at the time, I answered the call.

First of all, the guy was pissed off because he was talking to a chick, and when I explained to him that there were only three employees--all female--and he either got to talk to me or no one, he really flew off the handle, cussing at me and whatnot. Yeah, I probably should've just hung up on him, but that's "unprofessional". So anyway, here's this guy making an ass out of himself, still not stating why he needed a lawyer, just demanding that he talk to one, and when he finally gets that I'm not going to connect him to my boss, period, tells me I can suck his you-know-what. And then adds a few more choice suggestions for what I can do with my lady bits.

And then I hung up. (He called several more times throughout the next two weeks, and each time got an "o hai you again?" *click* and a thorough warning for my coworkers.)

I could have let it upset me, but the way I see it is that that guy has a lot more problems in his life than I do. Certainly most, if not all, resulting from the fact that he's a belligerent asshole. Does that let him off the hook? Good god, no. But it does mean that I shouldn't let the things he said bother me. His being an asshole has nothing to do with me and everything to do with him. I can't let my life be dictated by some jackass who gets his jollies by calling and harassing random women.

I have the same attitude toward that dude I passed on the street a few years ago who asked if he "could lick my pussy." Uh, no.

Just keep reminding yourself that he doesn't deserve for a single second of your time to be devoted to thinking about him or his words.
posted by phunniemee at 9:11 PM on March 7, 2011 [8 favorites]

[folks, please be constructive - if you need to send side info to the OP they are not anonymous, use MeMail. thank you.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:35 PM on March 7, 2011

Years ago, I was shaken up at work when a man came in and said to me, "Someone should come in here and shoot this place up."

I was stunned and asked him what he said. He repeated it, then added, "And that's not a threat, that's a promise." He then left the lobby.

Still stunned, I continued to serve the rest of the customers in line until I could feel myself leaving stunned and moving into scared and angry. I excused myself and reported the issue to my supervisor who called the police.

The idiot had paid his bill with me and he was quickly identified by the check he used to pay with. He got a visit from the police, but no charges were ever filed. Nor was he a problem again.

Always report these issues to your superiors. You don't have to deal with such customers and if one pops up, you should immediately report it so they know it happened and, when appropriate, can take steps to protect you.

. Make use of your company's EAP if they have one. These things effect us all differently. Maybe it won't effect you much. That's okay. Maybe it will effect you deeply, that's okay, too.
posted by inturnaround at 9:36 PM on March 7, 2011

Call the cops. Odds are that this guy has a number of complaints out against him. Do the world a favor, and make sure that nobody else becomes a subject of this guy's harassment.

At my workplace, these calls are taken very seriously, and we're actively encouraged to file reports with the police when they do come in.
posted by schmod at 10:03 PM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I used to be sexually assaulted at my call center job pretty much on a weekly basis (we answered medical related questions, too, so sometimes it was sneaky and we had to keep talking to them until we were sure that's what they were doing, it sucked). There was one guy that called every few days for years. You just have to distance yourself from the caller and remember that they don't know you, they don't know who you are, they're just some loser sicko who gets off on saying nasty things to random women. You have a life completely apart from this random person.

Follow your friend's advice. Start with the police. Get the report. Call the phone company. Let them know the situation and they'll proceed further.
posted by elpea at 10:20 PM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have deleted and retyped this comment several times, but I can't possibly help from feeling that calling this 'verbal sexual assault' cuts a tiny bit from actual sexual assault. You know, the kind you can't hang up on.

Fuck, I'm a man and I feel like I can't comment on this without coming across as misogynistic, and I'm really, really not. Maybe I'll post an anon about my own sexual assault. It was work related, and it really fucked me up. I wish I could have hung up on my abuser. It would have made the paycheck problem a bit easier.

My personal issues aside, I can't recommend enough calling the police, you need a paper trail. Also, good lawyers are worth their weight in gold. I wish I would have known this ahead of time.
posted by Sphinx at 10:46 PM on March 7, 2011 [10 favorites]

I understand where you're coming from, Sphinx, and in writing my comment I struggled a little with how to phrase what happened. But ultimately, there was unwanted sexual contact that adversely affected how I'm currently living my life.

I don't mean to detract from physical sexual assault, or even strong verbal sexual assault. I did refer to it as mild, because even though it really shook me, I was able to end the encounter. Still, over a day later and I'm still upset about it, so I figured AskMe could help me talk it through.

I appreciate the help so far.
posted by Night_owl at 11:02 PM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had a stalker at a retail job I had a long time ago. We called him Mr. Sweatpants.

One evening, a week or so after Mr. Sweatpants had been 86ed from the premises and had also been told not to stand in the parking lot and make gestures in the window, my co-worker, Mary, the sweetest little old lady ever, answered the phone.

"Hello, may I help you?.... No she isn't.... sir.... SIR!..."

Then she just stared at the phone for a second, and said, "What a rude man!"

Apparently it was Mr. Sweatpants, a-callin' for me. He had some choice things to say regarding bits of my anatomy and various activities engaging said bits. If I had answered the phone myself, I probably would have been quite upset. But the way Mary answered the phone so sweetly, and her response, turned the whole thing upside down and made it hilarious.

Now whenever I encounter that particular sort of bully who would get his jollies by shocking or alarming random women with sexually explicit or degrading talk, I remember Mary scowling at the receiver and saying "What a rude man!"

I also remember that the kind of man who does this sort of thing is a coward. He wants to make you afraid, but he really is a small, gross little thing. You can squish him.

If the incident returns unbidden to your mind, you can try replaying it as comedy. Imagine him sitting in his apartment with a phone book, sitting in his brown recliner, all ready for date night; in his good coach shorts and favorite Journey t-shirt, his combover primped just so. There he is, just a rude little man, getting smaller every time he dials the phone. His feet don't touch the floor anymore. He can't do anything to anyone, he's so tiny.
posted by louche mustachio at 2:15 AM on March 8, 2011 [27 favorites]

1. Talk to cop buddy again, asking those questions, see what he says. But yeah, file a report and alert your boss about what happened. Always document these things, so that if things escalate, you have a paper trail backing you up.

2. It's a good sign you were able to blow it off before, means you'll be able to get over this. But why is it bothering you now? Who knows exactly, but maybe you're under some stress somewhere in your life or have made changes lately and you're feeling bit vulnerable?

As for the sexytime with boyfriend worries, talk to him of course, if you haven't already, and explain your worries. Do some intimate things to reaffirm the bond between, like taking a shower or bath together or cuddling up to read a book or watch a movie together and take things slow in that department. Given a bit of time, the bond between you two should work its magic to your worries and fears to rest.

Good luck, you can get over this!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:33 AM on March 8, 2011

If you can find your inner funny bone, try to laugh at it.

Years ago I was working third shift waffle house when our serial obscene phone caller struck yet again. I answered, heard him say the usual nasty, and then without a word handed the phone to an Escambia County Sheriff's deputy sitting in my section.

Hilarity ensued.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:09 AM on March 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

This is going to sound weird, maybe, but the words that caller used aren't the same words that you use with your boyfriend. Different contexts, different meaning, totally different things.

Whatever the caller was saying, he wasn't talking about the same thing, and it wasn't directed at *you* so much as it was directed to *someone* -- it's almost like you heard it at a bus stop, kind of gross and random but totally whatever.

If you can talk about it with people you trust, it might lose some of its power, and you might be able to laugh at it - because really, who makes a phone call like that??
posted by mrs. taters at 6:02 AM on March 8, 2011

You don't get into the specifics of what this guy said to you -- nor am I asking you to. But I had a similar thing happen to me; it was somewhat more severe, though. I know I've spoken about this before, but to recap -- the guy called me, recited my name and full address to me, and then said, "I'm going to ask you a bunch of questions, and I want you to answer them or I'm going to break into your apartment and rape and mutilate you." He then asked me a series of questions about my appearance, my bra size, the number of partners I'd had, etc.; something made me take on a slightly irritated "a telemarketer has interrupted me in the middle of something" tone to my voice, and I gave him total bullshit answers while I checked all the locks in my apartment were locked, and when I knew I was safe I told him if he really did try breaking in I'd chop his dick off with my roommate's kendo sword and hung up.

Like you, I filed a police report -- and like you, I was shaken up for a few days. My then-boyfriend and I even had a bit of a spat about it -- he felt I needed to "work on getting over it" faster. I argued that letting myself feel afraid was the way I got over things -- the harder I tried to pretend that I was over it, the more the fear would fester, and admitting "okay, dammit, that freaked me out" and letting that fear have its say would help me process it faster. (He apologized, for the record, and explained that he was speaking from more of a "get back on the horse" place rather than "this wasn't anything to be afraid of" place.)

I'd say the same thing to you; it sounds like you're trying to convince yourself that this wasn't anything worth being afraid of. Maybe this time, it was -- something subconsciously got triggered in you and you're processing that. Try just letting it process. In time -- with me, it was only a few days -- you'll start calming down, and the extra steps you may be taking to "look out for yourself" may start feeling like ridiculous overkill (for a few days I checked all my closets in my apartment every time I came home and screened my calls for a week, and then after a week I just plain forgot to do that and realzed I was okay). It also helped that the detective on my case was straight out of L&O: SVU central casting, and that we finally found the guy who called me was calling from North Carolina, and the odds of him actually driving 8 hours just to find me were incredibly remote.

Let yourself be scared. I'm not saying to cloister yourself, mind you, but let yourself acknowledge that the thing that happened to you was a little freaky and it threw you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:31 AM on March 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

Regarding point 2, make sure you talk to HR and your manager about what happened and tell them that you are having these feelings about picking up the phone. If a fear of the phone begins to impact your work performance, it will be good for you to have proactively communicated the issue to your employer.
posted by bfranklin at 6:57 AM on March 8, 2011

Hi Night_owl, I was a phone line volunteer at a crisis centre for two years. Every once in a while you'd get a "creeper", someone probably masturbating themselves to the sound of a woman's voice - especially a woman who's going to spend a few minutes talking through a script before putting the heavy breathing and passive-aggressive tone into context.

Whenever that happened, we were advised to (1) hang up the phone, and (2) call the on-duty social worker to report what happened. The incidents were treated like mild assaults because the social workers already knew that for many volunteers, to be interfered with in an explicitly sexual manner can be traumatizing, even if only for a few minutes, whether you're male or female, and even though it wasn't a face-to-face or physical attack. [/anecdote]

If you're still feeling anxious about having to pick up the phone again, take a few minutes (either with HR or your supervisor) and find out what policies your company has in place to protect its workers from [sexually explicit] verbal harassment by customers. A policy/attitude/unspoken agreement WILL exist somewhere. Sit down with someone and specifically ask for a script of how to handle this situation in the most professional manner possible. You are NOT being a whiny female for taking the initiative to improve your own work performance and for being adaptive to the company's customers (for better or worse). REHEARSE with your boyfriend, a coworker, or a good friend on how you will react at least a few times, so that you have NO doubts about your ability to manage the situation should it ever come up again.

Once your brain knows that it has a pre-planned script for protecting itself from another "assault" like that again, your anxiety may drop substantially. Every time that phone rings you will have a contingency plan for dealing with any customer, all the while being 100% confident that you are maintaining your integrity as a good person and a good employee. Right? Because that's the real female-disempowering kicker, when you decide to grin and bear it and remain helpless because you don't know what else to do. (assault in quotations because even though you know it was a "mild" assault, your brain is treating it like a PTSD-worthy assault, and obviously you feel this or you wouldn't have come looking for help on how to resolve the "overreaction")

Make a concerted effort to keep thoughts of the "gross customer sexytalk" tied to that HR/management script... just as you keep the boyfriend sexytalk tied strongly to "boyfriend alone time" conversations and maybe take a hiatus on the customer-specific things that were said for a while, until you've found your HR script solution first, and have had time to separate the polluted stream of sexytalk from the healthy stream, until you're feeling confident again. If you can keep it clear in your mind like this, then I think the experience need not poison the positive expressions you already enjoy in your relationship. Good luck! You haven't overreacted - you've been human :)
posted by human ecologist at 7:08 AM on March 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hey, Night_owl. This kind of thing sucks. I've had calls like these (in my mind, I guess I would say it was more harassment than "assault", but that's all just semantics), and they are definitely creepy.

First off, never engage the caller. I know sometimes the first inclination is to try to find out why someone would even be doing this, but that is a losing game. What this kind of creep wants from you is attention. He gets off on feeling like he has you on the hook. So if he calls again, as soon as you realize it is him, HANG UP. That's really important. You shouldn't have to listen to someone saying graphic or offensive things to you, and there is absolutely no need to indulge him in his sick fantasies by doing so.

So, my first advice is to remember that you have the power to cut this guy off at the knees just by hanging up the phone. And, if he makes repeated attempts? I have heard some women say keep a whistle by the phone. Blow the whistle right into the receiver if he calls. I haven't tried this, but it's another tactic to remind you that you are not helpless if he tries to pull this stunt again.

I wouldn't worry too much about sexytime with your boyfriend* right now because you really don't want to dwell on this and perhaps create problems that don't exist.

But, you know, if you do find this incident slipping, unwanted, into your mind when things are getting romantic, I think you need to tell your boyfriend exactly what was said to you by the harassing caller. I mean, the actual words as you remember them. Because then he can avoid those words. And, though it is difficult verbalizing them, I think it is essential for YOU to do so, because it helps to takes any perceived power out of the words; now you have reclaimed them for yourself.

And you and your boyfriend will just work on this, and it will be okay (remember that!), because of course nothing the two of you have together is even remotely like creepy guy's delusional creepy fantasies.

Hope this helps!

*Obviously, I mean if I were YOU! I do not plan on having sexytime with him myself ;)
posted by misha at 7:58 AM on March 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Report it to your employer and encourage employer to report it to the police and the phone company. I used to get harassing phone calls at work; what a huge drag. Women should not have to tolerate this.
posted by theora55 at 10:48 AM on March 8, 2011

Also, I would talk about it with a bunch of friends and co-workers.
That way since everyone knows about it, it may somehow make you feel more comfortable.

For a couple of months, we had two construction workers outside on the busy street where we worked. They would whistle and say stuff to us girls anytime we walked by from the subway station to the office.
Once we all talked about it and started making fun of the situation, it was a lot easier to deal with it. I was more annoyed rather than scared. But it still helped me be less annoyed.
I don't think any of us (4 of us total) felt threatened or anything like that enough to call the construction company.
posted by KogeLiz at 10:53 AM on March 8, 2011

I guess my post got removed because I agreed with someone else's comment and also maybe downplayed the situation of this phone call you received.

I didn't mean to come off sounding rude and I understand my comments didn't really go along with most of the others.

But, as you asked for peoples opinions and I replied with my personal opinion, my answer still stands: Try to shrug it off. The person didn't know you (from what you've said). I also wouldn't call the police about this one-time random call, either.

I've personally dealt with 1-15 of these calls on a nightly basis when I worked 3rd shift. I always thought it was annoying and sometimes funny and my co-workers and I always shared our dirty prank phonecalls we received and laughed about them, but I guess I can understand if other people find it horrifying.... especially if someone has never received these calls before.

I think if you continue to be traumatized by this event, then perhaps you should seek help from a counselor to address how this prank phone call is interfering with your daily activities and relationships.
posted by KogeLiz at 11:02 AM on March 8, 2011

Thanks for all the perspectives, everyone. I've talked to some people about what happened and I've decided not to call the police. I told my boss and she and I talked about it a little.

I think the worst part is that in addition to being upset about what actually happened, I was beating myself up for being affected by it. I deal with catcalls and "hey beautiful need a ride?" and "ooh girl you look good you need a friend?" every day all the time. I was once asked by a customer if he could sample me, which, weirdo. But none of that fazes me, ever, except to think, "Yeah, no, whatever dude." Even the other icky call I got bugged me for about an hour and then I shrugged it off as just some dude with a problem.

So when I found myself still thinking about it after a night of sleep, I began to be upset that I could be affected like that. Some of the comments in this thread have definitely helped with that. I'm still feeling squeamish about some of the words, but I'm going to try to work through that somehow. I just feel kind of icky and violated in a way I have never felt before.
posted by Night_owl at 11:14 AM on March 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

So when I found myself still thinking about it after a night of sleep, I began to be upset that I could be affected like that.

Don't be upset with yourself, you sound like you've got a good head on your shoulders. Just because this incident affected you more than others doesn't mean that you won't be okay.

Keep in mind, there are all sorts of factors that affect the way we react to unexpected stress. Sometimes even very innocuous things can be the last straw that ruins our day and puts us in a disquieted state of mind.

The phone call may not have been the end of the world, but your feelings of being violated are valid and you've done the right thing by talking about it and working through it. Even if it takes a little while longer to "get over it," you're going to be fine.
posted by amyms at 2:35 PM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

FWIW I sometimes feel similarly violated (of course not in the same way) when I get a call from an irate customer. Most of the time I am very good with taking care of the situation and am not troubled by it. However during the last holiday season I found myself dwelling on the ones I got and being seriously troubled to the point of nearly breaking down at work.

I say all that to say that who knows why sometimes stuff bothers us and sometimes it's water off a duck's back? It was not wrong for you to be upset by that call, and there may be real practical reasons why that call was really problematic for you while others were not. At least on that point, do try to let yourself really grok that it was upsetting and you have the right to your upset feelings.

I personally try to get over upset with humor, dark or otherwise-it is a strategy that works for me but perhaps not for everyone. But talking it out with trusted friends, your boyfriend, your boss, all these are helpful to drain this episode of its power to bother you.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:09 PM on March 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Definitely talk this over with your boss. This can be considered harassment or a "hostile work environment". Also, consider rehearsing how to handle another call. At my workplace, I do answer a public phone line...
At some point in my career, I decided that I will just say "I am transferring you to the Police Desk Sergeant" and then I stop listening or turn down the volume but leave the line open.
And yes, I've had to do this a few times.
Leaving the line open is my way of letting the offender talk to empty air and keeping him occupied.
Because I decided how to handle this ahead of time, I feel more in control.
The caller isn't hurting me because I'm not listening.
I feel empowered because while he's talking to empty air, he's not calling anyone else to harass.
posted by calgirl at 10:30 PM on March 8, 2011

Definitely talk this over with your boss. This can be considered harassment or a "hostile work environment".

Some anonymous jerk calling Night_owl does not in and of itself meet the generally-accepted understanding of workplace sexual harassment or a hostile work environment. (Intentional, severe, recurring and pervasive, interfere with the ability to do one's job, is a condition of continued employment.)

Inform your boss because other people may have endured the same unsettling feelings that you have and kept quiet. There's something to be said for an official policy to lean on, that stipulates that employees can and should hang up on creeps like this. (So that in the heat of the moment when you're freaked out, you needn't make that judgment call in a vacuum.)
posted by desuetude at 10:43 PM on March 8, 2011

So when I found myself still thinking about it after a night of sleep, I began to be upset that I could be affected like that.

I know this feeling. I've found myself getting upset about situations that that weren't that big of a deal, or that I thought weren't. Beating myself up about feeling the way I did wasn't productive, and usually magnified the effect rather than helping me "power through, toughen up, and get over it."

In fact, the reason that something like this might feel worse than situations that are more severe is because you aren't sure why it hit you so hard, and know that you're going to have a hard time communicating that feeling to others, because you should be able to just brush it off, right?

Here's the thing, though. That feeling is a useful protective instinct. Sometimes it kicks in when you aren't being directly threatened, but that doesn't mean it's wrong. Maybe you sensed something was really not right about this particular person (beyond the obvious fact that he was making obscene phone calls.) If you were in the same room with him, that same instinct would probably tell you to get the Hell out of there ASAP. I have ignored this instinct before, thinking I was being oversensitive, not wanting to look like a wimp or a prude, and ended up in terrible, even life threatening situations because I was trying to be a tough guy.

The rest of what you've written leads me to believe that you're not someone who's easily alarmed by everyday harassment (though boy it sucks that there is such a thing) so it doesn't sound like your Spidey sense is defective. It's important to acknowledge that your feeling isn't wrong and that there is a reason you felt that way - it will do more to help you put the situation in perspective than tormenting yourself about overreacting.
posted by louche mustachio at 4:51 AM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

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