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Tales from the Trenches: Sexual Harassment, Trusting Your Gut and #NotNice.

I landed in Mexico City, with my suitcase, and waited for local counsel to pick me up. I had never met him before, in person. I did speak Spanish and we had many conversations over the phone. That was it.


A man shows up and calls my name. I guess it's him. He introduces himself. Confirm it's him. He tells me the car is "right this way." I follow him. Three more men greet me. They are "from his firm." I don't really remember their names or who they are. So there are now five of us, for one car. I end up in the back seat between two men and the other two are up front. Alarm bells go off. This is not okay. That feeling in the pit of our stomach that makes us fear we'll be overreacting but is there and is unfortunately often correct, is a feeling I've only ever heard expressed by women. In whispers. Trying to explain that they wanted to do something about it but were afraid they'd be rude if they did. Inevitably, those stories end with something bad happening. But I had not heard enough of those stories yet. And I was afraid I'd be rude.


The conversation in the car turns to what my husband does for a living. I answer that he's a medical student.

So then one of them chuckles, and tells me that "the wife of the medical student is never the wife of the doctor." I don't understand so I kind of smile and go, "Huh?" They explain that medical students always "upgrade" when they become doctors, to a "better" (younger, prettier, less difficult wife) so my marriage is definitely doomed. Joke, joke, chuckle, chuckle, it's funny right? No. I smile, "Ha, ha," cringe, and hope the conversation shifts. It does, but nowhere good.


The four of them are laughing now, because all of this is just a riot. Women are like vehicles, trade up, trade down, pass it around. They keep going, given my marriage is over anyway, I should have sex with them. All four of them.


Funny, funny, right? No.


So then my brain starts a mental calculation. By the time you read that previous sentence, I had finished thinking through the next paragraph. There were four of them and only one of me. I was in the back seat, with no direct access to the doors. The back seat was so small I was physically crammed against each of the men on my sides. Also, I didn't know where my hotel was and didn't know if we were on the right path. If we pulled off into a field or a back alley, I wouldn't know until it was too late. I could have had a chance of getting away if we got out of the car--if we got out of the car. But, and this was a big but, I was five months pregnant. I was visibly pregnant. So jumping out was not an option, fighting was difficult, and compliance may have been the best course of survival for me and my unborn baby. It took an instant, they were still chuckling, and my eyes were glued to the road, tracking whether we were moving toward the city center or elsewhere.


Nothing happened. I was fine, physically. I got dropped off at my hotel and went about my business. I worked with the initial local counsel for the next few days, going about my duties. I had a job to do. I had a case to handle. I had depositions to take. There is no "exit" button from these situations because there is no exit button from womanhood.


I never rode in the back of a car again on that trip, though. I was always up front, in the passenger seat. And I never travel somewhere without being in control of my lodging.


Women live these moments, hundreds of them, from childhood onward. But overwhelmingly, there is nobody to report to. And even if we do, we get told we are overreacting, it was "probably" nothing, and (infuriatingly) that we're lying to attract attention. 


This event was early in my career and, I have to say, I'm fortunate in that I did not experience many such instances. I was also inordinately fortunate that nobody in my law offices has ever harassed me. However, this event (and the few that preceded and followed it) taught me several important lessons:


My (and Your) Boundaries Are Valid The moment I saw the situation, something went off inside my head. I didn't like being in the backseat. And I didn't like being surrounded by two people with no access to a door. I knew that and I processed it but I didn't do anything about it because I didn't want to overreact. But I should have asked for the front seat, in those circumstances. And if I was "difficult," so be it. It would have avoided the situation of powerlessness in the back of that car. It would have been one fewer "event" in my life. My (and Your) Red Flag Radar is Finely Tuned Michael Gladstone posits that when people make decisions, they do so because they are processing thousands of data points, without even realizing it. Study after study shows that girls begin receiving unwanted sexual attention, on average, as soon as their age turns to double digits, "By the sixth grade, more than one-third of girls have been sexually harassed by a boy, and by middle school, almost all students (95 percent) have witnessed sexual harassment happen at school." That has certainly been my experience. Every interaction, therefore, for better or for worse, brings with it years of data points. Those data points get processed to create a gut feeling. Trust it. You're not crazy. The world is.

I (You) Get to Say Stop, Even at Work, Even if it Makes People Uncomfortable As an attorney, we operate in a profession that has given men a pass for sex-based violations, for a long time. This year, 2019, is the first time the Colorado Supreme Court passed professional rules of conduct pertaining to sexual harassment in the legal profession, generally. Before that, what happened in the car (had it happened in Colorado) would not have had any ramifications. Now, maybe (maybe) it could. What I learned over time, though, is that rules or no rules, I get to say stop and I get to announce when I am not comfortable. I make my own rules regarding my body and my space. Because I am living my own life, with my own experiences, and I get to feel safe. I am entitled to feel safe. I am entitled to have my personal space respected. So, when a lawyer at an ABA function put his hand on my arm, once, twice, three times, four times, and every time I moved away, he would put it back there, I said stop. (Actually, I smiled from ear to ear, leaned forward, and whispered, "If you touch me one more time, I will break your hand." He got the message, was profoundly offended, but didn't touch me again). I get to say stop, and so do you. Because sometimes, it's perfectly reasonable to be #NotNice.

Giugi Carminati is a social justice litigator, handling cases ranging from family law and domestic abuse to police shootings and other civil rights violations, including violations resulting from unlawful immigration practices. She founded The Woman's Lawyer, a domestic abuse and sexual assault victim's advocacy law firm and is now Managing Attorney, W & SW United States, for NDH, LLC, a human and civil rights law firm. She serves on the CWBA Board as Publications Committee Co-Chair as well as on the Colorado Community College Systems Board and is Vice President of Denver Mamas. Giugi is also mother of four children and speaks four languages