The Bill Cosby story, and the time I got sexually harassed in the Senate

I was watching Erin Burnett’s reporting on the ongoing, and growing, sexual harassment accusations against comedian Bill Cosby, and it got me thinking of the time I was sexually harassed while working in the US Senate.

My harasser was a woman working in George H.W. Bush’s Department of Transportation; and at the time several people, including her boss, didn’t take my complaint seriously. After all, I was a guy. And how can a woman sexually harass a man?

I’m writing about this because I was reading the other day about one of Bill Cosby’s accusers, and how she continued to see him after he had allegedly drugged and had sex with her, and I found myself wondering why she didn’t stop seeing him and call the cops. Then I thought back to what happened to me, and how one’s reaction, and reflexes, are decidedly more numb than you’d expect when experiencing something like this.

I was a legislative attorney working on commerce issues and foreign affairs, and I need to call a deputy assistant secretary at DOT who I regularly worked with, and ask him about something. I called, got his secretary Ally, who I’d spoke with a million times before, and asked if he was available. Ally said he wasn’t. So I asked her if he was going to be quick, and whether it was worth holding. In response, Ally said to me: “That depends, what are you holding?”

Now, I had a collegial rapport with this woman, as we spoke practically every week. We weren’t friends; we never shared with each other any details of our lives; but I’m a friendly guy, and am always happy to be politely chatty with anyone I speak with (it’s a midwestern thing).

I knew what Ally meant, but at the same time couldn’t believe that I was understanding her correctly. I must have misunderstood, so I ignored what I thought she’d said, instead said something else about talking to her boss — I don’t even remember now what it was — and got another definitively more sexual response that left no question what Ally was getting at.

I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t even believe it was happening. And it wasn’t funny. It really wasn’t funny. I was pretty much mortified. And frozen.

All I could muster was telling Ally to tell her boss that I called and have him call me. That’s when Ally said to me:

“Well let me breathe heavy for you three times before you hang up the phone. Here goes: Huuuh, huuuh, huuuh.”

I sat for a second. Said nothing. Then all I could muster, in a hushed voice, was to say: “Stop it, Ally. Stop it.”

Ally giggled and hung up.

I just sat there. Speechless. Confused. Numb.

The legislative correspondent who worked for me walked in, saw my face, and with great concern asked me what was wrong. I told her. She then said: “Let me guess: You feel dirty, like it’s your fault, and you’re afraid to tell anyone.”

I did tell someone, after she urged me to. I went downstairs, told our office manager, and our chief staff, and then was left to call the deputy assistant secretary at DOT myself, to explain what had happened. As I recall, he laughed.

So when I hear people, or even hear myself, question why alleged victims of sexual harassment don’t speak up more often, I think back to my speechless self dealing with Ally at the Department of Transportation.

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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