Review: Take Back Your Power:

Working Woman's Response to Sexual Harassment

by Melinda L. Shelton

San Diego NOW activist Jennifer Coburn, as she appears in the photograph on the jacket of her new handbook.

 "We must do something to put an end to our sexual harassment, as an act of self-love and to protect others from future offenses." This statement is but one of many that drives home the point of Jennifer Coburn's handbook. Coburn is the former chapter president of San Diego NOW.

As Coburn explains, and many women know firsthand, sexual harassment is pervasive in our society, particularly in the workplace. It has long been accepted as "boys will be boys" behavior and, consequently, many girls and women have been silenced.

 Coburn experienced sexual harassment by a former supervisor. More than 100 women between the ages of 19 and 74 shared with Coburn their painful sexual harassment experiences. I experienced it at three newspapers at the hands of editors who used their supervisory positions to intimidate me. Our mothers, daughters, girlfriends, colleagues -- and as one interviewee said, the woman in the cubicle next to hers -- know the reality of sexual harassment.

 This handbook shatters our own and others' silence. Perhaps most importantly, it provides rudimentary guidelines for defining and identifying sexual harassment, it details why men harass women, and it offers practical, straightforward methods to collect evidence, file a complaint and deal in the aftermath with self, family, friends and co-workers.

 In the first chapter, Coburn tells her own story. She was a recent college graduate who left the frigid North to begin a new, exciting life in sunny Southern California. Raised by a loving, supportive single mother, to whom the guide is dedicated, Coburn was the epitome of a strong, independent, self-confident woman blazing a new trail for herself.

 Then came a dramatic break: She landed a job managing accounts at a local magazine. Not bad for a woman who hit California with 40 bucks and a $3000 line of credit on her lone Visa card.

 But then Reality arrived disguised as her misogynist, harassing boss. "Beginning day one he began an aggressive and pornographic campaign to bring our relationship into the bedroom," Coburn writes. What followed were seemingly innocuous business dinners he ended with pressure for sex, calls to her home, inquiries about her sex life, crude displays of sex toys and outright physical attacks.

 The tide turned for Coburn in a dark parking lot near her office. The story is chilling. " . . . I reached into my purse when he approached me from behind, held my arms to my sides, and pushed me against my car with his groin firmly planted in my back. He picked me up like a groom would carry a bride and began spinning. He laughed as we spun and he told me how much he adored light and delicate girls.' "

 Coburn slugged him. Although the harassment continued, she devised a self-empowerment plan that included documenting incidents, talking with his other victims, and finally reporting his actions to a new supervisor she felt she could trust. She also sought therapy to deal with her feelings. The coup d'etat was a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him, which Coburn won.

 The rest of the book charts a clear path through what can be muddy waters:

". . . Minimizing feelings is also a common defense mechanism," Coburn writes. "The most common feeling is guilt which prompts self-punishment. Guilt springs from a deep-seated belief that we are inadequate. We believe when something goes wrong, we are to blame; and if we are to blame, we must be punished. . ."

 Breaking the silence, according to Coburn, begins with self-acceptance and self-confidence. Continue by documenting the incidents (keeping a journal, keeping notes and correspondence, logging calls, etc.), finding witnesses and other victims of the perpetrator, filing a grievance or complaint through appropriate channels (like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), or even filing a lawsuit. Following these steps will help build your self-esteem and confidence to go forward.

 Empowering, practical, brutally honest, simplistically real and totally usable describe Coburn's handbook. The stories shared by the women add graphic emphasis to situations. Some are ironically humorous, many are angry, some are sadly resigned and all are believable.

 Coburn takes her personal story and those of other women and transforms them into a guide that every woman, frankly, should read. And it's gratifying to know she was able to write and publish the guide with the settlement money from her sexual harassment suit.

 "In writing this book, I aim to empower working women by providing a simple and comprehensive guide to positively addressing sexual harassment," Coburn writes. Mission accomplished.

Her book can be ordered from the NOW Catalog. (Ism Press, $10)

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