He was 46 and I was 19. He was the pilot and I was the passenger. He was the highly qualified employee and I was the entry-level new hire. We were the only occupants in the airplane, a Helio 185 heading towards a sportfishing lodge in rural Alaska where I had been hired over the phone for a housekeeping position.
Forty-five minutes earlier, my mom had dropped me off on the edge of Lake Hood as the pilot, “John,” (not his real name) was just finishing loading cargo into the plane. The introductions were unremarkable. I waited on the wooden dock in the warm mid-July sun as the he loaded the last of the kitchen supplies and liquor into the plane. There was just enough room for my backpack. As we motored away from the shore, he handed me a headset and I listened to other pilots announce their intentions until it was our turn to take off.
I was nervous and excited. The small plane flight was just one of many unfamiliar experiences I was entering into that day. Before long I would be meeting my employer, my new coworkers, and seeing where I would be living for the next ten weeks. We made small talk as the plane flew over the calm Cook Inlet waters. Soon we were flying over mud flats, foothills, and before long the small plane was dwarfed between the steep jagged peaks of Lake Clark Pass. I looked out the window at the sun reflecting off the patches of snow that had not yet melted off the mountains. The view was unlike anything I had ever seen.
Knowing that John had already made the same flight this morning, I wondered aloud if he ever became bored with the same trips week after week. John said that he had gotten into flying because it was what he loved and that there was always something new to see no matter how many flight paths he repeated. That made sense to me and another silence settled in as I continued to gaze out the window. Several minutes passed and then John suddenly returned to the same topic.
“But you know, if you’re saying you’re bored we could have sex and it would pass the time faster.” The suggestion was so odd I didn’t have the presence of mind to be surprised or offended.
“Uh, no, that’s okay.” I wasn’t sure how to answer. A smile lingered on his face and a few minutes passed without either of us speaking. John broke the uncomfortable silence again.
“I’m serious, you know. We should just have sex if you want something to do.”
“Yeah, um, I don’t think so,” I answered cautiously. I estimated we had been flying about thirty minutes which meant we still had three hours to go before we would arrive at the lodge. I kept looking out the window. The view was as impressive as before, but now I was acutely aware of how small the plane seemed in the vast expanse of the pass. There were no cabins, trails, or other signs of human activity below. I considered that John could probably land the plane anywhere.
John’s propositions continued for the remainder of the flight as did my repeated declines. I went into survival mode, deliberately and delicately refusing while trying not to upset him.In between those exchanges, the benign small talk continued. I attempted to normalize the interaction as much as possible. At times I could almost forget the bizarre comments but I also had stretches of shame and panic. What if he suddenly decides to land? Do I have to live with this guy for the next ten weeks? Didn’t he say he has a daughter my age? I should have just told him I have a boyfriend. Am I dressed like a slut? No, I’m wearing a green turtleneck sweater. But is it too tight? Is he friends with the owner of the lodge? Am I supposed to tell someone? No, I can’t tell anyone. I’m the new girl. No one will believe me.
When my new boss asked me how my flight was I told him that it was fine. I met my coworkers, was shown to my cabin, unpacked my things, and pretended nothing had happened. And for the most part it wasn’t too bad. John was flying during the day and for the first couple of days I avoided making eye contact with him. That worked fine until he followed me into the pantry on my third day and told me how nice my cleavage looked. My answer was awkward and I quickly exited.
I had been there six days when some of the other employees invited me to their cabin to drink Captain Morgan’s and, as I soon discovered, complain about work. As the new girl, I didn’t say much but eventually mentioned that I thought John was a little odd. After they agreed, I decided to be more specific and bold. My audience was immediately horrified. One of my coworkers told her husband, who was the head fishing guide, and within 12 hours I was called into the boss’s office. I relayed my experience in detail. By that evening John had been fired and was on a commercial flight back to Anchorage. I never saw him again.
For the next few days I had intrusive feelings of shame and guilt. I felt responsible for John losing his job, and I second guessed my experience. Each time I mentioned it to someone at work, however, they immediately reinforced the inappropriateness of John’s actions. Both male and female coworkers corrected my misguided fears by reminding me that John had cost himself his job and I was not at fault. Within a few weeks my doubts faded away.
As the years have passed I think of this experience less and less often. When it does cross my mind it is not upsetting; rather, I look back on it as bizarre and, in a sense, humorous. “What a weirdo” I find myself thinking.
With the recent personal stories coming out in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, I have reflected on my own experience with sexual harassment. While there are many parallels, the outcome of my situation was vastly different than many other women. I no longer have feelings of guilt, shame, or humiliation. This is not a wound that gets reopened. There is one simple explanation for why I was able to heal: my boss, and everyone else I worked with, handled the situation swiftly, responsibly, and in accordance with the law. My discomfort was validated and I received immediate feedback that I had done nothing wrong. The blame was placed squarely on John. No one made excuses for his behavior and no one asked me to tolerate it. In short, I was believed.
The number of women coming forward telling their stories of sexual harassment demonstrates the need for a cultural shift. This type of change, however, will take time. The Johns of our society will not change overnight — if at all. Workplace sexual harassment will unfortunately continue, but the way it is handled can — and should — change quickly. Immediate appropriate action cannot undo a bad experience, but it can prevent retraumatization and initiate the healing process. Let us acknowledge the people who have, for decades, been responding to these situations professionally, and let them serve as examples for a path forward.
Colette Choate was born and raised in Homer. A mother, she has traveled and worked around the state of Alaska and currently teaches at Homer Flex School.