1. Opinion

Column: #MeToo in Tampa, 1973

Sexual assault survivors along with their supporters at the #MeToo Survivors March against sexual abuse in Los Angeles. [Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS]
Sexual assault survivors along with their supporters at the #MeToo Survivors March against sexual abuse in Los Angeles. [Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS]
Published Jan. 25, 2018

I graduated from Robinson High School in Tampa in 1970 and then started my freshman year of college. As a result of having changed majors, I was out of sequence in my design program at the University of Florida after the fall quarter of '72. I would have to sit out the first part of the next year and return the next fall.

I was 20 when I moved home to Tampa to live temporarily with my mother and stepfather and began hunting a job. I took a long shot and called the office of a man who was the father of a young woman I'd met at school. It was an established, high-profile office and the man was widely known in his field — the field I was studying at UF.

I was hired to help with odds and ends, run errands and do what would have been similar to an intern's job. I can't remember the exact amount I was paid but it was less than $60 a week.

What I do remember clearly was my first check, compensation for my first week's work — the one he placed on my desk. He'd written "SORRY," followed by three dots — neatly and boldly printed on the line where the dollar amount should have been written out. He had signed the check as if it were legitimate. That was the start. The first test.

It was a joke, he said, and then told me to follow him to his small office, where he wrote a proper check for the amount he'd offered in my interview.

Over the next few weeks, there were other signs that at first flattered me to think such a talented, important man even noticed me or the unimportant work I did. Having worked in his office would look great on my résumé, I thought.

But then my boss became more attentive, visiting my desk located in a large open room where tall partial walls created semi-private workspaces. He began saying things that were more and more personal that had nothing to do with work. Sexual innuendo. I said nothing about it to anyone else in the office.

He never touched me. But he said things that I see now, all these years later, were tests: Would I talk? Would I tell? He was gauging just how far he could go, just how much he could get away with.

He asked me to work one evening, and it was clear he was the only person in the office when I returned after dinner at home. I was stupid to not leave immediately. What happened that evening was a culmination of his efforts to find just the right sort of person he could dominate, could overpower, without fear of reprisal or exposure, and he was right. I didn't tell then, but I'm telling now.

These things happened and are still happening, especially to young people who lack confidence, who fear what others might think, who are shamed by the misguided thought that they cause such reprehensible behavior.

He turned on music in the office before taking me by force, before I knew what was up — the soundtrack to the musical Godspell.

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I didn't tell. I found a new job and tried my best to stuff it all away. I returned to college that fall.

More than 10 years later I was married and living in Texas, staying home with my newborn son, my first child. My mother sent me a newspaper clipping of an article reporting a sexual harassment suit filed against the man — by a woman who worked in his office some time after I had left. In a flood of emotion, I considered trying to contact the woman or her lawyer but, once again, could not bring myself to step forward. She lost the suit.

For years I have carried the guilt of not telling and not stepping forward for myself or the other woman who called him on his vile behavior. The man died years ago and, given the woman I am now at age 65 as well as the strength of the #MeToo movement, I think he is lucky he died when he did. Perhaps, as Oprah said at the Golden Globe Awards, "men like those, their time is up."

I think of Tampa as I think of the possibilities. I have not lived there since 1973. By sharing my story now, I hope my two adult children will understand just how important this moment is.

Sharon Roberts now lives in Austin, Texas.


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