PromoKitchen recently released an article and podcast centered around sexual harassment in general, but in particular as it relates to the promotional products industry. After the release of the article and subsequent podcast, we received countless emails, messages, and phone calls with industry professionals offering their support and thanks for bringing attention to this problem, and also sharing their #metoo stories. What we have learned over the last two weeks is that this is not only a big issue within the industry, it's much bigger and more widespread than we would have ever imagined.
Some of the women who came forward and shared their story with us wished to remain anonymous. Others, when asked, said that we could publish their experiences with the hopes of letting people who have been victims of sexual harassment know that they are not alone, and hopefully helping to prevent more instances of sexual harassment and abuse in the future.
The scope of what has happened and what is currently going on in our industry should be a wakeup call. We can and should be better. We’re not immune to the abuses of power that are out there.
We want you to know that many of these stories are not easy reads. We are sharing them to raise awareness of what goes on inside and outside of our industry. Please know that if you have had experience with any kind of sexual assault or violation, you are not alone. There is help. Two resources available: – RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network): Call their hotline (800-656-4673) or use their anonymous chat feature at their website, RAINN.org – The Crisis Text Line is anonymous and available 24 hours a day to help with a wide variety of problems, including sexual assault and mental health or just an emotionally difficult time: 741741
It is our wish that these stories will spur you to action to make this industry the best and most welcoming that it can be. We’re better with more diversity and experience and that only happens when we make our workplaces safe and filled with respect for everyone.
"Thank you so much for the podcast.
At Expo last year I was at the Spark event and I managed to derail a talk on networking with the simple question of “What do you do when your space has been invaded and you’re uncomfortable?” I was expecting a simple tip of “blah blah blah move to another space” instead every woman in that space spoke up with their tips that ranged from “If you lean back but keep your leg in front of you…” to “I tell them that I’m married and no, ‘what happens on the road, stays on the road’ doesn’t work for me” to “be straight and call them out for their sexist remarks.” It was sad to know that every woman in that room had a story or an encounter but what was even worse was the surprise in many of the guys. I would say that the majority didn’t know this went on regularly.
You asked what can be done and I would have to say a major thing is awareness from men that this goes on. Our industry has power imbalances between distributor and supplier and this is often where these actions occur. When you don’t feel like you can call out someone for their behaviour because you’re worried about being blacklisted, bad mouthed or have your actions positioned as negative for the company. Not everyone has an understanding or open-minded boss.
I also think that what needs to be understood is that sexual harassment is not always physical. More often than not, it’s words that are just as damaging. My personal experiences are being backed into a corner of my booth until I couldn’t go any further, to a hand lingering and returning to my waist no matter how many times I brushed it off. There are certain distributors that when I watch them walk down the aisle, it’s almost humorous watching the females in the booths leave to avoid being stuck with them. It’s an exodus. And those are looks and touches. I know a supplier rep that was told “my day would be better with your clothes on my hotel room floor” at Expo.
These are not isolated incidents. They need to be called out and the onus should not be on women alone. Men need to ask themselves “did I say something inappropriate?” “Did I hear something inappropriate and not call it out?” The why needs to be asked of both of those questions.
Why did you say it? Did you think it was funny? Did the recipient think it was funny? Are you sure?
Why didn’t you call that behaviour out? Did you check to see if the recipient was ok? Why didn’t you call them out?
The value of having allies shouldn’t be underestimated."
"I was at an event for Expo and I had spent some time networking and starting a relationship with a top exec at one of my largest clients. We were chatting after I had pitched myself and my company and the possibility for growth and he looked at me and said “You know, I have Asian fever.” Beyond being shocked that he had no problem saying this to someone, I found myself in a predicament: Do I excuse myself to avoid potential problems? Or do I play along to move the conversation forward for an opportunity to further grow my business?
I look back now and am ashamed that I took the latter."
"When I started in this industry to say I was naïve about this industry and sexual advances was putting it mildly. I had no idea that the industry was so loose and incestuous.
My first job only lasted for 6 months – because that was as much as I could take of being chased around the office by the owner. My second job – a year and half – for the same reason, I’ll be it – more subdued and less obvious, but none the less annoying. It was then that I bought an Adventures in Advertising franchise because I didn’t want to work for anyone else. That was a great move for me for a lot of reasons. However – to the point Charity’s made in the podcast about what might potentially be driving these behaviors, when you aren’t happy in your life – this industry can be rather “comforting and ego stroking.” I was in a terrible marriage and very unhappy. I found acceptance, attention and distraction while on the road. In fact – it felt so good, I found reasons to go to shows and events to get that “high”. I will say I dealt with a lot of unwanted attention at times – but in all fairness, I was looking for it from those that I wanted to pay attention to me.
Many years later, a divorce and now happily married for almost 10 years, I still get tempted. It’s hard not to – attention and flattery are powerful and intoxicating. The difference is – I know where to draw the line. It has been close a few times, and at the time as a distributor, a when it is the supplier making the advances, you do feel somewhat pressured to flirt and give in a bit.
Now on the supplier side, I see things from a different perspective. It doesn’t change the issue. I go into a distributor's office and there is flirting which brings a pressure to reciprocate and entertain those advances. I’m a pretty strong person and not intimidated easily, but you don’t want to lose business because you are perceived as not friendly enough or play along like a good sport. I don’t know if there is an answer or a solution, but I agree that the conversation should be had. As for my own personal journey - I know the reason I gave into the temptations and advances was out of loneliness and lack of self respect at the time (thanks to my ex-husband). I also now know the reason I don’t give into the temptations is now knowing my worth, having a loving and respectful relationship and being so much wiser."
"I distinctly remember my very first trade show. While walking the floor another supplier and I got to talking. He asked me something along the lines of who I was going to go back to my room with that night and I quickly said I had a boyfriend. His response was a chuckle and "Oh yeah. It shows that you're new in the industry." I kind of brushed it off at the time but it kept coming back into my mind.
Over the years I cannot even count the instances that men in the industry said inappropriate things to me. And it went way beyond words. I've been grabbed, touched, physically picked up, even kissed after flat out telling someone to fuck off and leave me alone. I've seen women get so blindly drunk and guys blatantly take advantage of them without even being subtle about it. I've been told shit like "Oh come on you know you want it" and made to feel GUILTY if I chose to say no and walk away. I've been followed back to my hotel room and had to make shit up to get the guy to leave. The worst part is that we tend to brush it all off and internalize it somehow, thinking what WE could have done differently to avoid the situation. We become desensitized to it, and the assholes that get away with it are never held accountable for their actions. Honestly, it is one of the main things I am so glad I no longer have to deal with now that I am out of the industry completely. And, while I am sure promo isn't the only industry this happens in, I can say that now being in a new industry (health & wellness), I REALLY don't feel the same vibe at all. People are much less predatory and much more open and transparent. It's a breath of fresh air.
We were incredibly heartened to hear from a male friend. It should be on everyone’s mind how they’re making people feel. Our goals should always be to do better."
"I was finally able to set aside the time to listen to the PromoKitchen podcast you did. I knew a little bit about your story Charity, but definitely didn’t know all of it. In the event that I have ever made you uncomfortable with anything that I’ve said, or if anything I’ve ever done has been inappropriate, please forgive me. This conversation really opened my eyes to things that I might be saying or doing that people, women especially, could be taking the wrong way. I never want things I do or say to be misconstrued or give people the wrong idea. Thank you for bringing attention to this and bringing these things to light. I’ll definitely be more aware of how I say things and what I say moving forward."
These next stories were incredibly hard to read as they recount stories of rape and violence. Reader discretion is advised. And, if you need to, please reach out to the resources we listed above.
"Charity, I finally listened to your podcast and I wanted to reach out and thank you for sharing your story and addressing the topic. You brought up SO many good points that were so relatable on so many levels, so thank you for that too.
I personally hope that a lot of the "predators" so to speak listened to this podcast and take a very long look at themselves. A few years ago, I was invited to an event with some reps with one of my customers, and a couple other suppliers that were in town. The group split after dinner and before the event, and I went along with the two men to their hotel who had said they wanted to change before the show, and my exact words to them (I had never met either of them, just knew they were suppliers for two different respected companies in the industry) and my exact words as I went into their room were "good thing you guys are industry- it means you're safe."
They brought me a beer from the bathroom and I quickly realized the "changing" was code for snorting lines of coke. I very strongly believe I was drugged, because I remember drinking the beer, saying no to the coke, and then absolutely nothing until suddenly coming to at the music venue, and then remember nothing else until the walk home. During the walk home I discovered that my keys were suddenly missing so I couldn't get into my apartment. When I said something about it these guys offered for me to stay at the hotel which was only a block away from my home. I didn't think anything of it, so I agreed.
I don't remember walking into the hotel or the room, but when I came to again my pants were around my ankles and they were both taking turns sexually assaulting me. I froze. I didn't open my eyes because my initial instinct was to freeze. I could hear them laughing, high-fiving each other as they switched back and forth, and unfortunately this time I didn't black back out.
When it finally stopped after what seemed like hours, I waited until I was sure they had passed out and I ran the hell out of there. Something told me to check the front desk for my keys, which the guy told me a man has turned them in as lost, but said he also remembered me walking in with that same man and another one hours before. This to me just really made it clear that the whole thing was premeditated.
For the longest time I thought it was my fault - that I had gotten myself in that situation, and that I should have known better. Through counselling I've finally gotten to a place like you have where I'm not ashamed of my story. It's not my fault, and I did nothing wrong.
From the very bottom of my heart, thank you for sharing your story and your views on the occurrences within our industry. It reiterated the fact that I'm not alone, and that it's ok that I'm no longer ashamed of it. It too, for me, turned into a drive to better myself, and I just really wanted to share all of that with you. Thanks for listening."
"When I was 9 years old I became a member of the #metoo club. You know that club that nobody wants to be a member of. My older brother had started molesting me and that lasted until I was 14 when he went into the military. At 15, I was raped by a stranger. Being raised Mormon, my purity was so tied into my identity that I was sure I was unlovable, dirty, unworthy. If anyone found out I was certain I'd lose my family, my church, my whole world. I shoved it down, acted out, silently screaming for help while I tried all alone to put my brokenness back together. I completely lost the power of my voice. I built HUGE walls to keep the bad guys out, but when you do that, you keep the good guys out too. My Mom always said that I was her angel. Then one day I became the devil and she had no idea why. She and the rest of the people in my life all missed the signs. Nobody could see what was really happening -That I needed help. This was too much for a young girl to handle alone.
I grew up in a very close family. 7 kids, the oldest and youngest were boys and 5 girls down the middle. We loved to jump in the station wagon and travel all over the country. On Sundays, after church we got in the car and played a game where each of us took turns telling my Dad which way to turn and we never knew where we were going to end up. As a child, I knew we didn't have a lot of money, but we had a lot of love.
When I was 17, I was shocked when my little sister, Jeannette stepped up and said that my older brother had molested her. My Mom said she was lying. I stepped up and said, no she’s not, #metoo. My older sister, Anita, stepped up and said #metoo. Then my little sister, Laurel stepped up and said #metoo. Four of us...take that in...four of us. That's when I learned that silence is a predator's best friend.
I hid being raped for 25 years. Then I found Tony Robbins and went to Unleash the Power Within. You probably know it as his firewalk event. There's something about walking on fire that gives you the strength to finally tell your parents you were raped. That’s when I started getting my voice back.
Last year the Stanford Rape case out and it triggered me. I was tired of shoving this under the rug, not knowing what would make it surface. Knowing that it had created blocks in me that were holding me back from being the person that I was supposed to be in this world. I knew I had to once and for all face it and heal it. I used every tool I could get my hands on. I followed my intuition, tapped into my spirituality and did hypnotherapy.
On September 23, 2017 I went to my rapist's grave and I forgave the unforgivable.
As you can imagine, I have put considerable energy into working to make decisions that would prevent something like this from happening to me again. I thought I had done a good job until about three years ago when I moved to a small town about an hour away from Silicon Valley that we felt was a better place for my husband and I to raise our kids. Having a home based business I knew the move made it harder to have in-person meetings with my reps. I decided that instead of meeting at a restaurant and them having to bring in all their products in to that setting that I'd have them come to my home. It was working out great for both of us until an incident at PPAI Expo, January 2016 opened my eyes.
I was walking the show floor and went to one of my rep's booth. While there I saw a sample that would be perfect to show to a client at a meeting we were having the day after I returned home. My rep wasn't at the booth so I asked one of the staff if I could come back on the last day and pick up the sample to show and I'd mail it back to them after since there wasn't time to get it before the meeting. The sample was appx. a $10 sample. This staff member denied my request and as luck would have it my rep walked up. He took me to the side and asked me what was going on. He said since he's my rep he would do that for me and just handed me the sample on the spot. I thanked him and we chatted for a few minutes. He asked me what my plans were for dinner. I was meeting up with some friends in the industry and then we were going to go out to a club. I told him he could join us if he wanted. He replied, "I was hoping we'd go alone" and gave me this look that said, I want more than just a client-vendor dinner. It caught me completely off guard. I quickly dismissed it thinking I was being too sensitive because of my past. He had never been inappropriate before so why would he start now? I declined and went on my way not thinking much about it. I ran into him again as he was leaving the show floor and he again offered dinner, just the two of us, his treat. I declined again and he asked where my friends and I were going and to save him a spot.
Fast forward a while later and my friends and I are about to enter the club. The bouncers are checking our ID's and we are getting into the elevator. Out of the corner of my eye I see my rep. It's too late to have him jump in so I give him an apologetic look and went on my way. Inside the club I'm talking to my friends when out of the blue a person bumps hard into me from my side and walks off without a word. It's my rep. I thought, "That's weird?" and my friends questioned it. I told them what had happened earlier. A little bit later my Rep came back again and in my ear he angerly whispers to me, "You were supposed to save me a spot." then walked off. I wondered why was hanging out with me so important to him? Did he have ulterior motives? This rep had always been really nice. I had no idea where this was coming from. Luckily, I was with friends, and there were men with us, so I felt safe.
Later in the night my rep sees me leaving the club and approaches me and says, "You're not even going to ditch your friends and be with me after I gave you that sample?" I couldn't believe what I just heard. In his mind, giving me that sample had strings attached, and now I owed him more than just my business? This guy's head is really messed up. I walked away to the safety of my friends and we left immediately and went to a bar. Shortly after I noticed my rep standing in the shadows just staring at me. I ignore him, but told my friend Eric that he was back and I felt uncomfortable. Eric stood closer to me, as if to tell him to back off or he would protect me. Luckily, he took the hint and left.
You'd think that was the end of it. We left that bar and went to another. I hadn't seen my rep in a while and figured he finally got the hint and has gone away for good. I'm feeling relaxed now and just enjoying hanging out with my friends. While I was casually talking to Eric, here this guy comes again, out of nowhere. He walks up behind me and stands there staring at the back of me. I could tell by Eric's face what was happening. I didn't even have to look. Luckily, Eric starred him down and my rep yelled "B!tch" then turned around and walked away. Eric stayed next to me the rest of the night. Even walking me to the bathroom so I would be safe. I was so thankful for him!
Charity witnessed part of this at one point and asked what was going on. I told her. She told me to be careful because this supplier's employees had a reputation of unethical behaviors. I was completely shocked! What if I had gone to dinner alone with him that night? This guy had been alone with me in my home. What if he had decided to do something to me while we were there? I had thought that I was safe since this was a business situation in an industry I’ve been in for over 14 years without any issues. Thankfully because Charity wasn't silent she opened my eyes that this wasn't a one time occurrence, and I promised myself that I would never put myself in a situation where I would be alone with a rep again. As Karma would have it, this guy was fired shortly after this incident.
Hearing Charity’s PromoKitchen interview has opened my eyes even more about the things that can happen in our industry. Shoving things like this under the rug doesn’t make them go away. It makes the problem worse. Talking about it brings awareness to the problem and protects others from becoming victims. I hope by sharing my story that it helps you to speak up if someone has violated you or made you feel unsafe. Remember, silence is a predator’s best friend.
I lost the power of my voice for over 30 years and I have promised myself that I will never lose it again. I am writing a book about my journey to forgiving my rapist and I am on a mission to help others to not go through what I have. Or, if they already have, that I will do whatever I can to help them heal. Since I have done the work to face what has happened to me, instead of shoving it out of my mind, I am going through a huge transformation. I’ve learned so many lessons along the way, released blocks that weren’t serving me, and found strength in me that I didn’t know was there. I promise you that if you do the work to heal you will find the same. Please feel free to reach out to me with any help or guidance you need. As a community let’s come together and protect each other from becoming members of the #metoo club."