The Southern Code of Silence

By Mary-Ann Anderson


Hazlehurst, Georgia

I was hot when I was young. So hot, in fact, that I could set the woods on fire.

Or, I heard those exact words a long time ago from a creep who thought I was.

Now, the funny thing is, I have a burning desire to tell my story.

Years ago, when I was trying to get myself through college, I worked as a secretary for a small company owned by one man. He had a friend, a married friend, who often stopped by to chat, and if my boss wasn’t in, he would stay to talk anyway, unabashedly staring at my ample bosom and telling me all about my supposed hotness. Back then I was an almost 6-foot-tall, bleach-bottle blonde who sported God-given DDs that just wouldn’t quit.

That man — let me just call him Creep (there is a reason, which will I will soon reveal) — always made me feel icky. And cheap. Like I needed to be doused with soapy water after being around him.

This was the 1980s, before anyone knew what sexual harassment was, and my boss, to whom I had complained about his friend, said I should take the harassment as a compliment. From then out, I stayed far away from Creep, as if he had sprouted poison ivy.

But before him was Creepier, and this story goes back to the late 1970s when television programs like “Dallas” and “Knot’s Landing” glamorized runnin’ around (Southern slang for sleeping around with those you shouldn’t but do anyway). Sales of Playboy and Penthouse were booming and making Hef and Guccione filthy rich, the requisite pun intended.

I worked at a bank as a loan closer with Creepier, a recently married loan officer. On a sticky, humid day when I wore a white dress, Creepier said these exact words:

“That sure is a pretty bra you have on.”

What? What! I looked down, only to see the scalloped outline of lace underneath the top of the dress. No cleavage was showing, not even a tiny bit, as I was never one to flaunt my massive boobage, my now-husband’s word for cleavage. The dress was neither sheer nor opaque but somewhere in-between. You could see the outline of the bra only if you, like Creepier, stared straight at my chest. I remember mumbling something about work to do before getting away from him.

Soon afterward, Creepier, whom I avoided as if he were a rabid raccoon, called me into his office and asked me to close the door. I figured I was in deep do-do, but I didn’t know what for, as I was good at the job and rarely made mistakes.

“Have you ever,” Creepier began, pausing a second for effect, “considered posing for Playboy? Because you have the figure for it, and I would be happy to take the photos and submit them for you.”

The vileness of his question slammed against the back of my brain. I was very young, late teens or early 20s at the most, and didn’t know how to react. I hadn’t gone to college yet and was very new to the business world. My face burned red, so hot it could set the woods afire. Mortified and stunned, I made a lame joke, got up, opened the door, and ran to my desk, burying myself not only in work, but also the in pure shame of his provocation.

Not long afterward, obscene phone calls came to my unlisted number, to which Creepier would have had access. Caller ID didn’t exist then, and I always answered my phone, in case it was my mama. The moment the obscenities began, I hung up. I knew in my heart it was Creepier, even though he tried mightily to disguise his voice.

But that’s not the worst, because along came Creepiest. I worked as a secretary for Creepiest, landing the job not long after I left the office where I encountered Creep. I was single, had bills, and was working to finish my degree. Creepiest, the married father of two, was a world-class flirt, not just with me but also other women.

On a day that Creepiest must have been feeling particularly randy, he went behind my chair, placed his hands on my shoulders and began massaging them. Then, he said — and I kid you not — that he wanted a “good old secretarial f….” Um, the word rhymes with duck. Or schmuck. Or thunderstruck, which I was. I was speechless.The shockwave that hit my face from an involuntary, earthquake-like shiver apparently knocked some sense into him.

Creepiest left my office and didn’t return for several days. It didn’t matter, though, for I couldn’t stand to be alone with him, and that was difficult, because he was a sole practitioner.

Afterward, I walked away and worked mostly for myself, so I would never have to tolerate men like Creep, Creepier, and Creepiest again.  

Now that I’m pushing a certain milestone age — a gracious Southern lady never tells her age — and a truckload of fried chicken consumed over my lifetime has pushed the scale readout to a record high, no one is apt to think I could set a match on fire, much less the woods. I’ve since had a breast reduction. because I could no longer tolerate the stares and crude jokes, and because of spine issues have lost about an inch in height.

In other words: Hot, I’m not.

But no matter what I once looked like with my hootenanny of hooters and jacked-to-Jesus mountains of blonde hair, I did not deserve the treatment to which they subjected me.

Each encounter, inked indelibly in my head, left me utterly ashamed and humiliated. But ultimately, these dirty old men – yes, that’s what they were – won. I walked away from the jobs scalded, demoralized, and broken by their behavior.

I could be quiet about it, but I could not tolerate it.

It would be years later before sexual harassment even had a name, and I’m thrilled beyond measure that creeps like those for whom I worked are getting their due. It was not okay then, it is not okay now, and it will never be okay to treat any woman with the disrespect I received when I was young and naïve and seen as some big-bosomed blonde bimbo.

It’s not easy to write about this, even now., Southern girls are taught from a young age to keep quiet about such indelicate matters. But it was abuse on the highest level, a toxic stew of it. It’s overwhelmingly embarrassing. It reeks of a sleaziness that can’t be measured in mere words. For these reasons, as a quiet and reserved Southern lady, I have never spoken of it openly, only ransacking my mind occasionally to second-guess every move I made and wonder what I did or said to encourage such offensive behavior.

The question has been raised a billion times: Why won't more women come forward to report harassment?

In my case, at least, now you know.