Jeanelle Owings: Not the Kind of Business I Want

I met him last year at an industry brunch in LA, while I was visiting from out of town. I sat next to his wife, and we chatted throughout. It seemed a close knit and happy group of people. Overall, it was a positive experience. I left feeling good about the people I had just met.

The next time I ran into him was on another visit to LA at an industry event at a popular LA area bar. It rolled into a night cap at a strip club, stumbling distance away. He and I sat next to one another at the rack, and he informed me he would be visiting Portland, OR–my home city, the next month. As a brand representative, I was excited to talk with him more about the possibility of networking with brands when he came to town. He told me there was opportunity to discuss, and I was hungry for new business.

A month later, we met up at said event in Portland, afterwards proceeding along with our strip club-hop plans/business conversation as we had previously discussed. We ended up at Sassy’s and he told me he didn’t like the crowd, and wanted to head to Union Jacks, just the two of us. I obliged, as I am accustomed to entertaining clients. Plus, we still hadn’t had a chance to talk business.

He and I ended up being the only industry people there, and when we went outside to the smoking patio, taking a seat on a bench he grabbed my face and began kissing me, while trying to reach into my shirt. I immediately pulled away in disgust, telling him, “You’re married! I’ve met your wife! What the fuck?” He was drunk and I wasn’t, so I drove him back to his hotel which was a mile from the where we were and dropped him off. The drive gave me an opportunity to lecture him on his appalling behavior–my useless appeal to the humanity that I wanted to believe was somewhere within him.

While my story isn’t as disgusting as some of the others, it was still deeply invalidating for me. Despite the questions I asked him to try and understand, “Why be married? Why me? Is this the way you always act out of town? What about your wife and children? How do you justify it?” The glazed over look in his eyes was all the answer I needed; because he could. He acted like he respected my opinion because I called him out, but I bet he has no memory of that incident. I was just another opportunity for his selfish, abusive behavior.

I wanted to talk business. I wanted a strong, respected new ally in an industry that I already felt disenfranchised by due to the disgusting amount of abuse/support toward my abusers, that I’ve been living in the shadow of.

The message received was that I wasn’t worth that business conversation; I don’t deserve respect, I’m just a toy to cop a feel on. I’ve received this message more times than I can count from some of the men in this industry. As always, I question myself; what did I do wrong? Why did I deserve this? How do I stop this from happening again?  I felt guilt and shame for going to strip clubs with him. While objectifying women is not for me, I accept strip clubs as part of the Portland and industry culture. However, all I could think was, I did this. I invited this upon myself by putting myself in this situation. I provoked him somehow, and had I been without my wits it would have ended far worse for me.

I’ve felt anger and disgust toward him since. Watching his Facebook posts about “that dad life”, how much he loved his family and was respected by the industry community–when I knew had my defenses been down I would have been further victimized by him made me feel sick. The thought of speaking up didn’t really cross my mind. If I fought for myself or spoke up–as much of my experience in this industry has taught me–I’d be disregarded as dramatic, a liability, emotional, attention-seeking, pathetic, a trainwreck, alcoholic, etc. He had power and I didn’t. My experience with him was mild in comparison to some of the offenders I’ve been victimized by within this industry, which in light of all of those coming forward is horrific. These men have the power, I don’t. That has been made clear. They have a voice, I don’t. They matter, I don’t. This is bullshit and I’m sick of it.

I’ve been terrified to share my story, my stories because I chose to drink, I chose to party, and I chose to put myself in situations where harm was a possibility. I want to be accountable for the things I could and should have done differently. This does not mean I deserved assault, rape or other forms of abuse. I’m tired of the abuse. I’m sick and fucking tired of being invalidated. I’m tired of the pain. I’m tired of the shame. I don’t want or deserve to be victimized. I don’t want to keep having the same conversations with both women and men at how disgusted we all are and seeing little to no change. I’ve been a part of that by not fighting harder and letting my pain and anger rule me, thus being my own worst enemy.

I cannot say enough how grateful I am to the brave women who chose to speak out against this man, and now others. To be clear, my aim is not to socially shame an individual, it’s to do anything I can to help someone not go through what I have and to stop those from continuing to treat others, primarily women with such disregard and disrespect.

It’s taken me refocusing onto a new career to build back the confidence I lost. I still remain professionally active in the liquor industry, but from a safe distance that involves less room for error on behalf of myself and others.

As I wrap this up, I think it’s important for us all to remember a few things regarding this individual and the countless others like him:

1. Sexual assault is a crime. It’s not just some naughty, ‘boy’s will be boy’s behavior,’ it’s fucking illegal.

2. The United States Department of Justice defines sexual assault as any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. This includes groping, fondling and forced entry, among other acts.

3. At least in the state of Oregon, in order to serve alcohol we are required to carry state certification cards holding us legally accountable for recognizing the symptoms of intoxication to prevent us from over-serving people, thus reducing harm to others. Sexual assault is not covered under this certification. As explained to me by the detective whom I reported my two most damaging industry related sexual assaults to, the gray area when alcohol is involved is too vast, and too volatile due to the varied tolerance of individuals. What I learned through the reporting process is unless you are on film or otherwise witnessed either unconscious or aggressively fighting the aggressor off, you will most likely not get justice. I don’t say this to deter anyone from reporting crimes, but to illustrate how important it is to change the toxic dialogue, culture, excuses and behavior that perpetuate rampant, inexcusable sexual assault. Ultimately, it harms us all.

4. Sexual assault is a social problem and social justice is the first step to improving this problem. Let’s restructure. Let’s start showing some fucking support and respect towards the women who work just as hard and deserve equal recognition, not abuse and assault.

5. To the women who have spoken up, I cannot thank you enough for reigniting the strength in me I thought I had lost. To the men who fight for the dignity and safety of women, thank you. To those who stand idly by, step up. Fight for us, we need you.