My Story of Sexual Harassment working for Alex Hershaft at Farm Animal Rights Movement

Experiencing sexual harassment, a toxic workplace and unprofessionalism in the animal rights movement

TW: sexual harassment, emotional abuse, self-harm and suicidal ideation

Background

Sexual Harassment in the FARM Office

It was shortly after that incident that Alex had an issue with his computer. Being one of the tech people, I needed to fix it. While sitting in his chair, at his desk, using his keyboard and mouse to fix the issues, I discovered vast amounts of pornography-related viruses and pornography that had been left open. I felt extremely uncomfortable by the situation he had put me in; all I wanted to do was to leave. This was both his personal computer and work computer, and I was obligated to fix or work on it when he asked (because it was within office hours, on a work computer, and he was my boss). His computer was also the organization’s database where all the working files, archives and website files were stored. The issue came down to a fundamental shortcoming of his management and lack of distinction between what is FARM’s and what is Alex’s. Me working on his computer and inadvertently seeing porn via tabs/viruses/helping with storage issues/general tech support continued throughout my years at FARM.

I continued working there, and eventually I moved into Alex’s house one year after working at FARM. This was a financial necessity for me, as my lease was ending and my apartment management was increasing my rent. At that time I was not making enough money to continue at my apartment; I also searched for many different options, but everything was outside my price range and Alex gave discounts to staff members.

His computer had an electrical surge sometime around May 2015 and he had to purchase a new one. While out on a walk with my dog in the neighborhood on the weekend, Alex jogged by and stopped me. He asked me to transfer his hard drive to a new, larger one. I hesitantly said it would be no problem, and he told me to come into the office (even though I lived at Alex’s house, I was in a separate room and was not allowed into the FARM office on weekends). I thought this was strictly related to work, and that the urgency was because it was hindering his ability to work. I went into the office a little later that day and he gave me the old hard drive, the new hard drive, and a list of contents on the old one. Upon reading the list and plugging in the hard drive to transfer, I discovered I had been given his personal hard drive full of pornographic materials. There were folders, explicitly labeled with the type of content, which made me extremely uncomfortable, with photos and videos. On a yellow sheet of paper that had been included was a list of the hard drive’s contents. He suggested after the transfer to make sure all content listed on the sheet of paper was accounted for before giving it back to him. I followed orders as I felt otherwise I would be risking my job and livelihood. The explicit nature of the content and category names made me feel extremely uncomfortable and dirty.

Another instance that I recall is that he would sometimes take plastic poster boards that FARM had used for its outreach programs and on the back would tape on explicit erotic terms dealing with S/M (Sadism/Masochism). On one occasion the signs were left in plain view of the office staff, during office hours, and on the back of FARM property.

At the 2015 Animal Rights National Conference in Alexandria, VA, he mentioned masturbating in our conference office in front of multiple staff members — including me. In fact, he was actually talking to a member of our conference A/V team when he brought it up. I was horrified when I heard it and I know that at least one other staff member also was deeply affected by this.

The following incident is what has affected me the most. I do believe it is again an issue with the blurred boundaries of FARM and Alex and that he cannot understand how his actions could affect another person. However, these “blurred boundaries” cannot excuse the misconduct, as it was always his choice to have FARM run out of his home (and he actively fought against moving FARM to a separate office).

In preparation for our 2017 conference, we had a meeting at the hotel at 1:00 pm. We were running late and no one had seen Alex all day and it was already around 12:30 pm. Since no one had seen or heard him, I knocked on the door to his bedroom and asked if he was ok. There was no answer, so I knocked multiple times loudly. He eventually opened the door to answer my knocks, and he was fully nude. He was groggy and started asking me questions, like what time it was and why I was waking him up. I admit I was shocked and I just focused on his face and answered the questions. He then suggested that the meeting was tomorrow, which I corrected and said that it was for today. He said he would get ready and closed the door. A couple minutes later, he came back out of his bedroom with just his underwear and went to another office that I had gone to and said we needed to reschedule the meeting for a later time.

On another occasion, he came into the house, running late for a meeting he was having with managers. I heard him go into his room and the shower came on (his bedroom had his own bathroom). I heard his door open again and turned to look, I guess instinctively, since I heard a door opening. He was standing in his doorway, fully nude when I looked at the door. I quickly turned away. He never acknowledged me seeing him or said anything to me. I did tell management at the time and left because I felt extremely uncomfortable and had an anxiety attack. The next day management brought the incident to his attention, and he claimed he didn’t remember doing that and that he would try not to do it again.

There were actually various other times that I recall less clearly on when they happened, simply because for a while he was using the office bathroom shower (which was just down the hall from my office) and he would come out of the shower either not knowing I was there or not caring and have just a towel on or rush into his room holding the towel over his genitals.

This was also not strictly an office issue. On multiple occasions and including as of my exit on August 14, 2020, there was (and may still be) pornographic material on the “FARM server,” which is where all FARM files are stored and accessed by the entire staff. It was also cloned to be on Dropbox and backed-up regularly. This server used to be a separate hard drive on Alex’s computer but was moved to a new computer when his had become defunct in 2015. On several occasions I had found and deleted pornographic materials from the FARM server. A few days before I had left, I actually found a text-based pornographic story that had a created date of 2005. Normally, I would delete it; however, in this instance I told the FARM Board of Directors and an investigator that had been hired. I did not hear anything back and could not access the server before I left.

I want to note here that during some of these instances, I was not alone.

More Blurred Lines Between Professional and Personal

At his 80th birthday party event in D.C. (which was in 2014, still within my first year working at FARM), he actually invited personal friends, which seems completely reasonable. However, one brought with her a bag of cherries and went around telling people that Alex had “popped her cherry” and then would eat them. Mind you, this was a FARM event, people paid tickets and we were fundraising for FARM.

Another instance was at AR2015, I and many others witnessed Alex making out with someone very aggressively in the hotel foyer on Sunday night when we were holding the closing party. He (and she) were in plain view of staff members, attendees (including speakers and staff members of other organizations). I do believe it was consensual, and they eventually did leave together, but I thought it was very unprofessional.

How I Have Been Affected

In 2017, I went to a psychologist because I was having anxiety attacks and thoughts of self-harm and suicide. This was not the first time I have experienced these since 2013, but they got noticeably more extreme. I would suffer anxiety attacks going into the office and interacting with Alex. It was around that time that I had also been informed by my manager that Alex was upset with me because I had been avoiding him, not wanting to interact with him, and wanting to work remotely.

It brings me great pain to relive these experiences in my head and to share them, especially this next part. If you are reading this, again, I warn that the next part contains self-harm and thoughts of suicide.

During my time at FARM and remaining still today, I think about suicide daily (I have passive suicidal ideations, meaning I think about it but have no plans to act on it). I also used to regularly cut myself and have thoughts of self-harm.

To be transparent, I may have suffered from depression before joining FARM in 2013 (I acknowledge this possibility but was never diagnosed or treated for any such thing) and also have unpleasant memories of something that happened to me when I was younger. However, I do believe my depression and anxiety have been magnified (if they existed at all before 2013) and started to include thoughts of self-harm and suicide in the last seven years due in part to Alex’s actions. My therapist told me as much and also has suggested since my first session that I remove myself from the situation so that I can begin to heal. I have also needed to be on antidepressants for the last three years and tried to get counseling to help with my self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

Looking back, it felt as if each time something happened I tried to not think about it or pretend it didn’t affect me as much as it really was. I wanted to just run away from it all, but I rationalized it as me doing it for the animals and that what he was doing couldn’t possibly affect me as much as it really did. I try to think that he never really meant any of it, or that I am weak for letting it get to me, but I no longer believe this to be true.

I very much expected my work life to be a safe environment. I thought the work I was doing for animals was the most important job I could be doing with my time and resources. While I had no expectations of being valued, I did expect to be safe and to feel secure in my work environment; however, this was not the case, and I was regularly confronted with hostile working conditions. When I was put into these situations that were no fault of my own, I felt unsafe, unsupported, and that my livelihood was vulnerable.

I also felt this way for my co-workers who worked in the office with me, and I know experiences they had were difficult too.

I also feel a great deal of remorse for staying as long as I did and for not speaking up or leaving earlier. I take full responsibility for this and wish I could change it. I know I shouldn’t (or at least I’m told I shouldn’t), but I do. This is something that will live with me forever.

This is a part of my larger story you can find on my website.