Mary Beth West's experience came in the early 1990s, when she worked in advertising. During a business trip to Denver, a new client made it clear he wasn't thinking about the upcoming speaking tour they were supposed to work on. Going around his assistant, the client booked a single hotel room for himself and West. Even after she confronted him, the client continued to proposition her for the remainder of her visit.
"I was about 22 years old, and just not in any way prepared for how to deal with that type of situation," West says.
She changed her behavior, raising her guard and paying more attention to uncomfortable situations. But when she reported the incidents to her employer, she says her concerns were largely dismissed. The client's actions were called harmless. No action was taken.
Part of Kelly Fletcher's college education was paid by beauty pageants. When she was 21, she stayed at the home of a local-level pageant booster as she worked toward a shot at the Miss North Carolina title.
"He exposed himself to me. I acted like I didn't see it. I woke up one morning, turned on the television, and there was a pornographic video playing that had been set up," Fletcher says. "I didn't know what to do, so I didn't do anything."
A year later, she decided to tell the pageant supporter's wife what happened. That led to a divorce. A few years later, Fletcher discovered the pageant booster was again involved in a local beauty contest in another part of the state. She wrote to the executives in charge of Miss North Carolina, warning them of the potential threat to other contestants. No action was taken.
Today, Mary Beth West and Kelly Fletcher are friends and colleagues in public relations. Last fall, when a surge of accusations against powerful men in entertainment, politics, media and public life began, West and Fletcher began to talk to each other about what they had been through. Ultimately, they decided to turn talk into action. They have shared their experiences in public, with the goal of helping younger women avoid and deal with sexual misconduct.
"There's now this empowerment for women to really be able to speak to [sexual misconduct], and voice concerns in a way that's altogether different from what we've ever seen before," West says.
Even so, and with her own experiences fresh in mind, West says she's worried about a societal overcorrection in which the accused lose due process or the ability to defend themselves effectively.
"There is this issue, too, of 'guilty until proven innocent,' that does trouble me," she says. "There are cases where that can happen, too."
Fletcher and West say key conversations have to happen between people, whether it's parents and children, or co-workers and supervisors. They agree changing policy or law is easy. Changing habits, behaviors, perceptions and attitudes is much harder.
"We have to raise our children to know what is appropriate behavior, and what isn't. And boys in particular need to have appropriate behavior modeled...from a very early age, so we can start to address this problem at the core," Fletcher says.
The conversation is in its early stages. Fletcher and West have been invited to speak about sexual harassment with public relations students at the University of Tennessee. West has written columns about her experience for the Knoxville Business Journal and the News Sentinel. And, more than twenty years after Kelly Fletcher first sounded an alarm, she and Mary Beth West will recommend the current leaders of Miss North Carolina develop the organization's first sexual harassment policy.