Why the outing of sexual harassers is not enough
Originally published in the San Diego Union Tribune
As the #Metoo campaign unfolds and the lives of powerful men crumble before our very eyes, Time magazine has made the bold choice to select the Silence Breakers as Persons of the Year. Like many feminists, I applaud the magazine’s choice, but my cheer is tempered by caution. To be sure, the outing of the most brazen and most powerful of sexual harassers may be vindicating to women who have suffered in silence for so long. But to me, the key challenge is not determining how to proportionately punish the harassers, nor is it how we can better nip harassment in the bud, or even how to prevent a culture of harassment from blossoming in the workplace. Instead, the more relevant, albeit the more vexing problem is, what makes our industries – from media to academia, from entertainment to law – so ripe for sexual harassment?
The problem is broader than any one industry, and broader even than the workplace. We know that sexual harassment and sexual violence exists in our schools, religious institutions, and even our homes. Regrettably, our culture has failed to keep pace with feminist ideals of personal choice and self-determination. Our media, our education system, our entertainment and our laws, routinely objectify, commodify, and regulate the bodies of women. The outing of serial harassers in newsrooms, legislatures and Hollywood demonstrates that in far too many industries, sexual violence is the norm and victim-blaming is commonplace: the very definition of a rape culture. We not only blame women; we don’t believe them.
In June, Anita Hill headlined Lawyers Club’s Annual Dinner. In 1991, a 35-year-old Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. The committee, led by Joe Biden and comprised entirely of white men, eagerly cross-examined Ms. Hill about her sex life, why she “allowed” the harassment to continue, and, of course, why she hadn’t come forward sooner with these allegations? Why, indeed. (Joe Biden offered a half-hearted apology to Anita Hill in recent weeks, no doubt encouraged by the number of news stories about sexual harassment.) In the recent past, women and men coming forward with harassment allegations against powerful men have been derided by the accused as liars, extortionists, too undesirable to harass, oversensitive and of course, the perennial favorite, crazy.
So, why don’t more women come forward? Because we can be certain that our personal lives will be combed through by lawyers and reporters; that our careers will be snuffed out before they’ve begun; that we will be terminated from our jobs for making trouble; that too many of us do not understand our rights, and even if we did, we can’t access a lawyer, can’t afford a lawyer, and really can’t afford to lose our jobs. As a society, we need to ask smarter questions. Questions like, “Why would he do such a thing?” and “How can we help you through this?” rather than “What did you do to lead him on / deserve this?” “Were you in a room alone with him?” or “What were you wearing?” (Brock Turner’s rape victim, famously, wore a cardigan, as if that were the point.)
Instead of perpetuating a culture where victims of sexual harassment and abuse are blamed and the perpetrator’s actions are excused, every one of us must take responsibility for changing it. Better laws and stronger policies are necessary but insufficient on their own. Often, laws and policies focus on how to address harassment after the fact. Of course, perfecting those remedies is critical. But what is really needed is to ask how we can prevent harassment from occurring in the first place.
Part of the answer, of course, is buy-in from the top. The C-suite, the managing partner, the agency director, need to make clear to the organization that workplace harassment will not be tolerated. More broadly, though, we need to both develop and teach empathy, communication skills, and problem-solving skills to our children well before they enter the workforce. We must offer intellectually honest sex education curricula which emphasize healthy sexual behavior, self-respect and respect for others. Respect is anathema to objectification, the act of treating a person as an object without regard to their personhood or dignity.
Our harassment problem is, at its core, an objectification problem. Only when – and if – our society resolves to treat women as people, and by this I mean people who are fully capable of bodily self-determination, whose value is not defined by the male gaze, who deserve equal pay for equal work, will we be addressing the root cause of sexual harassment in a meaningful and holistic way.
Olga Álvarez is co-founder and shareholder of Heisner Álvarez, APC in La Jolla. She is a Certified Legal Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Law and is president of Lawyers Club.