We can agree that sexual harassment is a pervasive aspect of our society. It takes a chunk out of the lives of its victims and can continue to gnaw away at them for years. If you're among the estimated one-fifth of the population who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, you'll know that the added stress caused by the inappropriate behavior of a co-worker or supervisor can seep into other areas of your life too. However, in recent months the issue has seen a huge leap in public awareness, brought about most visibly by the #MeToo movement. Sure, this campaign has brought to the fore the need for change in Hollywood, but what does this practically mean for the rest of the population, how will it change our every day lives, and –perhaps more importantly– how does it help you if you've been a victim of sexual harassment?
While the #MeToo movement seems to have taken the world by storm over the course of a few months, in actual fact it was more of a slow burn. It began in 2006 when Tarana Burke –a social activist and community organizer – heard a young girl in her community talking about how she'd been sexually abused. Burke came away from that conversation wishing she'd responded with “me too”. As a result, Burke began a Me Too campaign on MySpace (remember MySpace?) with a goal to encourage empowerment through empathy – an attempt to let other young women of color know that they weren't alone in experiencing these violations which ate away at their lives.
This initial campaign had something of a grass-roots spirit, but it wasn't until October 2017 that the movement truly exploded into the public consciousness. After the allegations surrounding Harvey Weinstein arose, Alyssa Milano suggested spreading #MeToo –this time to make it clear exactly how many people across the globe had experienced sexual harassment in their lives, to illustrate just how endemic a problem it is in our workplaces, and to open up an effective dialogue on the issue. Overnight, the hashtag had been tweeted more than 500,000 times, and around 4.7million posts included the hashtag on Facebook. #MeToo became not just a message of solidarity among victims, but a rallying cry announcing that this problem had continued far too long.
Identifying Sexual Harassment
If you've ever been a victim of this behavior, you'll likely be familiar with the inconsistencies surrounding society's definition of what constitutes sexual harassment. This is one of the issues that the #MeToo movement has highlighted as it's expanded –that there's disagreement as to how we define sexual harassment, and as a result, this has affected how victims respond to abuse in the workplace, and often question whether they have misread a situation.
Our inability to consistently agree on what constitutes harassment, alongside our less-than-serious attitudes on its existence, continues to contribute to victims feeling less than empowered to take steps to halt this behavior.
The legal definition of sexual harassment in the workplace is a little more prescriptive (although still subject to interpretation). Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defines sexual harassment under two specific forms of behavior -quid-pro-quo and hostile working environment. While these are the federally mandated definitions, it's also worth noting that the state of California is one of the more strict appliers of sexual harassment law across the US, and has recently made commitments to more stringently tackle this behavior.
If you've been subject to a quid pro quo violation, this means that your harasser has either offered/implied that there will be some kind of reward in exchange for sexual favors, or threatened/implied some consequence if you rebuff their advances.
A workplace is considered under the hostile environment definition if the unwanted sexual activity takes place in the workplace and the employer allows or encourages this behavior to continue. You should also be aware that if you've raised concerns about a quid pro quo violation and your employer doesn't take sufficient action to cease this, the situation may have escalated to that of a hostile working environment.
While these are what federal law considers the broad headings for sexual harassment, the actual forms sexual harassment takes are varied -it certainly doesn't begin and end at physical contact. Sexually-themed emails and text messages, inappropriate verbal communications, sharing of unsolicited sexual photographs/media can all be forms of sexual harassment.
Why is the way we define sexual harassment problematic? It creates something of a gray area for both the victim and the alleged harasser. For you as the victim, it engenders a culture of uncertainty, as to whether the source of this behavior had intended to harass you or make you feel uncomfortable. For the accused harasser, it provides the basis for a defense; that they had just intended the actions to be taken as a joke, or light-hearted in nature, or –worse– that it should have been taken as a compliment. In circumstances where you are unclear as to whether behavior you have experienced qualifies as sufficient to take to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or courts, it is often wise to first seek legal advice from a professional.
Our toxic relationship with defining harassment has long been a significant stumbling block for victims, but if sexually-oriented behavior or conduct has made you feel uncomfortable in the workplace, regardless of traditional definitions, you have the right to address and cease it.
Gender and #MeToo
The #MeToo movement may have been instigated by women, and they're certainly the most visible proponents of it, but that doesn't mean to say that the role of men in the movement has been any less significant.
If you're one of the 38% of men who have experienced this behavior yourself, you'll know how damaging our history of toxic masculinity has been to your ability to report this kind of behavior. Society has engendered an environment where in men should either consider any kind of sexual approach, however unsolicited, to be a prize, or that reporting such behavior is in some way unmasculine. It is certainly one of the more rife myths that it is only or even primarily women who are victims of sexual harassment –or even that men only sexually harass women.
The #MeToo movement has seen a rise in the number of male victims speaking up, utilizing the opened dialogue as an opportunity to discuss their experiences in sexual harassment, and to announce solidarity with their sisters.
One of the great positive takeaways of the #MeToo movement has been a growing understanding that whoever you are –male, female, transgender, LGBTQ –you are not alone in your experiences of sexual harassment, and you have as much a right as anyone else to work safely and securely.
The #MeToo Impact
It is, perhaps, a little too early to tell whether the #MeToo movement will have a long-lasting effect on how we as a society respond to sexual harassment in the workplace. What is undeniable is that it sustains a momentum that keeps the issue at the top of trending subject matter, and a topic for discussion among workplaces, friends, and families across the world.
It could be easy to dismiss the limit of the movement's reach to Hollywood –as news stories have primarily revolved around which producer/director/executive has harassed or abused which actor/employee/fan. It would also be just as easy to suggest that the impact is purely superficial, with the accused getting away with simply stepping back from public view for a time, perhaps entering rehab, before re-emerging as an apparently contrite, “changed” person. It does us no good to ignore this kind of skepticism, as there's certainly some truth in it –but that speaks to how readily we've been willing to overlook these behaviors in the past
However, it is also true that #MeToo is very much a movement for the victim. It has planted its flag firmly in the victim's camp and it's gathering supporters have declared that victims of sexual harassment will ensure each others' voices are heard. Since the rise of #MeToo the EEOC has reported that cases being brought to court in order to hold employers accountable for harassment in the workplace have spiked. Demonstrations by employees of chain restaurants and large corporations have drawn an awareness of just how insidious abuse is in our blue collar workplaces. Laws have been passed in California to ensure proper workplace training on sexual harassment, and how an employer must respond to harassment complaints.
On an individual basis, those who may have (perhaps unknowingly, or inconsiderately) engaged in sexually harassing behavior have also begun to re-evaluate their actions, and the consequences of their behavior not just for themselves but their victims. The #MeToo tag has seen a reactionary #HowIWillChange tag, in some small but significant way taking steps toward an awareness of our more toxic behavior, the reparations that must be undertaken, and –ultimately –taking responsibility for our actions.
How Useful is #MeToo?
All this isn't to say that the #MeToo movement is beyond criticism. There are reports that men now complain that they are afraid to flirt with women in the workplace in fear of being labeled as sexual harassers, and there is a separate movement by women who feel the campaign has gone too far for largely the same reason. While this particular argument strains credibility, there are also fears that this campaign may affect the result of cases brought to court, as jurors may be susceptible to negative opinions in the face of media saturation of the subject.
Let's face it, though; none of us are under the illusion that #MeToo is the silver bullet in the festering heart of sexual harassment. Much as we would like to think that a there is a simple, straightforward solution to the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace and elsewhere, it is regrettably a many-headed beast, deeply ingrained in our society, and will take a lot more than a social media campaign to rid ourselves of.
So, what good to us is #MeToo?
We all must consider #MeToo to be a tool. The trundling behemoth that is our sexual harassment problem cannot be destroyed by it, but as another method to systematically chip away at it until it is just a dark stain in our past, this movement is a great start. If you are a victim of sexual harassment, #MeToo is a phrase to boost your confidence and take your first bold steps (and they are bold steps) toward recognizing that you have been a victim, and deserve not to be one. #MeToo is an opening in the continuing dialogue that will help us all to understand that we each have the right to live and work without fear of daily abuse and take it upon ourselves to take personal steps to change the toxic narrative we've lived among or contributed to. It is an opportunity for employers –whether they are required to by state law or not –to join the discussion, and ensure they are doing everything possible not to foster an environment where sexual harassment is commonplace, and on the occasions it does occur to have systems in place to halt it swiftly.
Aside from anything else, if you are a victim of sexual harassment, #MeToo is a sharing of experiences and knowledge. It is a reminder that not only do you have a right to a safe workplace, but that when this fails you have a right to recourse. One of the useful things that #MeToo has helped to provide victims, are examples of how there are legal systems in place to help you to obtain justice. When workplace complaints protocol can take you no further, you can turn to the EEOC to investigate your case, and if appropriate take the matter through the courts.
We each have a responsibility when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace. Whether that's as a fellow employee witnessing harassment and speaking up, or as an employer in taking steps to safe guard their valued employees. Even as a victim, you may feel a certain responsibility not just to yourself, but to ensure those around you don't suffer in the ways that you have. But perhaps that is in essence what #MeToo is about: speaking when we were once so quick to remain silent.
If you have been a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace in California and need advice or guidance, contact Sexual Harassment Attorney on 800-905-1856 or fill out our online for a free consultation.