“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” ~ Muriel Rukeyser
In the future, when we look back on this motley, historical peak when the country was divided, amid a pandemic and social unrest, we’ll also be forced to reckon with the toppling of powerful and toxic patriarchs like Donald Trump, Roger Ailes, and Harvey Weinstein who came on the heels of the #metoo movement.
We’re living and breathing through an incredible clusterf*ck of calamity that the 20th century experienced as stand-alone pillars of United States milestones. Meaning, the 1918 pandemic did not happen during the 1960s.
This is such an overwhelmingly unique time. We’re living full-throttle in 2021. And, with an accelerating socioeconomic movement churning out a fresh news story every week, it’s high time we address this slice of the social movement pie: sexual harassment.
Because with the Andrew Cuomo allegations rolling in, I have to admit that when I imagined the patriarchy in its climax, I didn’t know exactly what it would look like. I’m actually surprised that it has been so individualized and powerful.
One of the vital attributes of being anything or anyone of value is the ability to view the world through multiple lenses. So, I’m putting my lens away for a second, and I’m going to tell you how a 40-something white male may view sexual harassment.
Many men see sexual harassment as “when a woman gets hit on by a guy who isn’t hot.”
Sometimes accompanied by uproarious laughter. But that’s a super-simplistic view of sexual harassment that lacks nuance—not to mention empathy.
The entire basis of sexual harassment is that it is unwelcome. It’s in the realm of consent. So, yeah, if I’m not attracted to you, and you keep pushing your sexual advances on me, it is unwelcome and, therefore, harassment.
But I also want to clarify that it is even more nuanced than that. You can pull any stud off the street and drop him in front of me, and just because he may be generally “hot,” it’s not a given that I will be attracted to him. All thanks to these picky little buggers called preferences and chemistry.
There are many handsome male celebrities my girlfriends gush over who do not appeal to me at all. And someone like James Marsden would never be able to sexually harass me because I’ve been giving him telepathic consent since he started his career on a TV show in the 90s and was discovering orgasms.
So, it’s not just about being hot; it’s about female free will—agency, autonomy, and power—because, believe it or not, women are capable and have the right to decide what is “hot.” According to them and nobody else. Buried in sexual harassment is the audacity of male privilege deciding things for women.
So now that we understand that the general idea behind sexual harassment is completely contingent on female free will (harassment happens to all sexes/genders, but I am addressing the predominant model we see in the media, which is male on female harassment), it’s time to ask:
What is and isn’t harassment?
Is a kiss on the hand harassment?
Is a social or sexual invite to a coworker sexual harassment?
What about a friendly and somewhat-flirty embrace?
How about sexual commentary or an explicit joke?
Before I list the two main types of harassment, there’s a couple of housekeeping items to go through:
>> We live in a climate of misogyny, which is a patriarchal tool that disciplines women any time they challenge male dominance. This can (and does) play a role in sexual harassment. I imagine that misogyny—as it becomes more and more eradicated due to picking up its glacial pace that was snail-like when I was in college—is now a lap dog and will one day be a thoroughbred. And so will a big chunk of sexual harassment because respecting women will include respecting rejection.
>> It’s not against the law to be a jerk. Or a hand-kissing, chivalrous cupid who flutters around everywhere except Tinder. To be guilty of sexual harassment, you have to be an egregious, offensive, threatening, and repetitive super-jerk toward a member(s) of a protected class who has Constitutional rights and protection via Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 and the first piece of legislation that Obama signed as President, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, both amend sections of Title VII. Sexual harassment is a type of sex discrimination that has violated Title VII.
>> Regardless of a person’s sex, everyone has a right to a full and thorough investigation. Aggressive opinions, demands, and calling for immediate terminations based on accusations are not the moral or legal example we want to be setting, simply because it is harmful. We have best practices to address such behavioral offenses. We use the word “allegedly” here for a reason.
>> Sexual harassment is one of the hardest things to prove because of the “he said, she said” element. Consider proof and witnesses whether you are a victim of sexual harassment or you’ve been a perpetrator. How can you prove it?
>> Even though retaliation is against the law, private companies and corporations still get away with it. Always be prepared; a sexual harassment complaint can potentially backfire. You can be the victim of retaliation and still have a weak case even though you try to sue. This is the disgraceful main reason volumes of women stay silent about sexual harassment and leave jobs they love and are adept at, as seen in the recent film “Bombshell” and the #metoo movement.
Although it feels unjust when one can suffer a grave loss because you weren’t hurt “enough,” sexual harassment is still legal when it’s done lightly and/or infrequently. Unfortunately, innuendos, sexist jokes, or chivalrous touches such as kissing the hand may not qualify as sexual harassment until it becomes ongoing and more aggressive. Because some microaggressions can escalate to the last thing you want—a macro-ramification—I’d handle the microaggression by directly confronting the harasser to get them to stop.
Oftentimes, this will earn respect, authority, and send the message that you’re not to be messed with. It lets the harasser know they’re not getting away with anything. I’d save reporting to HR for really offensive advances and assaults. I think women need to remember to say, “No” at work.
In my experience, work has been a great battleground for sharpening my assertiveness skills. Sexual harassment will always be an ongoing issue until women evolve to being as assertive as men are. Sexually aggressive men should take note of this because an aggressive man paired with a passive woman is how so many men are getting themselves into the hot water we see continuously sprinkled in the news.
It’s always happened; it’s just that the younger generations don’t tolerate it, vocalize it, and create movements around it. The Baby Boomer generation doesn’t take it seriously until it’s one of them losing their Hollywood or Fox empire—their generation validated taking advantage of women and not controlling one’s urges. Trump was recorded doing this and still won.
We live in two Americas right now. One that thinks women are male property and one that says women deserve reverence, respect, equality, and power. Essentially, GenX and millennials are giving boomers enough rope and watching them hang themselves. It’s hard to watch.
What baffles my mind is how boomers watch these ramifications in the media and still do not adjust their behavior, which makes me feel like male entitlement is a nurture (not nature) mental disorder. We acknowledge nature-based mental disorders, but it’s the nurture-based mental disorders that are also wreaking havoc on men’s lives—maybe even more than biologically-based ones.
When does sexual harassment become illegal?
When it is so consistent and severe that it creates a hostile environment to work in. A good example of this kind of severe sexual harassment is in the film “North Country,” which is based on the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit in the United States.
The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) defines two types of Sexual Harassment that can exist separately or together:
1. Quid Pro Quo: Latin for “this for that” refers to sexual favors and sexual favoritism. This is often committed as an abuse of power by a supervisor toward a coworker. Offering promotions and raises in exchange for sexual acts is definitive of quid pro quo sexual harassment. This kind of harassment can create a retaliatory discharge.
2. Hostile Work Environment: Must be sufficiently severe or pervasive, creating an abusive working environment. It can be verbal or physical, or both. How frequent it is also determines the severity. Conduct is viewed as offensive. It can be committed by a coworker or supervisor and takes into consideration if others joined in, perpetuating the harassment, and if multiple individuals were targeted.
For the women who find themselves being the target of unwanted and malicious energy, we have to discuss the fact that females in power or management have this serious downside to their jobs. All of which we’re expected to endure like it’s f*cking natural and expected. It is often the strong ones who are most targeted, undermined, and punished.
On her website, A Case for Women, which is a boutique matchmaking firm that pairs female clients with the appropriate attorneys, Susan Knape describes strong women as the most at risk because sexual harassment can be utilized as a power play. This is why a sexual harassment perpetrator can be anyone at any time, even if they are in a protected class with you.
I feel this is also due to aggression in the workplace, where harmony and “soft skills” are supposed to be. An escalating loosening of civility and boundaries is now being tolerated as a new norm with little accountability and integrity.
Even if one spends hours speaking with lawyers and legal counselors researching sexual harassment claims to bring a lawsuit, it is still less likely that one would follow through on a sexual harassment claim. This is because it’s a specific art of ticking all the right legal boxes—the magnitude of offense, repetition, timing, and burden of proof, just to name a few. It’s complex as a math formula, not a simple declaration and reporting of “he hurt me.” The legal response would be: where? How? When? How much? Did management work to resolve it?
This has its own flaws because management can be part of the problem. It is also emotionally and financially consuming. If you have an airtight claim where you were seriously wronged, it is worth pursuing, but there is a vast grey area between on-the-job harmony and the law, where so many women struggle and fail, costing them advancement in their careers. Do we need sexual harassment law reform that tackles the nuances of microaggressions and misogynistic attitudes since it greatly affects job satisfaction and success?
Another circumstance you wouldn’t file a sexual harassment lawsuit would be if one directly confronted coworkers on their inappropriate behavior when it happened because that is considered “resolved.” When you confront bad behavior, you may get a mixture of responses, such as guilty and apologetic tears, an angry and defiant attitude, or worse; it could be deceitfully followed by retaliatory actions. It really depends on the harasser’s value system, so tread carefully. Remember that the law is there to help us solve what we can’t solve on our own. But above all, do not suffer in silence; even if you think of yourself as a strong person, it can take a bigger toll on you than you’re actually aware of.
Responding to Sexual Harassment
In my life, I have two main responses to sexual harassment when it happens.
A playful one and a serious one:
Remember when I mentioned earlier that sexual harassment is a power-play? If someone is trying to toy with you, then acknowledge it. Humor is a wonderful virtue and tool, so when you find yourself in an undesirable grey area of sexual harassment, don’t squirm. See it as an opportunity to take your power back with humor.
Mae West did this all the time on account of writing her own lines. Nobody was going to sexually harass her because she was in charge at all times and made sure they knew it. Men tested her regularly. Either she’d put the smackdown on a suggestive remark in a clever way, or she’d receive it with a line like, “I’d rather be looked over than overlooked,” bringing it back to complimenting herself. This made it less about them and more about her feminine power.
You have control in a conversation in terms of where you direct attention, so choose smart responses. Look for ways to turn aggressive comments into indirect compliments for you, and they may walk away feeling like they didn’t achieve anything except put attention on your powerful, female badassery. Practice makes perfect.
If I’m dealing with extreme sexual harassment, then step one is directly handling it verbally—straightforward with the same seriousness it was delivered. Step two is getting others involved. I’m contacting the EEOC if my HR is not taking it seriously enough, and then possibly, A Case for Women or other legal resources with sexual harassment experience and expertise.
Don’t underestimate the power of just speaking with lawyers and counselors. It doesn’t mean you have to take legal action and can be quite educating and healing moving forward. Examining the facts of the case, the rule of law, and your rights with a savvy lawyer can be the equivalent of a therapist when you’re dealing with someone who has broken the law at your expense.
If you get lucky, spending hours on the phone or in-person getting your questions answered, then your healing can be accelerated—whether or not you choose to take any legal action. Some of them are really grounded and compassionate people who have the wisdom to share, so grab those pearls when you need them most. They’re available, and some lawyers enjoy chatting your ear off with their altruistic spirit in this area of law that they know women struggle in.
Here’s a clarifying TED talk by my enthusiastic and visionary mentor, Jeffrey Bucholtz, to further understand your (and other’s) rights to respect, safety, and inclusion: