Speaking up about sexual harassment, assault risky for women
Why didn’t they say something before?
The question has been asked more than a few times since the #MeToo movement, calling out sexual assault and harassment, started. It’s a fair question, even if the intent seems to be to discredit women for speaking up.
There are many documented accounts of what has happened to women over the years when they spoke up about harassment. Often, they have been disbelieved, disrespected and sometimes fired. That’s not what is supposed to happen, but it has.
The lawyers who litigate sexual harassment cases are in the unique position of working with victims and examining their claims in detail.
Sacramento lawyer Jeffrey Fulton gets many calls from potential clients, and has noticed a pattern.
In general, every 100 calls will result in about five face-to-face meetings, and of those, he finds between one and three actionable claims.
However, when it comes to sexual harassment claims, about half the time a potential client inquires, he finds an actionable case – not that in every case the woman (because it’s almost always a woman) wants to go forward with the case.
Typically, by the time a woman speaks up, she’s at the end of her rope and simply cannot take any more.
“Most clients tell me when it’s all over they were terrified to come in the door and talk to me for the first time,” Fulton said.
One of Fulton’s current clients is a single mother who endured years of offensive behavior because she feared losing the paycheck that supports her children.
Financial realities are a big part of why women don’t speak, said Sheerine Alemzadeh, co-director and co-founder of the group Healing to Action.
“About 70 percent of people who file grievances end up experiencing retaliation in the workplace,” Alemzadeh said. “It’s pretty laden with risk – it’s an economic decision.”
Power dynamics also play a role. When the perpetrator is a doctor, judge, employer or other figure of authority, people feel more reluctant to speak, lest they not be believed.
“The most common thing people do when they experience (harassment or abuse) is they try to manage it themselves – how can I get this to stop and not have consequences for my job,” Alemzadeh said.
While she acknowledged that false reports happen, they aren’t the norm.
“A much bigger problem is underreporting,” she said. “False reporting gets outsized attention.”
Some women who come to bring their cases to Fulton are embarrassed because of the way they initially responded to the harassment. They blame themselves because they didn’t immediately shut it down. These women often are apologetic when they call, feeling they have forfeited their right to complain by not nipping the behavior in the bud. Fulton tells them this is simply not true.
There are many reasons why a woman might not complain promptly about inappropriate behavior.
Those who were sexually abused as children tend to be more vulnerable to manipulation by a sexually harassing supervisor or coworker. Sexual harassing perpetrators can be devious about finding victims reluctant to speak out. As well, some people are non-confrontational by nature, and try to deflect unwelcome behavior or comments indirectly.
When you add in a workplace dynamic in which a harasser is the supervisor of the person being harassed, the fear of retaliation comes into play. In trying to be tactful, they might have responded ambiguously or ‘played along’ because they need the paycheck, Fulton said.
Making poor choices because they fear the consequences otherwise doesn’t necessarily negate a civil case against a harasser, said John Winer, an Oakland-based lawyer who also handles many sexual harassment cases.
Given the difficulty and unpleasantness of making accusations of sexual harassment, it is unlikely that many women are making false reports, lawyers contacted for this story said.
Another reason women don’t speak up is that the subject itself is distasteful. These cases are emotional and difficult for everyone involved. For women, it dredges up what are among their worst memories.
“It’s just not something that somebody will do lightly,” Fulton said.
People’s discomfort with the subject matter is perhaps one reason why the cases have been brushed under the rug for so long.
Sometimes those accused of harassment or assault are deeply popular, even beloved, as in the case of Bill Cosby. It’s upsetting when idols are toppled. Or perhaps within a company, the accused is a top earner, and their employer is willing to look the other way.
Political power, popularity and talent sometimes become smokescreens behind which terrible deeds are concealed. But in America, even the rich and powerful can be held to account. As the many, many women who included #MeToo in a tweet or status update attested to, a culture of silence and a feeling that women just have to ‘put up with’ speech and behaviors that rob them of dignity have been the norm until now.
Taking these cases to the courts is one place where victims can positively influence the culture, Winer said. Knowing it could cost them financially and socially can go far in shutting down inappropriate conduct.
In the past, victims of harassment often were dismissed as "sluts and gold-diggers," he said. But now, with so many women, including respected professionals, coming forward, that argument no longer carries weight.
“Generally speaking people are more willing to believe people who come forward than they used to be,” he said.
Although it can be risky and frightening, speaking up can be empowering.
Beyond getting them financially compensated for their damages, Fulton said he believes his work has another value for his clients.
Being able to tell their stories and confront their harassers can go a long way to restoring them to a sense of their own dignity and power.
“The process for going through one of these cases is not easy, but it can be therapeutic,” he said.