The U.S. Department of the Interior's Office Civil Rights defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature, in which submission to such conduct is explicitly or implicitly made a term or condition of an individual's employment; reaction to the conduct is used as the basis for employment decisions; or the conduct unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance by creating an intimidating hostile or sexually offensive work environment.
Sexual harassment may be conduct toward an individual of the opposite sex or the same sex; it may occur between peers or between individuals in a hierarchical relationship; it may be aimed at coercing an individual to participate in an unwanted sexual relationship or it may have the effect of causing an individual to change behavior or work performance; and it may consist of repeated actions or may even arise from a single incident if sufficiently egregious.
These following examples are provided as just that—examples, and they are not meant to be all-inclusive: physical contact; squeezing a worker's shoulders or putting a hand around his or her waist; gestures, such as puckering one's lips suggestively or making obscene signs with one's fingers or hands; telling off-color jokes; sharing pictures of a sexual nature; pin-ups, particularly those of scantily clad individuals; verbal or written comments of a sexual nature; terms of endearment, such as calling a co-worker "honey," "dear," "sweetheart," or some similar expression.
Significantly, the office explains that, "the effect is the primary issue rather than intent. Even if the person 'means nothing to you' or you have 'used the term for years' you should be aware that such expressions are inappropriate."
Perhaps the most dangerous element for women caught in the toxicity of the sexual harassment experience is time. You're not really sure what is happening to you until it is too late and you question whether there's anything you can do about it — morally, professionally, legally. This is compounded by the fact that generally women tend to maintain cordial or amicable relations with the men who have harassed them, and can spend months coming up with different strategies and methods of deflection.
At what point does the harassment occur or does the woman become aware of what is happening and understand that she is being harassed? Sexual assault, vile as it is, is easy to pin down in terms of time. It happens when it happens. And sexual harassment is more easily identified when someone seeks to do someone else professional harm in retaliation for sexual acts or relationships denied or curtailed.
But much of sexual harassment is perhaps less aggressive but can be equally pernicious. Those who engage in the offensive behavior are often creating a dynamic to maintain control over situations and people and to reinforce their victims' relative impotence. Power is power, and some wield it to make it easier to retain, and to protect oneself from any incursion on it.
The recent behavior by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, well-documented in the report produced by New York Attorney General Letitia James, is good evidence of just that. The report was indeed remarkable in its scope and precision, containing nearly 170 pages of testimony and more than 1,000 footnotes of corroboration and reference, rooted in interviews with 179 people and a review of 74,000 documents. It identifies a state trooper who reported that Cuomo made unwelcome remarks about her attire, personal life, prospective marriage and sex drive, and that he kissed her and touched her, including on her stomach, in ways that made her feel profoundly uncomfortable. Her experience corresponded closely to those of other women in the report including one who related how, at a public event, Cuomo traced the letters of the company logo on her T-shirt by pressing his fingers into her breasts; and another who related that Cuomo once grabbed her breast under her shirt and on another occasion touched her butt "in a way that was not clear whether he had intended to do so." Another staffer reported that Cuomo would hold her hand for uncomfortably long periods of time, until she became flustered and blushed, noting that she considered her reaction to be "part of the point" of Cuomo's behavior, which she felt was intended to make her feel "small" and "uncomfortable."
James' report also finds extensive evidence of his office's attempts to retaliate against other victims who came forward with complaints about the treatment they experienced. Cuomo apparently drafted the first response himself, and then brought on a team of others to write and edit a letter (never published) to impugn one victim's credibility, while attempting to leak her confidential personnel file to the press toward the same end.
Having women in the administration in senior positions, some of whom participated in the retaliatory cover-up and ill treatment of complainants, or having "familial" closeness or levity and warmth around staff did not excuse the behavior, although it probably served to cover for it in ways that bore no real relationship to the truth of what was actually going on.
The excuse given by Cuomo that, "There are generational or cultural perspectives that I hadn't fully appreciated," to explain why he might not have known or understood that his behaviors and inappropriate comments to female employees were offensive, is ridiculous. Cuomo was already practicing law when, in 1986, the Supreme Court decided that sexual harassment in the workplace was illegal under Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act. He was also practicing law when Anita Hill testified during Clarence Thomas' U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings that Thomas had harassed her when they worked together, providing a broader understanding of sexual harassment. If there was any question about his behaviors, the relatively recent history of sexual predators Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer, to name a few, whose serial sexual predation and workplace sexual harassment, along with the #MeToo movement that precipitated a global reckoning about sexualized power abuses, should have provided him with answers.
Several of the women would never have come forward but for the press conference in March, at which Cuomo asserted that he had never "touched anyone inappropriately." One even said that she "would have taken it to [her] grave." Why is that? Because we blame ourselves, think that no one will believe us, or just want to get away from the situation and move on? We teach women how to avoid attacks—to carry a key poking out of our fists as we walk, to sit near the bus driver, to choose brightly lit streets. These are messages about personal safety that are often passed from woman to woman, well-intended and coming from a place of care and love; but as we accept responsibility to teach women how to avoid or prevent an attack, let's recognize that there is more work to be done to educate men against attitudes or aggressions that make so many environments hostile for women.
In truth, no one had to tell Cuomo that putting hands on, especially a breast, was improper. But explaining some of the other behaviors is a bit more complicated. The explanation might lie in social norms, or in society telling boys that they're supposed to behave more aggressively, so they do. Research suggests that powerful people follow different societal rules than those who are powerless: a fear of being seen as weak is actually related to an inclination to sexually harass others. People in power are also more likely to think that subordinates are sexually interested in them. Power is known to reduce empathy, allowing people to act on their impulses. People in power also enjoy "looser" rules. In her book, "Rule Makers, Rule Breakers," Michele Gelfand cites Uber as an example of a company where extreme looseness went wrong. "Several former employees described the exceedingly loose work environment as a 'frat house,' rife with unprofessional and even abusive behaviors."
Interestingly, other studies show that confident women or those who try to assert themselves are the ones who are more harassed, because they are the ones who challenge and are being "put back in their place." And finally, people who thought of themselves as "high status" were more likely to want to punish their subordinates when they broke the rules, but not other high-status individuals. The social hierarchy is reinforced because high-status people are granted more leniency.
But the last time I looked, I have a J.D. after my name and not a Ph.D. or M.D., so I do not definitively know why sexual harassers live and thrive among us. Nor can I tell you why we operate in environments that allow the least scrupulous men to act on their most hideous impulses. I just want it to stop.
Originally published by the Connecticut Law Tribune
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