Backlash against the #MeToo movement is building in industries and workplaces around the country.
Catherine Deneuve apologized for disparaging the #MeToo movement, while Matt Damon and Liam Neeson suggested that some forms of sexual misconduct shouldn’t count as harassment because they are not severe enough. Reportedly some men fear giving female colleagues a hug or a compliment as human resource departments launch workplace hugging policies.
At the same time, news of misconduct in the workplace is revealed almost daily.
The resignation of Steve Wynn as Republican National Committee Finance chair following alarming allegations of sexual misconduct is among the most recent in months of revelations of sexual harassment in the workplace. Actor Scott Baio recently denied years-old allegations against him. Hillary Clinton was also criticized for alleged protection of a male advisor who harassed a female staffer.
These ongoing revelations of sexual harassment have driven some states to create laws to prevent the use of non-disclosure agreements or other employment clauses which limit an employee’s legal options. These measures to prevent the silencing of victims will likely result in increased public disclosure of allegations of harassment.
Indeed, more women are reaching out to support each other by creating anonymous sites where victims can report sexual misconduct by men who work in media, academia politics, or the music industry. The Time’s Up Now defense fund has raised nearly $17 million to support victims of misconduct. Janelle Monae’s address at the Grammys included a call to action in “creating more safe work environments.”
As a forensic expert in sexual harassment for over 10 years, the majority of litigants I evaluate are women. There are also instances of same sex harassment, and females harassing males at work, but these are not the majority of cases. A common theme among all cases is the defense’s claim that the alleged sexual behaviors were either consensual or were intended as flirting, though the victim finds these same behaviors offensive.
Sexual harassment reform in the workplace needs to effectively address all individuals.
Some argue that limits to workplace intimate relationships and flirting are unnecessary as women are capable of asserting themselves against unwanted romantic advances. Some argue these limits restrict women’s sexual freedom. These arguments fail to take into consideration the tangible risks of such assertiveness given the power imbalances of employees in the workplace.
A new poll finds that 36 percent of women and 11 percent of men have experienced workplace sexual harassment. More women than men also say that harassment is a significant problem. Yet many employers are confused about addressing harassing behaviors at work.
Harassment is not about sex or flirting, it is about power and control.
Almost a third of men in a recent survey say they have engaged in behaviors consistent with harassment in the workplace. Another survey in 2017 found that women consistently identify more sexual behaviors as consistent with harassment than do men. Sex-based differences in the perception of welcome versus unwelcome behavior plays out in the courts too with harassers claiming their behaviors were consensual when their victims do not.
For those who are not harassers or who are somehow ignorant of the difference between welcome and unwelcome behavior, ongoing education can strengthen understanding. Rather than focus solely on which behaviors are unwelcome, this education should also explicitly teach men and women how to obtain clear verbal consent.
This means firm communication with verbal enthusiastic agreement to the behavior rather than assuming that silence or not saying no means “yes.” Non-verbal responses should also be taken into consideration as
I have listened as multiple female litigants have described crying, going limp, and/or explicitly and repeatedly saying no while their harassers sexually assaulted or harassed them.
None of this means that co-workers cannot hug each other in the workplace. Rather, men and women should first ask the other person if they can touch them. Similarly, if a co-worker gives a compliment in the workplace, it should not be sexualized. Policies limiting flirting and the development of intimate relationships in the workplace are likely wise. Well-meaning flirting or advances may not result in shared positive feelings. Flirting should be limited to non-workplace environments as it may also distract from workplace productivity. If flirting and office romances are allowed, consent from all parties, albeit likely awkward, should first be obtained.
For habitual harassers, re-education and workplace policies are unlikely to be effective as these individuals intentionally ignore the bounds of appropriate behavior. Research shows that workplace prevention programs are ineffective in these cases.
Reducing harassment requires organizations create a climate that is intolerant of harassment with reports of harassment taken seriously.
Company administration can protect complainants from retaliation, and take definitive action to stop the harassing behavior by firing the harasser. Additionally, the company can place the harasser on probation and require that they receive counseling if deemed appropriate.
Unlike the courts which place the burden of proof on the accuser to show that their harassers’ behaviors were unwelcome, organizations could instead require that harassers prove their behavior was welcome.
Some may argue that shifting the burden of proof to the harasser would result in false reports of harassment and assault. This is unlikely given that research shows that few women lie about being harassed or assaulted. Rather, claims of abuse often lack enough evidence to be vindicated as harassers rarely harass in front of witnesses.
In order to have fewer new cases of harassment, we need to address the problem from several angles. First, early and continued education can start in grade school regarding respectful and disrespectful behavior. Potential partners can agree to obtain enthusiastic consent. Finally, intolerance of sexual harassment in the workplace is crucial. We need more good news.
-Dr. Angela Lawson
Dr. Angela Lawson is a forensic expert and clinical psychologist and Associate Clinical Professor in the Departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology & Psychiatry at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.