What we can still learn from sexual harassment
Twenty-five years ago Tuesday, amid a hotly contested political battle over a Supreme Court vacancy, I testified before Senate Judiciary Committee about the sexually harassing behavior of the nominee, Clarence Thomas. As being a target of harassment wasn’t bad enough, I was then victimized a second time by a smear campaign meant to protect the nomination. Stunningly, people wondered aloud why his behavior mattered in a hearing about his character and fitness. To its credit, the country eventually looked beyond politics and began a difficult conversation about sexual harassment and other workplace abuses women experience regularly.
This weekend, questions of a woman’s right to bodily integrity are again in the news. On Friday, the nation collectively recoiled upon watching Donald Trump lewdly boast to Billy Bush about being able to kiss, grope or “do anything” he wants to women. On one hand, the mere fact that this is considered newsworthy shows that we have come a long way since 1991. On the other hand, the fact that large swaths of Americans believe this to be even vaguely defensible is no different than what many women recount in their claims of sexual harassment and in some cases worse.
What I learned in 1991 is no less true today and no less important for people to understand: responses to sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence must start with a belief that women matter as much as the powerful men they encounter at work or at school, whether those men are bosses or professors, colleagues or fellow students.
We must understand the harm that sexual harassment and sexual violence causes. Missing from the conversation this weekend, which focused almost exclusively on the character of the offender, was concern about the victims of sexual violence. At virtually every dinner table this weekend, people talked about what should happen to Donald Trump’s political ambitions. But little consideration was given to what impact the brutish behavior he claimed to have had on the women he victimized. How many of them talked about Arianne Zucker, the young woman in the leaked video who Bush cajoled into hugging the same two men who had just joked about forcibly kissing her? Did she know she was the butt of a sexual gag? Or did we wonder what happened to Nancy O’Dell, the woman who rejected Trump’s advances?
A recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Task Force reported on the psychological, physical, occupational, and economic harm that victims of sexual harassment suffer. Since 1991, I’ve heard from thousands of women who have experienced harassing bosses and colleagues. Some overcome the situations, but none of them ever forget the pain of it. To understand why the way women are treated matters, we must view Donald Trump’s comments and the behavior he described from the point of view of a victim of sexual predation.
Trump’s language, which he and others have tried to minimize as “locker room banter,” is predatory and hostile. To excuse it as that or as youthful indiscretion or overzealous romantic interest normalizes male sexual violence. According to attorney Joe Sellers, a member of the EEOC Task Force, “Trump’s remarks reflect the quintessential mindset of a harasser: the view that he has certain privileges and power by virtue of his celebrity status and position.” (Full disclosure: Joe Sellers is also the head of the civil rights and employment practice at Cohen, Milstein, Sellers & Toll, the law firm for which I am of counsel.) I’m encouraged that a number of men have soundly rejected Trump’s characterization of his comments.
That Trump apparently believes that being a “star” entitles him to engage in illegal and demeaning behavior is not surprising. Unfortunately, high profile situations, like that of Roger Ailes who got a $40 million severance payment from Fox after the company found evidence that he harassed Gretchen Carlson, reinforce the idea. Too often employers mete out light punishment to abusive “star” employees no matter how egregious, persistent or severe the behavior. And take for example, the six-month jail sentence of former Stanford University student Brock Turner who was found guilty for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. His sentence was an insult to women and to justice. Whether the context is a political campaign or not, in order to prevent illegal behavior, all perpetrators should be held fully accountable for their misconduct.
I would like to see us grapple with these questions outside of the fierce political pitch of a presidential election cycle that, even before this tape surfaced, reflected the worst political behavior in modern history. Regardless, this backdrop does not relieve us of the responsibility to leverage this moment to help guard against sexual harassment and assault. Indeed, it may help us with lower profile sexual misconduct situations that are frequently intertwined with workplace or academic power politics.
Today’s conversation that must extend far beyond the presidential election. We have made strides in how we think about sexual violence but we’re nowhere close to done. As Joe Sellers said, “lurking under the political debate is a question about behavioral expectations that we have for ourselves as a society.” Let’s be sure that this latest episode keeps us moving in the right direction.
Anita F. Hill is a professor at Brandeis University.