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EDITORIAL

Resources for victims of sexual misconduct

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Actress Salma Hayek, shown here attending the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards in November, joined scores of others in accusing Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment.

 

Victims of sexual misconduct are sometimes at a loss about where to turn for help — and that can hurt at a time when they most need it. For someone who thinks she or he has been the victim of a sexual assault, one of the first calls to make is to an area rape crisis center.

But if you’re confused about whether what happened to you is a crime or a workplace issue, you can also contact the attorney general’s office and ask to speak to a victim witness advocate, says Attorney General Maura Healey.

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Not that the AG’s office will necessarily prosecute a case itself, but it can provide advice and refer people to the appropriate prosecutorial venue, often a district attorney’s office. In more complex cases, its experts can help people sort through their experience and decide on the appropriate course of action.

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“For too long in this country, we have tolerated a culture of sexual assault and sexual harassment that has silenced victims, let perpetrators avoid accountability, and held women back in the workplace,” Healey says. “Our office is committed to changing that.”

The AG’s office sorts hostile actions into three categories.

First are physical offenses that qualify as sexual assault. Rape is the most obvious. But physical groping and grabbing can also be a crime known as indecent assault and battery. That means nonconsensual touching in a manner “fundamentally offensive to contemporary moral values”; one of the indicators of indecency is the touching of buttocks, genitals, and (women’s) breasts. If convicted, a perpetrator can face a prison sentence of up to five years.

At some point, someone pursuing criminal prosecution obviously must make her or his allegations publicly, but the AG’s office stresses that the preliminary discussions leading up to such a decision are confidential.

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A second category is workplace sexual harassment, actions that are illegal but not criminal. For example, state law specifically forbids so-called quid pro quo harassment, defined as sexual advances or requests for sexual favors that, if rejected, have a negative impact on one’s employment. Another aspect of sexual harassment law covers conduct that creates an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, or sexually offensive workplace. That conduct can range from requests for sexual favors to unwanted touching, to leering and making sexual gestures, to relating sexual gossip and jokes, to displaying sexually suggestive photographs or objects.

Sexual harassment falls under the purview of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. If MCAD determines harassment has occurred, the agency can order an employer to halt any continuing offending behavior, to discipline the perpetrator, to conduct sexual harassment training, and to pay the victim “for any lost employment benefits or opportunities.” That said, the overburdened agency can take 18 to 24 months to complete an investigation; the Legislature could shorten that period significantly by providing funding for another 10 investigators as well as another attorney or two for the commission.

A third, government-specific area of sexual misconduct: instances of corruption or abuse of power that have a sexual component. For example, statements from an elected or appointed official that he (or she) will take a desired public policy action only in exchange for sexual favors. That kind of offense is something the attorney general’s office itself would likely prosecute.

In the post-Weinstein era, this state needs a determined effort to curb sexual misconduct. An awareness of the advice, assistance, resources, and remedies available is an important first step for victims who might want to come forward.