Women are forcing a long-overdue reckoning on sexual harassment. The list of ousted executives and politicians keeps growing. The thousands of reports of sexual harassment on #MeToo keep coming. More women are emboldened to talk, and more are being heard. The risks for abusers — particularly public figures — are rising. We know the roots of this extraordinary moment; where the moment leads remains to be seen.
The reckoning is part of the fierce reaction to Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016. Trump won in spite of the ultimate “October surprise,” when the “Access Hollywood” tape confirmed what more than a dozen women had alleged: Trump is a serial sexual predator, admitting on tape that, “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. . . . Grab them by the p---y. You can do anything.”
A president is the nation’s great teacher. Women were not about to allow him to teach that lesson.
With the reckoning comes the public acknowledgment that sexual harassment of women is ubiquitous. Too often, women have learned to adjust to it. A recent Quinnipiac University poll reports that 60 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment, most frequently in the workplace.
A public airing of abuses is needed to force a conversation about lines, degrees, decorum, but the focus must turn to changes in the structures and laws that might help change behavior if the reckoning is to have real and permanent impact.
Thus far the reckoning has been fueled largely by the exposure of public figures. Because these stories drive headlines, the press is more likely to spend resources checking out claims that implicate the famous. To some degree, this is helpful: The culture won’t change without cultural and political leaders — in their agony and in their outrage — leading the charge.
Yet, as journalist Barbara Ehrenreich has noted, “our current sex harassment discussion is woefully class-skewed. Too much about actresses and not enough about hotel housekeepers.” Sexual harassment is grounded in an imbalance of power, the heady sense that one can commit wrongful acts with impunity. Not surprisingly, it is most prevalent where the power imbalance is the most extreme. Ehrenreich cites Chicago’s Unite Here Local 1, the hospitality union, which found that nearly 60 percent of hotel workers in the greater Chicago area reported being sexually harassed on the job. Too often the male guests feel free to get “handsy” or to appear with no clothes on.
Waitresses also are constant targets. In most places, they are forced to work for a subminimum wage — the federal rate is a paltry $2.13 per hour — and tips. To get decent tips, they learn to put up with obnoxious abuse and worse.
Similarly, in a letter paying tribute to the courage of the Hollywood actresses speaking up against producer Harvey Weinstein, the female farmworkers of the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, wrote, “We do not work under the bright stage lights or on the big screen. We work in the shadows of society in isolated fields and packinghouses that are out of sight . . . for most people in this country. . . . We share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security. Like you, there are few positions available to us, and reporting any kind of harm or injustice committed against us doesn’t seem like a viable option. Complaining about anything — even sexual harassment — seems unthinkable because too much is at risk, including the ability to feed our families and preserve our reputations.”
Changes in the law and in institutional structures can make a difference. If waitresses were paid a living wage, they would be better able to object to harassment from customers. Workers with unions have more ability to object. In Chicago, the City Council just passed an ordinance requiring hotel employers to provide hotel workers who work alone in rooms with a portable “panic button” to summon help from hotel security. It also requires hotels to make public their anti-sexual harassment policies, affords hotel workers the right to stop work and leave a room if they feel threatened and prohibits hotel employers from retaliating against hotel workers who report sexual harassment or assault.
Congress can also show leadership by reforming itself. Recent House hearings shed light on the pervasive sexual harassment in what historically has been considered the congressional “boys club.” Concerned staff aides even developed a “creep list” to warn newcomers about legislators to be wary of. Congress has a broken “dispute resolution system” that requires any complainant to undergo 30 days of mandatory counseling and 30 days of mediation before being able to file a suit. And sexual harassment settlements are paid for with taxpayer money.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have introduced the ME TOO Congress Act, which requires that the names of offending members of Congress be released and that they be held personally financially responsible for their behavior. The legislation would also require mandatory training for all members of Congress and staff, provide interns and fellows the same protections as full-time staff, and end forced mediation and counseling.
Much commentary is focused on whether Trump can be held accountable, whether Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) should resign or Bill Clinton be shunned. But these are merely exclamation points. What’s needed are real structural and legal changes to support the victims and curb the predators.