Are we at a tipping point on sexual misconduct?

“It certainly feels like a tipping point, a moment when the accumulation of small changes provoke much larger change.”
“It certainly feels like a tipping point, a moment when the accumulation of small changes provoke much larger change.”
Image: REUTERS/Jim Bourg
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In the mid-1990s, a Washington Post reporter interviewed me after spending weeks talking with women working at the Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Indiana about their experiences with sexual harassment. The reporter told me she was having trouble sleeping, the stories of abuse skittering through her dreams. “Some day I’m going to write a book about women reporting sexual harassment,” she said. “The title will be, You’d Better Be a Saint.”

Mitsubishi spent 2 million dollars allegedly remaking itself into a model company after those stories became public. Yet by the time a consultant rolled out her 34-point plan to prevent sexual harassment—which made no analysis of what had happened and assigned no responsibility—Mitsubishi attorneys had issued 500 subpoenas to former employers, doctors, gynecologists, and psychologists of the 28 women who’d filed a lawsuit against the company. Questioning during depositions was so aggressive that many of the women felt as if they were the accused.

What had encouraged the women to come forward was the emergence a few years earlier of a law professor named Anita Hill. When Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court, an NPR reporter learned that FBI agents, while preparing for his confirmation hearings, had questioned Hill about alleged harassment during the time he was her boss at the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC). Some Democratic Senators demanded that the Senate Judiciary Committee hear her testimony. Reluctantly, Professor Hill did her civic duty and agreed to appear in front of the committee, where she faced vile comments from a group of senators largely ignorant about the issue of sexual harassment. Several accused her of being unstable, delusional, schizophrenic, a perjurer, and a spurned woman. One, responding to her claim that Thomas frequently talked to her about pornographic materials, told her that pornography would be a “poor choice of seduction techniques.” Senator Alan Simpson warned she would be “injured and destroyed and belittled and hounded and harassed—real harassment, different from the sexual kind, just plain-old Washington variety harassment.”

The margin of support for Thomas was much narrower than expected, but he was confirmed to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court. That weekend, Anita Hill was interviewed on 60 Minutes. When asked why more women didn’t come forward, she described how most survivors had seen people speak up and get stomped on. Nevertheless, she said, “the silence has been broken.”

A survey at the time indicated that the majority of Americans did not believe Anita Hill. A year later, a similar survey showed just the opposite results. What had happened in the meantime? Many people discovered that someone they knew and trusted had experienced similar sexual harassment—and she or he was now speaking about it for the first time.

We saw some progress over the next 25 years. The visibility around Anita Hill helped spur the women at Mitsubishi and elsewhere to file formal complaints about sexual harassment they experienced on the job. More companies instituted sexual harassment policies and training. But for many, those efforts were window-dressing—they involved having staff watch a video and sign a paper that said they’d been trained on the topic. The EEOC saw a rise in complaints—but many employers settled those with sealed documents and strict gag rules. Too often, women who experienced harassment found themselves silenced and the perpetrators off the hook, even when the conduct rose to the level of sexual assault—all part of the continuum of devaluing women as a way to gain power and status.

In 2006 Tarana Burke, an African-American woman like Anita Hill and so many of the pioneers on exposing sexual abuse, created the phrase “MeToo” to help women and girls of color combat sexual violence. Farmworkers organized to stop sexual assault from supervisors in the field, and grassroots groups around the country took on the issue, all with few resources and little visibility. Most instances of misconduct, both at work and in social settings, continued to go unreported.

Then a year ago, the powerful MeToo slogan became a hashtag used by millions, accompanied by a wave of disclosures and demands for action. Down came Harvey Weinstein and other high-profile men. Hollywood celebrities launched #TimesUp and raised millions of dollars for legal fees. Women workers at McDonald’s went on strike to protest the issue and brought a class-action lawsuit. And a courageous woman named Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, by agreeing to go public and testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, has thrown a huge monkey wrench into what seemed an unstoppable Supreme Court nomination.

It certainly feels like a tipping point, a moment when the accumulation of small changes provoke much larger change. But we have to remember how much work we still need to do. This time around, senators are being more circumspect, and the Judiciary Committee is no longer all male and all white. Nevertheless, Dr. Blasey Ford has been deluged with hate messages and death threats and had to leave her home to ensure her family’s safety. The president of the United States, elected despite having bragged about sexually abusing women, has belittled her credibility and insisted that any young woman experiencing an attempted rape would tell her parents and call the FBI. The Senate majority leader demanded a committee vote on the nominee less than 24 hours after the hearing, opposed an FBI investigation, and refused to call a key witness.

Men accused of sexual harassment like Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Leslie Moonves may be out, but their exit parachutes were lined with gold. Mandatory arbitration and gag orders are still standard operating procedures. An untold number of women in every industry are experiencing offensive and often criminal sexual misconduct every day, with impunity. Companies are held liable if sexual harassment can be proven—but are not required even to have a policy prohibiting the behavior. Elected officials have introduced legislation in Congress to change some of this, but the bills languish under the thumbs of recalcitrant committee chairs.

And any woman who comes forward is still required to be a saint.

The #MeToo movement is unstoppable. Given the public uproar, some members of the majority party have now insisted on an FBI investigation before a vote by the full Senate. At this writing, the decision could go either way. It’s entirely possible that the majority of the public believe Dr. Blasey Ford, and that the man she accused of attempted rape will have a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. Regardless of the outcome, we won’t end sexual harassment and assault without deep structural and cultural change.

Ellen Bravo is co-director of Family Values @ Work.