I realize that talking about sexual harassment is sooo ‘last year’, but there still remains a sizeable contingent of the atheist (and non-atheist) community that thinks that reports of sexual harassment at conventions is overblown, and does not merit a response or even a robust discussion. The prevailing thought repeatedly comes back to “just report it”, with the corresponding assertion that since we are not awash in reports of harassment, harassment doesn’t exist. Absence of evidence (of that specific kind) is evidence of absence, so anyone who complains about it should just STFU.
The world is fundamentally fair when it comes to reporting sexual harassment. Harassment claims are handled with appropriate gravity, and claims can be properly adjudicated according to the abundance of evidence that exists when harassment takes place. True claims are not (or very rarely) dismissed or explained away by blaming the victim. The absence of verified claims is therefore a valid indicator of the lack of real harassment. Those who speak about harassment in the absence of verifiable evidence are therefore lying in order to destroy the movement.
It does not occur to people that, because victims of harassment very rarely have video/tape recording of every interaction they’ve ever had with another person, and because harassers rarely target people when there are witnesses around, “true” harassment claims are very difficult to separate from “false” ones. As a result, the level of evidence they demand* is either by definition impossible to produce, or only possible in the most egregious of circumstances. An approach is needed that allows victims of harassment to feel comfortable that filing a report will have a meaningful result, rather than triggering an avalanche of suspicion and victim blaming.
The “just report it” response breaks down even further when issues of power and authority are involved, as we have seen recently.
But maybe mine is not the word you want to take for it:
As I went through school and university, I worked in lots of places; a shop, a warehouse, a taxi dispatch office, a burger van, several newsrooms. In more than one of them I found “flirty” (older, male) bosses and inappropriate comments, although thankfully I can’t remember anyone trying to touch me up, or worse.
Did I say anything? Yes, I grumbled to other people at the same level as me. To the “authorities”? No. Who are these mysterious authorities? In many places, the groper is the ultimate authority: he is the boss, and there’s no one to complain to about him. The police? Come off it. They are obviously the people to report serious sex assault allegations to, but what can they reasonably be expected to do about derogatory comments, touching employees up by the photocopier, or after the Christmas drinks party? If you’re young – your parents? Hell no. Who wants to talk to their parents about sex?
Allegations of sexual harassment are so difficult to deal with because they are about two things: hierarchy, and shame. Whistleblowers are often incredibly badly treated – even when they have sheaves of documents to prove wrongdoing. Imagine being a whistleblower when you know that half your listeners don’t think that being patted on the leg sounds like such a big deal, anyway.
At the risk of posting the entire article (and therefore being a terrible blogger, apparently), there are a couple of paragraphs that absolutely bear reading and internalizing:
Meanwhile, as a woman in the workplace, one of the safest strategies to pursue is to deny your gender entirely. Be one of the boys. Watch your every move, and every outfit, so that you can never be accused of using your femininity to get ahead. Because the same people who don’t take harassment allegations seriously are also those who think that young women have it easy, being able to flirt with the boss. They don’t see that those two things are sides of the same coin: reflections of workplaces where the power is concentrated in the hands of older men.
When pretending not to be a woman seems to be the best way to be treated as well as a man, complaining about harassment would break the spell. Suddenly, you are exposed: you have drawn attention to your female body. It would be, more than anything else, embarrassing. Demeaning. Shameful. Even if you’re saying “he touched my breast”, you’re still talking to total strangers about your breasts. Most of us are fairly reluctant to do that in public.
Is it universally the case that women hide their femininity and consequently underreport harassment to fit in to the workplace environment (or, as the case may be, an atheist meetup)? Absolutely not. But it is sometimes the case? Absolutely. Can we make adjustments to how we behave and how we write policies to ensure that both groups are comfortable? Yes, and we fucking should. The status quo of “either just report it (with extensive documentation to prove that you’re not lying) or STFU” is not sustainable, nor is it ethically justifiable. It is merely a way of ensuring that those who currently feel uncomfortable remain so indefinitely.
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*I once had a commenter who suggested (seriously) that we empanel a jury of people to interrogate victims of harassment to determine whether they were lying.