New required reading: Why Don’t Women Speak Out About Sexual Harassment? Here’s why

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.

To put it another way,

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.


  1. jenniferphillips says

    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.

    So true. I was just reading a new article today on how institutional abuse–that which takes place inside a trusted organization like the military, the greek system, the church, etc. can often cause more trauma than abuse from other sources, because of the betrayal factor.

  2. says

    Those who harass, much like those who rape, know what they are doing. They know where to do it, they know how to do it and they know what to say in order to deny or put off accusations. The common demands for proof are easy to side step if you make sure you aren’t seen by others doing what you should not be doing.

    Harassers claiming they had no idea that such a thing was offensive or that their victim was not receptive to their advances is a ploy often used by those who know exactly what they are doing.

    I personally have dealt with very few in person harassment issues, but the few that I’ve encountered were all done casually and with the knowledge that no one was around to see or believe me.

    One instance that truly discouraged me from reporting harassment was when I did complain about one of my co-workers touching my shoulders, rubbing them while talking to me, and the others in the department shrugged it off. “Oh that’s just how he is, he’s harmless.” Meaning I was the one making the fuss, he wasn’t doing anything wrong because everyone knew he harassed and they just avoided being alone with him rather than do something about his behavior.

  3. jenniferphillips says

    @Timid Atheist, in the article I linked to above, female participants who had been victims of sexual assault filled out a survey about their experiences and the institutional response when reporting or considering reporting. The most widespread type of institutional betrayal was the message that ‘it was no big deal’ or that that type of thing (assault) was a common occurrence within the institution. It’s so fucking pervasive. Everywhere, all the time. That’s just how the world is, girls. Don’t make a big deal out of it.

  4. Onamission5 says

    The first time I reported my sexual harassment to the authorities, I got fired. The authority was the business owner who was always, always touching me. There was no one else to turn to, literally. In response to telling him to take his hand out of my back pocket, I lost my job and he fought against paying me unemployment for two months, so I also almost lost my apartment as well. No small thing for a single mom.

    The second time I decided to report my harassment was more than 10 years later, and I made sure to get legal advice beforehand. The lawyer to whom I spoke let me know that hostile work environments were notoriously difficult to prove, that my boss calling all the male employees into the office to watch porn outtakes while I worked the shift by myself didn’t count as a hostile environment no matter how much they talked about it in front of me, so long as I wasn’t pressured to actually perform sex acts afterwards, and that if I filed a complaint with HR I’d likely be fired once more.

    Women often put up with way more in the work place than one might imagine simply because there aren’t any better options.

  5. jackiepaper says

    When I complained I was treated like a prude. Sure he had touched me inappropriately. Sure he had cornered women in his office and asked them to have sex on his desk. But…but, he was such a nice guy and boys will be boys. He was one of the buddies in the office. He was seen as important, charismatic. None of the other women complained. They didn’t want to get a reputation as troublemakers in a town where the Good ‘Ol Boys still run everything. If a woman wants to get ahead, she has to be a Good “Ol Boy too, or at least play along.
    I quit. He’s still there.

    An acquaintance of mine was recently threatened with losing her job for refusing her boss’s sexual advances. The other women in the office sit on his lap when he tells them to, etc. There are no other men who work there. She complained to authorities and got paid leave. Then she was fired as soon as she returned. Her boss is a dentist. That’s right, he works with unconscious women around women who are complicit in his harassment of other women. It turns out he’s been in trouble for this before. He has not lost his licence and I suspect he never will. Meanwhile, she can’t find a job and he won’t exactly write her a glowing recommendation.

  6. jackiepaper says

    Oh, before I quit I was told that if we couldn’t “work this out” and if “I wasn’t happy with my job”, I would be fired. I stayed a while. I needed the money. My hours dwindled. New people were hired and I was expected to train them. I knew they were there to replace me and one of the other women he had been harassing. (She felt I had ratted her out, because I told the bosses what had happened to her and she was asked to confirm it.) So I chose to quit rather than to train my replacement and be let go. She quit the same day.

  7. Tyrant says

    But were you there?

    … oh wait, it occurs we’re not talking about Ken Ham, but about the damn skeptical movement. The difference seems to be dwindling in some areas.

  8. culuriel says

    Can’t we just break the bastards’ fingers? Then you would know who the harassers are by all the people with taped fingers walking around.

  9. tariqata says

    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.

    I’ve been following the comments surrounding this story today, and I think I’m going to have to start posting excerpts from this post (with attribution and link of course!). I’m particularly … amazed? appalled? … by the large number of people insisting that the woman in question, Sarah Thompson, is making false allegations in order to get attention or further her ambitions. How do so many manage to miss the fact that going public about harassment is a lot more likely to put you right in the middle of a shitstorm of hate?

  10. smrnda says

    The only organizations that I’ve ever seen do a good job of handling sexual harassment were a large software company and a public research university – the reason was that they were large, had people genuinely committed to taking sexual harassment seriously, and no matter who was involved, there was always the possibility of relying on an outside investigator.

    I can’t think of a good way to handle employment sexual harassment in smaller firms that wouldn’t require some outside agency that’s actually capable of levying a real penalty on harassers or the businesses. Once an employer crosses a line, I wouldn’t feel comfortable working for them, but you can’t just magically find a new job.

  11. says

    This was my experience with workplace sexual harassment. i am an RN in a rehab/personal care facility. A year and a half ago, I had a manager who was quite incompetent and consequently the unit was functioning poorly. I heard of 3 incidents where co-workers had been shown a cell phone picture of another co-worker’s penis. Only one person reported this to the manager and it was brushed off. The woman that reported it was viewed by many of the other staff as asking for it, as she herself could at times be quite inappropriate herself in making sexual jokes, etc.The offender got a “talking to’. The next thing that happened was another coworker was heard twice making rape jokes to and about the “sexy” staff member that had reported the first incident. Nothing happened about this. The third thing that occurred was a new staff member(female) was hired and she began to make sexually inappropriate remarks to other female staff. She was openly bisexual. The first shift that I worked with her, she touched me with both hands around the waist. A week later she made a comment that she was looking at my breasts. I reported this to the manager and was told “oh that’s just her personality, no big deal. A little while later I heard from another RN that this person had brushed up against her with her breasts, caressed her leg, and kissed her on the top of the head. Again this was reported and no action was taken, even when the union got involved. I did more digging around and found that multiple people had been harrassed by this staff member. In the end after many months of awkwardness, interviews with HR people in which our honesty was questioned, both the manager and the harassing RN were fired. Myself and 2 other RNs were then called into HR and given a gentle verbal spanking for being the instigators, the gossips, etc and in my opinion, gently warned to not make trouble again. Of the 2 male harassers, one retired and one I still work with today. The “sexy” female staff member ended up quitting and going to work elsewhere. It was an awful few months.

  12. pharm scigrad says

    THIS. So much this.
    The results of the study which compared identicial résumés with different names to look at racial and gender biases were so striking and yet so very clear. One can find that same sort of clarity by undertaking the thought experiment of using a sexual assult script – how one would question a victim – and replacing the relevant words to make it a mugging, a simple assult, or even something like a carjacking where you left the car unlocked and running while you went inside for just a minute.
    When the social fallout for being accused of sexual harrassment is as severe as the one for reporting sexual harrassment, perhaps more victims’ voices will be heard. Instead, we put predators in positions of power and create a system to report harrassment which revictimizes our victims until the problem goes away – and then declare victory.

  13. Ysanne says

    My experience was one of the few good ones: My PhD supervisor happened to be a guy who takes harassment very seriously. Unfortunately, neither I nor my fellow female grad students were aware of this, partly because we weren’t quite sure how much of the sexism he sometimes exhibited was serious and how much just sarcasm that didn’t quite register.
    So when one of the other profs started to make sleazy remarks and offers, and then progressed to “accidental” physical contact (to the point of playing footsy under the table), we female grad students only talked about it amongst ourselves: Telling “an authority” seemed to be unworkable — wasn’t this maybe just a somewhat awkward old guy trying to be nice, he was obviously nice and wrote good recommendations, and shouldn’t we just try to avoid getting into this kind of situation with him? How could we prove that we were not overreacting?
    Fortunately, supervisor-prof accidentally walked in on one of these “wtf should we do” sessions: He asked for details, he did not do any of the doubting/minimising stuff we’d worried about, and promised to take care of it. Actually, the whole thing had seemed a bit suspicious to him for a while, but he wasn’t sure whether he was misinterpreting stuff — after all, none of us girls had said a word to him.
    By the next evening, supervisor-prof had openly called out and embarrassed sleazy-prof about his behaviour (the footsie-him-back bit was priceless), and had a very clear talk about how sleazy-prof knew perfectly well what he did was completely inappropriate, and that it will not be tolerated in the future. Sleazy-prof never did anything inappropriate again; a couple of times he tried to play the puppy-eyed “oh I’m just nice but you don’t like that” card but failed at it and started behaving like a decent person.

    Take-home message: People with authority, please signal clearly that you’re someone who takes harassment victims seriously and is going to help. And then follow through.

  14. great1american1satan says

    Of all the things contract security companies have done horribly wrong in the time I’ve worked for them, harassment was something they eventually got right. People ended up getting fired left and right over it. The most noteworthy early case was a nice guy, but a guy with a shitty sense of boundaries or propriety. Unsurprising from a 4chan fan. He was creating a textbook hostile workplace for someone. Again, not out of malice or sexual weirdness or anything creepy. Just because he didn’t have the sense to censor himself a bit around a conservative Xtian.

    I think the lady he offended was an idiot, a crackpot, a classic Dunning-Kruger case, etc etc, but it doesn’t change the fact he was doing 85 decibel impressions of foulmouthed cartoons and engaging in dirty joking with others, in front of someone he knew was a social conservative. Over and over again. I didn’t feel like exercising a modicum of restraint was too much to ask. It’s not like I had to pretend to not be an atheist to work in the same room with her. Just take the dirty material down a notch.

    Later she got fired for cussing out a sensitive old guy in the office when she was having a bad day (plus a few previous incidents). Whole lotta firing going on. Somehow it didn’t happen to people that had a sense of professionalism about their workplace behavior. No false accusations. Just bad behavior getting treated seriously by the employer.

  15. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    These stories are really upsetting. When I think about my wife, or mom, sister, niece being treated in these ways it really makes me ashamed of our society.

    Holding employers truly accountable would take pretty aggressive legislation and I can’t imagine that sort of thing ever passing here in the US, with our culture of Job Creator Worship. Ugh…

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