Sexual harassment reports have long been considered the “cost of doing business.” Recent news reports implicating business leaders, athletes, politicians and celebrities of perpetrating sexual harassment have reminded us that sexual harassment remains a pervasive issue in American society.
These reports also remind us of how frequently sexual harassment fails to be addressed seriously enough to result in meaningful consequences for the perpetrator.
Sexual harassment is costing Fox News several millions of dollars in settlements and loss of revenue through advertising boycotts because of particularly chilling reports against news host Bill O’Reilly — and, last summer, former network Chairman Roger Ailes. Despite the loss of nearly 50 sponsorships, O’Reilly’s show, as of this publication, continues to be aired uninterrupted.
Unfortunately, this seems to be a fairly common series of events.
As is the case with other instances of sexual violence, cases of sexual harassment are significantly underreported. While it’s difficult to get a good sense of its pervasiveness, but we do know that 70 percent to 90 percent of victims do not report the harassment, often out of the fear of not being believed, a belief that nothing will be done to address the harassment and out of the fear of losing their job.
As an advocate, I see victims who live paycheck to paycheck and without a safety net — such as no savings, dependence on employer provided health insurance or both — are especially vulnerable to remaining in a job where they are sexually harassed. Many perpetrators of sexual harassment know their victims have very little to no alternative, which may create increasingly dangerous situations.
The impact on victims is significant. Sexual harassment victims experience anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances and loss of wages from taking time off or quitting a job to avoid the perpetrator. Workplaces also face negative impacts and costs associated with sexual harassment, including high turnover rates, low morale, absenteeism, divisiveness, bad publicity, investigations and lawsuits.
We know sexual harassment offenders wield power in situations where they are perpetrating harassment and often have a significant amount of influence in their workplace and, as in the case of the alleged incidents at Fox News, in our society. Millions of people know O’Reilly, and they now know that despite mounting reports, as of this publication, a powerful news organization stands behind him.
This not only normalizes the behavior O’Reilly allegedly engaged in but also demonstrates a clear lack of consequences. The impression we — and victims of sexual harassment — are left with is that preventing and responding to sexual harassment is at best not a priority and at worst permissible or even condoned. This behavior sends the message that other employees can engage in this behavior without consequences, creating a toxic work environment for all workers.
Maine is one of a handful of U.S. states that requires workplace sexual harassment training. But we can do better — and we must do better because this issue is pervasive and timely. We are experiencing a watershed moment where the voices of people are heard more now than ever — and where our country is talking about sexual violence in a way we haven’t before.
There are a few significant ways Mainers can do better when it comes to preventing and responding to sexual harassment.
Know what constitutes “ sexual harassment” and help to educate those around you. If you see something, say something. Remember sexual harassment is determined by federal and state law and by how a victim is affected, not by what the harasser intended.
And finally, do something. Ignoring sexually harassing statements, actions or innuendo will not end the offensive behavior. Sexual harassment will not stop — and sometimes may even escalate — until it is addressed.
Sexual harassment reports should not be the cost of doing business, and its impact should be an issue we take seriously enough to prioritize quality prevention and response.
Mainers — and indeed Americans — need to send the message that sexually harassing behavior will not be tolerated. And that starts with us.
Tamar Mathieu is the executive director of Rape Response Services. She may be reached at email@example.com.