“Some use power to get sex, and some use sex to get power,” is the tag line of a book I wrote awhile back entitled “Unrighteous Dominion.” (I don’t mean this post to be a shameless self-promotion, but if you’re interested, there is a link to it at Amazon at endnote[i] below. And if you have read Unrighteous Dominion, I would love for you to give it a review, either good, bad or something in between since I only have three reviews right now. Okay, I’m done with the self-promotion – at least in this blog post.) My book focuses on a case of sexual harassment, but it is really about power, which, in my opinion, is what sexual harassment is usually about. Power can come from age, superior size or strength, position, or economic or social status. The imbalance of power generally creates an environment where effective communication is impossible, as the greater the power, the less chance there is of someone, particularly the victim, speaking out against the harassment.
You would have to have been in a coma the last few months to not hear about all the cases of sexual harassment that recently have been made public. Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Dustin Hoffman, Tom Sizemore, Jeffrey Tambor, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose and even the beloved Matt Lauer, now and forever will be associated more with sexual harassment than as entertainers or news anchors. The women who came forward against these men have been named by Time magazine as Person(s) of the Year. Times editor-in-chief, Edward Felsenthal, called it “the fastest-moving social change we’ve seen in decades, and it began with individual acts of courage by women and some men, too.” Tarana Burke, who created the “Me Too” mantra years ago, has called the coming forth of sexually harassed women, “not just a moment, it’s a movement.” But unfortunately, we are hearing primarily from women who are now fairly well-known and generally powerful (although they typically weren’t when the harassment took place). Do women who are not household names, who don’t act in movies or TV shows, or write for newspapers and magazines, have a place to tell their stories? And there must be many of such victims.
Some studies show that as many as 88 percent of women in America have been harassed in some way, but 71 percent of women who have experienced sexual harassment do not report it out of fear of retaliation. Two-thirds of victims were not aware of their employer’s policy regarding sexual harassment, and just over half of the victims did not even know the person or department to talk to, even if they did want to report it. Clearly, then, we have a sexual harassment problem. The entertainment industry has taken notice, but what of other industries? Actor Ellen Page said it this way when talking about her own experiences of being harassed: “I have a platform that enables me to write this and have it published, while the most marginalized do not have access to such resources.”
Before this latest wave of sexual harassment allegations, a woman’s claim of sexual harassment was often summarily dismissed because of the difficulty of proof, as the evidence became a battle of he said, she said, my word against yours. Just ask Anita Hill how her claims of sexual harassment against now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas turned out. The movie, Disclosure,[ii] emphasized this, and turned the stereotypical claim of sexual harassment on its head by making the harasser a woman and the victim a man:
Hollywood has not always gotten it right, though. There is a long list of movies showing incidents of sexual harassment that audiences found to be funny, of worse, normal. I mean, who got offended by the movie Grease showing young men lurking under the bleachers looking up young women’s dresses, or exposing their underwear on the dance floor on national TV? We watched Cher (played by Alicia Silverstone) in the movie Clueless walk the sidewalk outside her high school as young men ogled her, and one comes up and puts his arm around her. Instead of getting upset at this type of behavior, we smile at Cher’s “Ew, as if” response. We get the message that sexual harassment training is just a big joke as Michael Newman (played by Adam Sandler) in the movie, Click, uses his magic clicker on the instructor to turn the training of a serious subject into a farce.
But occasionally, Hollywood has gotten it right.
Movies taking sexual harassment seriously usually involve men in power taking advantage of women in lesser roles, but with a desire to climb up the political or corporate ranks, as illustrated by this scene from Legally Blonde[iii]:
Fortunately, Elle had enough self-confidence to say no, regardless of the consequences, but for others, it is not that easy. Margaret Atwood once said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Sometimes that death is actual death, sometimes it’s death to a career. Either is frightening, and something most men do not experience and therefore do not fully understand.
One of the best movies about sexual harassment is North Country,[iv] a fictionalized account of the first major successful sexual harassment case in the United States, Jenson v. Eveleth Mines, decided in 1984. It dramatizes the hostile work environment female mineworkers in Minnesota experienced. Here is just one example of the abusive environment these female workers had to put up with:
The good news is women have made great strides in eliminating these types of major hostile work environments, but as to what happens one-on-one behind closed doors, much less has been accomplished.
So what can we do about it? If you’re a female, learn your legal rights, understand your employer’s policies on sexual harassment and learn how and to whom to make a complaint. Remind yourself that it is okay to say no. And as humiliating as it might be, it’s okay to share your story with others. You might be surprised that others may have experienced similar abuse. And if others have, that shows a pattern in the perpetrator that could lead to his (or her) downfall. Most of the allegations of sexual harassment we have heard about lately have been generally accepted as true because of the recurring allegations of multiple victims toward a single perpetrator. It reminds me of the cartoon of a woman walking into her boss’s office and saying, “All the other women in the office are suing you for sexual harassment. Since you haven’t sexually harassed me, I’m suing you for discrimination.” But neither sexual harassment nor sexual discrimination is a laughing matter.
What if you’re not the victim but an observer of the harassment? Then be an up-stander, not just a bystander. Go to the aid of a fellow worker. Put the harasser in his (or her) place. We should always do what we can to protect the victim of bullying, which sexual harassment is a form of.
And if you’re the boss or supervisor, remember that with great power comes great responsibility. It is up to you to create the proper environment. It is up to you to act respectfully toward others, especially your subordinates. Give others their personal space. I love this quote from author, Miya Yamanouchi, who really tells it like it is: “Self-respect by definition is a confidence and pride in knowing that your behavior is both honorable and dignified. When you harass or vilify someone, you not only disrespect them, but yourself also. Street harassment, sexual violence, sexual harassment, gender-based violence and racism, are all acts committed by a person who in fact has no self-respect. Respect yourself by respecting others.”
May all of us take that message to heart and accordingly act with respect – of others and ourselves.
[i] You can find Unrighteous Dominion at: https://www.amazon.com/Unrighteous-Dominion-Warren-Ludlow-ebook/dp/B01FLFEV2Q/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1513087287&sr=8-2&keywords=Unrighteous+dominion
- Production Company: Warner Bros., Baltimore Pictures, and Constant c Productions
- Director: Barry Levinson
- Screenwriter: Paul Attanasio (based on the book by Michael Crichton
- Starring: Michael Douglas, Demi Moore and Donald Sutherland
- Release date: December 9, 1994
[iii] Legally Blonde
- Production Company: MGM, Marc Platt Productions
- Director: Robert Luketic
- Screenwriter: Karen McCullah (based on the book by Amanda Brown)
- Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, and Selma Blair
- Release date: July 13, 2001
[iv] North Country
- Production Company: Warner Bros., Industry Entertainment, Participant Media
- Director: Niki Caro
- Screenwriter: Michael Seitzman (based on the book by Clara Bingham)
- Starring: Charlize Theron, Jeremy Renner, Frances McDormand
- Release date: October 21, 2005