Sexual Harassment and Sexual Abuse: Why Do So Many So Often Respond with Silence?

Jodi Jacobson

Denial.  I know.  It's not just a river in Egypt.  But it is, it appears, as wide and deep as an ocean, especially when it comes to sexual harassment and sexual abuse. 

Denial.  Yes, I know.  It’s not just a river in Egypt.

But it is, it seems, as wide and deep as an ocean, especially when it comes to sexual harassment and sexual abuse.  There appears to be a tendency for those in a position of responsibility, those with information on acts of harassment or abuse, to deny the problem or the seriousness of the problem even in the face of overwhelming evidence.  A tendency to protect the abuser(s) for either professional reasons, personal reasons, corporate bottom lines or fear of reprisal.  Or a combination thereof.

And I am not even talking right now about the Catholic Church’s own debacle, at least not yet.

Now we have details on a recent scandal in Congress. In today’s Washington Post, reporter Carol Leonnig details the nearly year-long silence by the Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of Staff of former Congressman Eric Massa regarding complaints by “his young male employees on Capitol Hill…that the lawmaker was making aggressive, sexual overtures toward them.”  The harassment began, according to the article, just three months after Eric Massa was elected to Congress.

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Leonnig documents lewd comments, inappropriate touching, blatant sexual advances and invitations to individual staffers, including interns, to join the congressman, alone, on overnight trips.

Leonnig reports that the “senior staff, one of whom said he heard Massa making lewd remarks to young staffers, tried to manage the problem internally.”  [Emphasis mine.]

But reports of Massa’s inappropriate behavior continued, leaving junior workers feeling helpless, according to victims, other staffers and sources close to an ongoing House ethics investigation. Most asked not to be named due to the ethics probe and the risk of hurting their job prospects.

It’s a pattern: Denial of the problem, despite the evidence.  Those to whom reports are made and who are in positions of power remain silent.  Those who are being victimized are doubly victimized because they are made to feel shame, helplessness and to fear for their jobs.  And this even happens in Congress where supposedly lawmakers are subject to the same laws as the rest of us, including those against harassment and those against discriminating against an employee who reports it.

Does this sound familiar?  If it does, it may be because it describes accurately as well the process by which–on a much, much larger scale across decades and countries–the Vatican and the Catholic Church have dealt with the sexual abuse of children.  Silence.  Denial.  Signals to those inside the system who might speak out that they would not be promoted within the system, might themselves be targeted, while abusers went free.

Eventually, Massa’s senior staffers reported the ongoing abuse within their office.  But they did so, it appears, only when a blog and a bartender in New York (a man who had himself been solicited by Massa), threatened to take the issue public.  In other words, only when their hands were forced.

Leonnig writes:

But it wasn’t until after a year of staff complaints — when allegations about Massa’s behavior threatened to become a public embarrassment — that supervisors alerted congressional leaders to the problem. That led House leadership to demand the matter be referred to the ethics committee. Massa resigned a few weeks later when the media reported he was the subject of a harassment probe. He declined to comment for this story.

The Church also took action only when its hands were forced and the consensus pretty much seems to be that what they have done so far is to make the primary actors look increasingly culpable.

But it doesn’t stop there.  Today we published an article on Rewire by Megan Carpentier documenting the treatment by KBR, a major government contractor, of Jamie Leigh Jones, a woman who alleges she was gang-raped by male colleagues.  After reporting the incident to her supervisors, she was held by KBR against her will, she says, in a shipping container.  Her rape kit has disappeared and US government agencies involved appear not to be speaking.  Meanwhile, KBR has set up a website meant to discredit Jones.

Sexual harassment, and obviously sexual assault, are against the law.  The US Equal Employment Opportunity Employement states:

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments. It also applies to employment agencies and to labor organizations, as well as to the federal government.

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

Reports of sexual harassment in the workplace have, according to EEOC data, declined from 2001 through 2009, from 15,000-plus complaints per year in 2001 to between roughly 12,500 to 13,000 per year in 2009.  This decline might well be attributable to better education and better work at preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.

But to some degree, it feels we have not come very far since the days of Senator Bob Packwood in the nineties.  Sexual harassment and sexual assault remain widespread. Both types of violations most often occur when power differentials exist, like the kind that exist between an employer, boss, or supervisor and an employee, or between a clergyperson and layperson. Or in the case of outright sexual violence or rape, is most often perpetrated by a man in power against a subordinate who is most likely but not always (as is obvious in the Massa case) female.

Sexual Harassment Support, for example, reports that:

The majority of complaints come from women, however the number of complaints filed by men is increasing, along with increasing numbers of men  filing against female supervisors.  In 2007, 16% of complaints filed with the EEOC were filed by men.  In a 2004 study by and Glamour Magazine, 17% of men said they had experienced sexual harassment, and vs. 35% of women. A 2006 government study in the United Kingdom revealed that 2 out of 5 sexual harassment victims in the UK are male, with 8% percent of all sexual harassment complaints to the Equal Opportunities Commission (Britain’s EEOC), coming from men.

The response to these crimes is still too predictable.  Denial. Silence.  Shame on the part of a victim who is not at fault, and yet often appears to suffer the most both as a consequence of the abuse and later as a consequence of the denial, silence, or outright shame imposed on victims by a system stacked in favor of perpetrators for reasons I still can not fathom.

According to Sexual Harassment Support:

There are many reasons why victims are reluctant to make allegations of sexual harassment, including fear of losing their jobs or otherwise hurting their careers, fear of not being believed, the belief that nothing can or will be done to stop the harassment, and embarrassment, shame, or guilt at being harassed. Men are even less likely to report harassment because of masculine stereotypes, and the pressure to “take anything that comes along.” A man may be afraid it is a negative reflection on his masculinity if he does not enjoy the sexual attention, or he may be afraid of having his sexual orientation questioned.

Or…the homophobia rampant in a society acts just like the deep-set misogyny that afflicts women, and through which gay males who are harassed are, again, doubly victimized by the harassment, and by the discrimination against them as gay males.

It clearly will take a lot more than laws to begin to ensure those who perpetrate harassment and abuse are held accountable and that we stop blaming victims or making them afraid to speak out.  It clearly means we have to hold those who hide, deny, or shame victims accountable for something.  And…we have to hold ourselves accountable for allowing this type of culture to thrive.

I don’t have any answers.  Just a lot of questions.

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