Confronting the culture of sexual harassment
Was there any adult so naïve or out of touch that they were unaware that some men used their positions of power to get away with behavior ranging from groping to coercing sexual relations? Probably not many.
Yet the recent rush of disclosures by the victims of such behavior, and the ability of men in very public positions to get away with their aberrant conduct for so long, has forced American society to confront the reality that such abuse is far more prevalent than it had realized or, perhaps more accurately, been willing to acknowledge.
It is a healthy reckoning.
The past silence that enabled men to get away with demeaning behavior toward subordinates is understandable. Women feared retaliation and the loss of their jobs or opportunities for advancement if they complained about sexual harassment, often with good reason. Others kept silent out of embarrassment, confused by the baseless guilt they felt for somehow having invited the episode or for not having done more to reject it. Many victims simply wanted to move on.
When women did complain, too often those in authority failed to act, choosing instead to turn a blind eye to protect an influential man in the company. In the process management turned a deaf ear toward women needing protection.
Boys will be boys. Watch yourself. This has too often remained the mentality.
In speaking out in large numbers, women are saying, “No more.” Men of good character must stand with them. By speaking up, the #Metoo movement is making the case that these predatory behaviors will no longer be suffered in silence. They are sending the message that they will not tolerate such actions whether they take place in the halls of academia, during after-hours socializing, in the office, factory or in a congressman’s chamber.
Not everyone is a celebrity or high office holder, whose conduct will be the subject of media attention. True progress occurs if the message — and a zero tolerance attitude toward such behavior — sinks down to the common workplace. The revelations of the past few months, as awful as they may be, help make such progress.
Yet in these moments, when society confronts such an uncomfortable fact and so much pent up anger and unaddressed hurt is being expressed, it is important to guard against the pendulum swinging too far, of sacrificing other principles in the vigor to right wrongs.
Ours is a republic built on the presumption of innocence. Certainly, in some of the most public cases revealed recently, the number of victims willing to go through the difficult process of speaking out, the consistency of their stories, and the thoroughness of the reporting leave little room for doubt about the authenticity of the allegations.
However, in other cases, claims are made in isolation. The potential for someone seeking political, legal or business advantage through misstated or overstated contentions cannot be dismissed. Due process is an ideal that should not be tossed in pursuit of another ideal.
And these are not one-size-fits-all offenses. A crude comment, overly intimate hug or unwelcome stare may be boorish, inappropriate behavior, but it is not in the same category as a boss fondling a subordinate, seeking sexual favors and threatening retaliation for speaking out. They are both wrong, but one far more so. Some inappropriate behaviors have a chance to be corrected, others should be career ending, even criminal.
It seems our society has come a long way in a short time in confronting this particular inconvenient truth. Make note, men, it’s not OK. It’s not boys being boys. It’s abuse of power. It’s wrong. You will be exposed. You will be the one embarrassed.
Congress must take the lead and repeal its foolish 1995 law that requires complaints alleging sexual harassment by congressmen and senators to be investigated confidentially, including settlements paid with taxpayer money. While the process should protect the identity of victims unless they choose to go public, it must largely be transparent, as should the details of settlements paid with the public purse.
Far too many women have experienced forms of sexual harassment. As a society, we have a long ways to go. But progress is being made one painful, courageous revelation at a time.
The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.
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