Cover Story: The Word on Sexual Harassment

Controlling the conversation and the work environment

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Real stories about sexual harassment told in the words of those who've lived them can be as powerful as they are shocking. Far from the vague words used in human resource handbooks about suggestive jokes and inappropriate touching, these real-life encounters with sexual harassment are an eye-opening initiation into the workforce.

Melissa, a school-teacher who wishes to give only her first name, remembers her first job. At 15, she lied about her age to be able to secure a telemarketing position reading a script to potential customers warning them about the dangers of chimney fires.

"I was in a room with other salespeople, everyone talking and smoking at once," she says. "My boss was an older man, probably not that old but old enough to be my father, overweight, always flirting and making jokes I didn't appreciate.

"Once he asked me to go to Kings Island with him. I said no. But the thing I won't forget is (when) I was on the phone talking to a potential customer, he came up behind me and licked the back of my neck. I couldn't respond because I was on phone, but when I hung up I screamed."

The words "sexual harassment" often get in the way of identifying the condition they're meant to describe. Conditions surrounding harassment, such as Melissa's, are typically complicated with problematical social issues and uncomfortable details. Reducing it to legal-speak might make it easier to talk about, but that runs the risk of oversimplifying and obscuring the truth.

The facts of life at work
Any time an experience is moved from the realm of the personal to the realm of the legal, it loses the people who populate it. It becomes the stuff of lawyers and judges, administrators and executives.

Even if we know what it is because we've seen it or experienced it, we might not know how to use the words the professionals use to discuss it. Figuring out how the policy connects with our lives is difficult.

Enter the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which investigates claims of sexual harassment. It's also the organization that developed the legal language used today.

According to EEOC, "Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act." Specifically, "Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of 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."

Catch all that?

This is the language commonly used to address and decide sexual harassment claims, of which EEOC received about 13,000 last year. But what exactly constitutes an unwelcome sexual advance? What does it all really mean?

For some Americans, their understanding doesn't begin until they've reached the peak of their careers. Melinda, a manager for a local Fortune 500 company who spoke under the condition of anonymity, says that the first man to sexually harass her at work was a client who was "like a grandfather to me."

"(I came) to find out he likes me," she says. "He takes me back to a closet, grabs me and says, 'I really like you so much.' He has a wife, they send me Christmas cards. This was just the most wrong situation I'd ever been in. I immediately got the hell out of there.

"He called just last week, and I saw his number and I felt so bad."

Stories like this are all too common. By some estimates, anywhere between 40 to 70 percent of women and 10 to 20 percent of men have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, though far fewer file claims. Of the many individuals interviewed for this story who were either subject to sexual harassment or witnesses to it, none filed sexual harassment claims.

They didn't even consider the possibility of filing. Nor did they feel their stories were remarkable. A frequent refrain in conversations about sexual harassment is that it's "a fact of life" or that it's simply "the way things are."

Although most companies now have their own in-house programs and policies in place to deal with sexual harassment — they must if they hope to protect themselves from liability — in order to have the right to sue for sexual harassment a victim must file a claim with the EEOC. There are three ways to do this in Cincinnati: Call EEOC, write EEOC or make an in-person claim at their offices downtown.

The next step is mediation. If mediation with the employer isn't successful, the claim will then enter an investigation process, which could take anywhere from 45 days to a year. It's not surprising given EEOC offices are often critically understaffed.

'She's provoking it'
Sexual harassment claims are among the most difficult to prove because there are rarely witnesses to the harassment. It's all about the evidence — the testimony of witnesses, documentation or corroborating details.

Victims of sexual harassment must be aware of the word "unwelcome" and what it means if they hope to file a successful claim. It's essential for the victim to inform the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop, according to the EEOC. Otherwise, the words or behavior can be construed as welcome.

Policy might not protect a person from this first assault, because harassment is in the eye of the beholder. But once the statement of "no" is witnessed, documented and comparatively supported as "no," it's usually considered "no." That clears everything up, no?

We know of scandals involving politicians, we know of the blows delivered to corporate America and we know of the forms we're asked to read and sign, promising we'll be compliant employees. We know it's wrong to request sexual favors in exchange for professional benefits, we know it's wrong to verbally demean our fellow employees on the basis of their sex and we certainly don't condone any unwanted groping.

Yet our awareness of the realities that remain behind the words "sexual harassment" remains incomplete. Here's at least part of what we're missing: open and continued discussion of the conditions many people in this country still face despite legislation that has been in place since the early 1970s.

Sexual harassment is everywhere, including college campuses. Lynn's work as an administrator in a residence life program in Ohio gave her this picture of campus life. Lynn also spoke under the condition of anonymity.

"Usually, there is somewhere on campus where men will congregate and make comments about women's appearances," she says. "Here it is on the 'strip,' or the main sidewalk near the residence halls. I've also heard of this happening at cafeterias and student centers. Campus police make dismissive comments to a women complaining about harassment from an ex-boyfriend. 'What she was wearing? What did she do to provoke him?' And so on.

"A group of men from a particular residence hall create and wear shirts that say 'We're tighter than your little sister' to express their solidarity."

Criticism of the legal language surrounding sexual harassment isn't new ­ the debate has been raging since its institution as government policy — and in the end that's not really the issue. The issue is that we've allowed our stories to be taken away from us. They've lost their true form and therefore their impact.

The kinds of conversations we're used to having about sexual harassment are criminally limited, and the only reason we have them is because they're easier to swallow than the one about what most Americans already know but are hesitant to admit: Sexual harassment is still a fact of life for many of us, and many of us are women.

Sexual harassment is part of a larger continuum of damaging ideas about sexuality and about women in general. In order to save the discussion from the realm of the television tabloid and in order to save it from disappearing into legal minutiae, we must tell our stories.

We must tell the truth and keep telling it. ©

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