If Sexual Harassment Is Illegal, Why Is It So Rampant?


By Lenora M. Lapidus

It’s time to dismantle the structures that allow sexual harassment to happen and deter women from reporting it.

When Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October 1991, sexual harassment had already been declared illegal by the Supreme Court five years earlier. In Vinson v. Meritor Savings Bank of Washington, the court held that sexual harassment that is ”sufficiently severe or pervasive” to create ”a hostile or abusive work environment” violates Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s prohibition against sex discrimination in the workplace. Yet, it was not until the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings that the public fully engaged in a discussion about sexual harassment.

Supreme Court rulings don’t translate into changes on the ground overnight.

It is hard to imagine that today the Thomas hearings would proceed to confirmation the way they did 27 years ago. But this has far less to do with developments in the law than it does with changes in societal views.

Sexual harassment has been prohibited for more than a quarter century. Yet, this form of sex discrimination is still rampant. In 2016, nearly 7,000 charges of sexual harassment were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). But that number doesn’t represent the full scope of the problem as the vast majority of sexual harassment victims don’t report it or file any claim. The reasons women stay silent are manifold. They don’t want to risk their jobs, they fear others won’t believe them, they don’t want to relive the experience or suffer through a legal proceeding, they worry about a defamation suit being filed against them, or they are legally prohibited from speaking up or filing a legal action by non-disclosure clauses or mandatory arbitration.

When Anita Hill testified, she was disbelieved and chastised by members of the all-white, all-male Judiciary Committee. Senator Arlen Specter accused her of perjury. Senator Orrin Hatch referred to her as the tool of “slick lawyers.” Senator Alan Simpson remarked, “I really am getting stuff over the transom about Professor Hill. I’ve got letters hanging out of my pocket. I’ve got faxes. I’ve got statements from Tulsa saying: Watch out for this woman.” In the end, as members of the Senate had to decide whether they believed Hill or Thomas, the majority voted to confirm – following a long tradition in he-said/she-said disputes of siding with the man in power.

Today, with #MeToo and the national conversation about sexual violence, less shame attaches to women who share their stories and fewer women are being blamed for the harassment and abuse they have suffered. Indeed, attention is turning from questions about the victim to a focus on the perpetrator, his actions and the structures and institutions that hid the abuse. For the first time, we are seeing real consequences for sexual harassment. Powerful men are being fired or stepping down in Hollywood, in media, in the restaurant business, in Congress, and even in the federal judiciary.

How can we carry this moment forward? First, we must ensure that all women (and men) who suffer sexual harassment are able to be heard. This includes low-income women, immigrant women, and women of color who lack access to lawyers eager to sue the rich and famous. Second, we must provide victims of gender-based violence and harassment that occurs outside the employment context or other spheres protected by civil rights laws with more tools to hold perpetrators accountable, including civil rights remedies. Further, we need more women in positions of power in every industry, legislature, and court system, so that not all bosses are men and harassment at the workplace will not be brushed under the rug.

Finally, we need cultural change that starts with the young, like educational reforms that treat boys and girls the same rather than relying on sex stereotypes and programs that teach the meaning and harm of sexual harassment in early grades.

There should be no turning back from this watershed moment. But lasting transformation will require vigilance and structural change.

Read more in our series, “Dismantling Sexual Harassment”

Lenora M. Lapidus is the Director, Women’s Rights Project, ACLU

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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12 thoughts on “If Sexual Harassment Is Illegal, Why Is It So Rampant?”

  1. CTherese Benoit

    People try to manage it on their own. Some women manipulate the imbalance to their advantage. Others either don’t have that option or else value their integrity more – those ones fight. Getting women on the same page regarding what constitutes sexual harassment, which battles are worth fighting, and how we should fight them – is mostly impossible. Especially since we can all be in the same glass bowl but based on our size, shape, color etc. – have a very different view. And even our own paradigm is ever changing with age.

    Most feminists and conservative women subordinate themselves to men in different ways imho. It’s perspective. Men benefit from desensitized masculinated women who have casual attitudes about sex, see chivalry as unecessary, and equate abortions to an extra monthly cycle. Saves some men money on prostitutes and spares others the complications of an actual relationship. Men also benefit from women who believe it is their role and duty to serve them and accomodate the male ego’s system for appraising women. For me, I don’t see any movement that is really about liberating women to BE powerful in nature’s design of us.

    This metoo movement is meh… I guess it is something. Not sure what. It’s an idea. I suppose that is a start.

    Then I have to ask myself how far it will go… People mess with nature way too much. I don’t think many of us recognize the long term effects of some of these things until it is too late.

    1. Jeff M

      Very good post from a female perspective.

      I was lamenting to my 20-something son a future world where males would be walking on pins and needles in fear of being persecuted for allowing their hormones to cause them to glance at a female coworker for more than the legal number of seconds allowed, and he told me not to worry to much as society was changing and would always change and would change again in the future, and older people will always see the change as negative.

      Of course he isn’t dating and does not seem to have much interest in pursuing any relationship.  I think he has succeeded in ignoring his male hormones.

      I think the #MeToo movement may go too far and result in more #OnlyMe and #OnlyYou.

      I also see it as being partially politically motivated… accepting the damage to societal gender relationships in order to get the women voting block to move as a collective instead of with individual independence.   Where to draw the line in what is actual harassment and what is biology… now there is the real challenge.

      1. CTherese Benoit

        100% agree with you. It is a shame that certain groups have their vulnerabilities wide open to be politically exploited.

        I remember when I was young and in college; I dared complain about getting too much male attention. One of my male friends asked me how I would feel walking across campus without one male noticing me. I gulped, lol. Now that I am nearing 40, I find myself facing that evolving reality.

        I dont think most heterosexual women will enjoy a society where men barely look at them. I dont think it is too farfetched to say that is where we are moving. And that will have a lot of negative consequences – the mildest among them being women not getting the validation we are biologically wired to enjoy.

        I think it will give the internet and all its addictive vices a stronger pull than they’ve already got. And that is scary, dangerous really.

      2. Marina Khan

        sadly Jeff, that is also another side of a coin which has existed for decades also…  I have seen young men’s lives ruined as a result…

        it has a lot to do with the fact that girls in the US are having menses average AND median at 7-9….. by the time boys hit puberty the girls have been all over them for years…

        1. CTherese Benoit

          “it has a lot to do with the fact that girls in the US are having menses average AND median at 7-9….. but the time boys hit puberty the girls have been all over them for years…”

          Marina dear, I am a little confused as to what you are saying here? Please explain elsewhere if you are more comfortable.


  2. CTherese Benoit

    Ya Marina, you speak a lot of truth. Truths a lot of people dislike because it leaves many of us with little hope for ourselves (and sometimes humanity as a whole, lol). But that doesn’t make it any less true. That’s what I think a lot of “feminists” overlook. They dislike painful truths. The other side tends to be uninterested in changing the parts of those truths that can (and should) be changed. An impressive movement would cure these blind sides.

  3. Tia Will

    Interesting that the comments so far have tended towards the extremes, or the what ifs. Social norms have been constantly changing even since humanity could be recognized as such. Some societies draw a distinct line in the sand for adulthood be it by chronologic age, by onset of menses for women, or achievement of some act of prowess either for men or women. There is nothing new about evolution of the age of onset of “adulthood” or the behaviors that are associated with it. Cultures have vastly different norms of what is acceptable proximity some demanding complete separation of the sexes while others accept casual or intimate touch. The only thing that I see as “new” in the discussion of what is normative sexual behavior is the speed with which opinion about it is being disseminated.

    What is less understandable to me is why we have allowed different behaviors to be acceptable for men and women for so very long. While boys/men have been encouraged to pursue the objects of their sexual desires, women are supposed to maintain some sexual “purity” or false reticence despite equally strong desires. Having dealt with these issues professionally for over 30 years, yes, I guarantee you men that women’s libidos can equal or exceed those of their male partners. The difference is that a strong sex drive is valued as part of masculinity but supposed to be downplayed under the guise of “modesty” for women. And we wonder why we have a problem.

    Couldn’t we just admit that every human being is completely individual in their libido, their openness or lack thereof about their sexuality, and ask before assuming that they will welcome our advances ?  Couldn’t we agree that a professional setting or work place is not the appropriate venue to advance our sexual desires just as we would hope that our surgeon isn’t playing footsie with her colleague while performing our surgery ? And couldn’t we all accept that a look is not the same as a touch, nor is a touch on the hand the equivalent in our society as a touch on the breast ? Couldn’t we admit that when someone expresses dislike of either, that their opinion is as valid as our own instead of trying to belittle their point of view ?

  4. CTherese Benoit

    Tia I see the value in a lot of what you said but your main point is exactly why I say a lot of well meaning people tend to go in an extreme direction that is very divorced from nature:

    “What is less understandable to me is why we have allowed different behaviors to be acceptable for men and women for so very long.”

    Assuming that you are referring to sexual behaviors (because that is what this article is about)… Isn’t sexuality THE main and almost exclusive difference between men and women. Yes libidos are unique but certain elements of sexuality – particularly what the majority of men and women find attractive is dictated by our sex.

    As long as we are willing to accept the consequences of these movements to normalize behavior that isn’t really natural – then fine; so be it. But the truth is most of us are not. And that is exactly why we are even having this “new” argument (and many others) now. We fought to be in the workplace with men. But we want to be treated differently than men because we are women, but we dont want men to acknowledge we are women except for when they are accommdating are womanliness. lol (sorry if that is not a word).

    We are spinning webs around ourselves and the only way to break the cycle of growing insanity is to separate the sexes altogether or else accept that there will be areas in this life where one sex is stronger than the other… and vice versa. What too many women are overlooking is that when we discount our superpowers and allow them to be regarded as oppressive and disposable – we lose the side of the coin where WE are stronger.

    Women are equal only when we embrace that we are different as women than men. That means fully owning what nature has given us – the same as men do. When was the last time you saw men fighting for anything that compromised or suppressed their own natural design? Never. That is exactly why they will continue to lord it over us – whether we see it or not. Men focus on excelling as men. Women, many of us, have allowed ourselves to be duped into believing our excellence in indicated by how like men we can become. This abandons our own power. We can never be better that someone/thing we are trying to copy.

  5. Tia Will

    particularly what the majority of men and women find attractive is dictated by our sex.”

    I suggest that this is what we all learned when we were growing up, but that the broad spectrum of sexual behaviors and preferences argues against a purely binary definition of sexuality. And it is true that the majority prefer heterosexual sex. However, this does not mean in anyway that individual behavior needs to conform to majority preference. Or even that heterosexuality means that we find the same behaviors attractive. I may accept a great more “flirtatious behavior” than is acceptable to you. So whose definition of “acceptable” should prevail ? I would say that we are in a time of flux as far as acceptable behavior is concerned and that there are generational gaps in tolerance of various behaviors.

    There are many individuals who while having an XY chromosomal complement prefer same sex partners or are bisexual and the same is true of individuals who have an XX composition. It is easy to believe that because I am a woman, my preferences entail what it is to be a woman. My career has shown me that this is simply not the case. Also much of what we find “attractive” sexually has been determined not by our physiology, but rather by our culture.

    1. CTherese Benoit

      Tia, I dare not argue with a doctor about what current scientific research is presenting as “fact”. However, I am willing to gamble that much of what we find attractive is, in fact, dictated by our sex because of our primal instinct to procreate. Based on that, I feel safe in the assumption that an overwhelming majority of people are heterosexual in their ultimate preference. Of course, we have all sorts of cultural influences in media; internet, pornography etc. that spark human curiosity – which make novel sexual exploration more common than it may have once been.

      And I don’t doubt these curiosities multiply as natural human instincts are repressed by whatever political agendas are promoting as the current cultural norm. Does it not make more sense to recognize that behaviors not conducive to pro-creation are more likely to be a matter of cultural influence than those that are?

      How did our population reach these numbers from where we started ages ago? With little to no influence whatsoever – unless you believe God exists. I am guessing you probably do not. So therefore – we had NO influence, no guide, no religion, and yet the natural instincts of the overwhelming majority were heterosexual.

      I think this digresses a bit from the topic of sexual harassment and attitudes about gender. I will say that I myself was in a same sex relationship for a time. I cannot speak for all women but in my own case – I had taken my divorce extremely hard and felt unlovable as a newly single mother. My same-sex tryst was a matter of martyrdom. From stories I have heard from other women, and few gay men I have met in their maturing years – my own experience was not unique. There are often other variables at work that drive people away from heterosexual relationships.

      I love science but I feel that in our time, science has become more focused on proving whatever point is a social hot point. Our science has become arrogant and biased. It feels to me, and of course I am only speaking intuitively, like science has become less about exploring the ever unknown and more about proving what people want to believe we know. In fact, it is virtually considered a hate crime even to employ science to explore a perspective that contradicts what is politically correct (and oft dishonest).

  6. CTherese Benoit

    *** To be clear:

    I am not implying that gays/lesbians do not have an earnest love for their significant others. I believe they love their partners as much/as little as the next hetero pairing. What I do not believe is that the majority of instances are a matter of normal biology. This is neither good/bad – it just is (and it is my opinion).

    As far as the majority preference being something we should all conform to, I think that is silly of course. It is almost as silly as attacking the preference of the overwhelming majority to make a relatively small minority feel comfortable all the time. No one is comfortable all the time; if you are made to stand out, stand out. The minority should always be protected from serious harm, but hurt feelings and awkward social exchanges are something we all have to accept sometimes. It’s hard but we all have to weather continuous little storms inside and outside of ourselves. It grows the soul.

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