What does sexual harassment mean? Americans tend to agree on most definitions
December 11, 2017
Sexual harassment is one of those terms can be tough to define, but we think we know it when we see it.
Television legend Katie Couric smiled at the talk show host with whom she was chatting and said her least favorite part about the 15 years she worked with Matt Lauer was him “pinching her on the a– a lot.”
Yeah, that meets almost all Americans’ standards for sexual harassment.
The Barna Group, a faith-based research firm, conducted a nationwide survey of Americans to find out what we mean when we call something sexual harassment.
We agree on the big stuff — touching and groping fit the definition. Telling someone you like their shoes in a flirty way … maybe not.
FRANKEN AND CONYERS AND MOORE, OH MY
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We have now-former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken; now-former Michigan congressman John Conyers; we have the clobbering of Judge Roy Moore’s Alabama senate campaign; and then there are accusations that film producer Harvey Weinstein is essentially a sexual predator and rapist.
Those and so many others sparked the #MeToo movement, stemming from almost daily reports of the sexual misconduct of high-profile figures in film, comedy, journalism, politics and other industries.
Michael Robbins’ Los Angeles law firm employs nine people who are up to their eyebrows in sexual harassment investigations, the kinds of investigations they’ve been doing for 40 years, Robbins said.
They’re handling four Hollywood actions right now; two are high profile, Robbins said. He declined to name them.
“We get hired to fact find, interview people, examine documents. If someone says ‘He or she grabbed me,’ our job is to get details,” Robbins said.
In a normal company and a normal world, if someone claims sexual harassment, the company says they’re going to investigate the person and the accusations of the misconduct and then take the appropriate action.
“Now they get the allegation, they fire the person and then do the investigation. That’s backwards,” Robbins said. “I’m happy to get the work, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to do it that way.”
Investigations tend to divide themselves into thirds:
1. Mostly or entirely true.
2. Not true.
3. Some of it is or isn’t true.
Robbins worked for years as an in-house attorney for the entertainment industry. He testified before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about the problems in the entertainment industry.
“A lot of these allegations probably are true. It is a particular problem in the entertainment industry,” Robbins said.
Some people are being unjustly accused, Robbins said, and some are jumping on what they may see as a gravy train.
“When people are saying it was brave to come out against Harvey Weinstein, that was true for the first few. But when you get to number 87 …?” Robbins said.
Robbins also works as an expert witness, and recently testified in a case involving one of the 100 richest Americans, whom he also declined to name. A female employee with 25 years in that company twice claimed sexual harassment. Nothing was investigated, Robbins said.
When someone complained about her, the company investigated and she was fired.
She sued and won.
The Colorado state legislature is doing it more or less correctly after Megan Creeden, a former Colorado legislative intern, told Colorado Public Radio that State Sen. Randy Baumgardner created “uncomfortable encounters” during the 2016 legislative session. Baumgardner said he did not do that, or anything like it.
“I trust in the process — allowing the facts to be thoroughly investigated and all sides to be heard — and ask that we not allow the media to be the final word on such matters,” Baumgardner said in a prepared statement.
CRIMINAL OR CIVIL?
Sexual assault or harassment can be civil or criminal, said local attorney Rohn Robbins.
If it’s criminal, then you’re asking a judge and jury to put someone in jail.
If it’s civil, then you’re asking for damages. What those damages would be can depend on who you are and how much money you have.
“Punitive damages are meant to punish. It’s meant to teach the infractor a lesson,” Robbins said. “If you’re prominent, it’s likely to cost you more.”
The New York Times reported that former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly paid a woman $32 million to settle a harassment action.
Criminal language gets parsed to determine if the offense is a misdemeanor or felony, a violent crime, a sexual offense or locker room humor.
“Al Franken’s groping is one thing. Putting your hand up someone’s pants or sexual penetration is quite another,” Robbins said. “The law can be complicated, but the facts clarify it.”
Criminal charges are decided by the district attorney. In Colorado’s 5th Judicial District, that’s Bruce Brown.
Sexual harassment is not criminal, Brown said.
“You can sue people, but you cannot put them in jail,” Brown said.
However, if it takes place in a government office, it could be considered a crime of official misconduct, under Colorado’s state government rules for public officials, Brown said.
It could also be extortion if you tell someone: “If you engage in this sexual act, I’ll give you preferential treatment,” Brown said.
If it advances to physical touching in an inappropriate way, then it could become unlawful sexual conduct.
WHAT IS SEXUAL HARASSMENT?
While there is a general legal definition for the workplace, Americans have varying ideas, often based on gender.
According to the research from the Barna Group, Americans generally agree you’ve been sexually harassed if you’ve been touched or groped (women: 96 percent, men: 86 percent) or being forced to do something sexual (women: 91 percent, men: 83 percent). The same goes for making sexual comments about someone’s looks or body (women: 86 percent, men: 70 percent) and sharing intimate photos or videos of someone without their permission (women: 85 percent, men: 71 percent).
Three in 10 American adults (29 percent) told Barna they have been sexually harassed, women three times more than men (42 percent versus 16 percent).
“The past few months have ushered in an unprecedented level of awareness and shock at the pervasive experience of sexual harassment,” said Roxanne Stone, editor in chief of Barna Group. “The revelations surrounding celebrities and politicians have opened up a floodgate for women especially — but men, too — to acknowledge the ways in which they have experienced both subtle and overt forms of harassment in their workplaces, churches and social circles.”
Most employers have policies prohibiting such behavior. The Vail Daily’s parent company, Swift Communications, is as clear as any:
“No employee, applicant or contractor should be subjected to unsolicited and unwelcome sexual overtures. Nor should any employee, applicant or contractor be led to believe that an employment opportunity or benefit would in any way depend upon ‘cooperation’ of a sexual nature,” Swift’s policy says.
However, a clear policy does not mean victims will report sexual harassment. In fact, only about one-third (34 percent) report it when it’s personal, while half report online harassment, Barna’s research found. Most people point to a fear of retaliation and, even more frequently, to a fear of not being believed, Stone said.
“Leaders in every level of society — from entertainment, to the marketplace, to politics, to churches — must honestly wrestle with this challenging issue and what it means for their institutions,” Stone said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.