Sexual harassment is in the news. Again.
Last week, Harvey Weinstein was accused of being a serial sex offender. If true, Weinstein, one of the biggest moguls in Hollywood, is a predator who used his power to sexually abuse a series of fragile young women for decades. His methods were despicable. His control over their futures, almost absolute. When faced with the choice of putting up with sexual harassment in the workplace or damaging a budding career, many women choose to remain silent. Many choose to just live with it because to speak up is to court shame and retaliation. Lawful or not, most women understand the price for speaking out against powerful men.
We live in a world where women always know this can happen.
In fact, they expect it. A professor can insinuate that one’s grades might improve with “special treatment” by a female student. Or a high-school teacher can suggest you are a magnificent writer. Shortly thereafter, he can ask to take you to bed, crushing your belief in his assertions of your talents. A boss can lay his hands on you in places they do not belong, and make it very clear that objecting would be bad for that promotion you’ve been asking for. A previously innocuous co-worker can begin to send suggestive texts. No woman has ever gone up to meet a man in his hotel room or apartment for “an innocent lunch” without feeling that knot in her stomach that it might be a setup. But when going upstairs means a role in a Weinstein picture? She goes. Especially if she’s been told it will be safe.
Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes— these men aren’t anomalies.
Women are used to being hit on by men who are virtual strangers. It is, unfortunately, a fact of life. Many men view us as sexual beings first, and co-workers second. The recent string of headlines concerning Fox News, Weinstein Pictures, and the New Yorker piece exposing harassment in Silicon Valley, among others, exposes only the tip of the iceberg.
When Alyssa Milano began her hashtag on Twitter – #MeToo – thousands of women echoed the statement; indicating that they had also experienced sexual impropriety or assault in their lifetimes. It was a powerful moment, and it allowed many more women to come forward with their stories. Hopefully men were listening.
We must ask ourselves which cost is higher – Silence or Speaking Out?
When these incidents encroach on your life, only you can decide what to do about it. There is a cost of silence, but there is also a price to be paid in speaking out. No one can prepare you completely for coming forward, but silence allows the perpetrator to continue to prey on unsuspecting women. Each woman must make the choice that is the least disruptive to her own life. She must also consider whether her silence will perpetuate the practice.
As a member of the legal profession for over thirty years, my experience has been that those who speak out have prevailed, but it was difficult. Each of the cases I was involved in happened to be successful. Whether I was serving in the capacity of providing litigation support or as unofficial counselor, it was also hugely rewarding. Even when my role was simply to keep the client from feeling overwhelmed by the litigation process. Yet in every single case, I developed an enormous respect for those women, as they stood up for themselves, and said “enough.” These cases can run the gamut from gender-based stereotyping all the way to sexual assault, but they will not end until we collectively say “no” to the practice. So although I would have hoped that by now we would be much further down the road to eliminating this misogynistic and archaic behavior, perhaps it will take the entire feminine collective to shut it down; and we cannot do so in silence.
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