What People Still Don’t Get About Workplace Sexual Harassment

By Sara Kloepfer

In the weeks since The New York Times published an investigation detailing Harvey Weinstein’s history of silencing sexual harassment allegations, over 40 women have accused the film producer of sexual harassment or assault, resulting in Weinstein’s firing from his eponymous production company. The New Yorker chronicled multiple actresses and former Weinstein employees’ allegations and a follow-up article in The Times shared seven more women’s accounts of harassment, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. Several actresses, including Rose McGowan,Cara Delevigne, and Lupita Nyong’o, later came forward with their own accounts. As these allegations circulated, so did the hashtag #metoo, a campaign originally started by Tarana Burke to acknowledge the prevalence of sexual harassment and violence against women of color.

Among all the stories being shared by survivors, hard questions arose — who knew, and what does accountability look like? How did an “open secret” thrive for so long? What will it take to stop abusers in power? However, some of the usual questions that accompany sexual harassment and assault were also repeated: why these women did not report Weinstein, why they continued to work with him, why they relied on “whisper networks.” The answers, which may be somewhat obvious to anyone who has been sexually harassed or assaulted, mostly revolve around the shame, guilt, and fear instilled by a society that does not support survivors. There is no “correct” way to respond to the trauma of sexual harassment and assault, but the situation is even murkier surrounding abuse in the workplace due to the power dynamics at play. If you are still wondering about those questions, let me clear up some of the most common misconceptions. 

Harassment isn't that big of a deal, right? It's not like it's hurting anyone. This is how things are between men and women. 

Wrong. Harassment is not minor or harmless, even if it is “just words.” If you are tempted to chalk salacious comments up to flirtation, remember that those types of interactions are completely unacceptable in the workplace, no matter how casual. Harassment and assault are not just about sex, but about power — diminishing someone’s value to their sexuality undermines their professional skills and contributions. According to a report by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), there is a lack of clarity surrounding what constitutes workplace harassment. When asked if they have experienced sexual harassment at work, without the term being defined, one in four women reported harassment, but when specific acts were mentioned, 60 percent of women reported harassment. People often do not report harassment because they think it “doesn’t count”; they assume it is not violent or threatening “enough.” There is no quota for harm when it comes to harassment and assault, any type of unwanted advance is enough to constitute abuse. As for abusers like Weinstein who claim they did not know any better because they grew up in a different time, or men like Mike Pence who avoid meeting with women alone because they see sexual encounters as inevitable, there is clearly no understanding of women as anything other than sex objects to dominate or resist. It’s actually pretty easy to be in a room with a woman and not harass or assault her, lots of people do it every day!

If someone is beautiful or dressed provocatively, aren't they asking for that kind of attention?

Absolutely not. Contrary to what Mayim Bialik or Donna Karan think, abuse happens no matter what you look like or what you are wearing; harassment is largely about power and control, not just sex. In fact, people who do not fit neatly within narrow societal standards of attractiveness are often bigger targets because abusers assume they will not be believed or that they should feel grateful for the “attention.” Slut-shaming or victim-blaming perpetrates the dangerous narrative that people can avoid getting harassed or assaulted, or that it is their responsibility to protect themselves from abuse.

Only women are sexually harassed and assaulted, and all perpetrators are men. 

Nope. Anybody can perpetrate sexual violence, just as anybody can be on the receiving end. While abusers are mostly male and their victims mostly female, disregarding other experiences makes it harder for survivors who do not fit that narrative to speak up. For example, following the Weinstein allegations, actors Terry Crews and James Van Der Beek shared their stories of harassment from male Hollywood executives.

What if a woman is falsely accusing a man of sexual harassment in order to hurt their career?

Extremely not likely. Given how difficult it is to file sexual harassment charges, and the amount of backlash survivors face for coming forward, there is hardly anything to gain from making false accusations. Your first instinct should be to believe survivors, not assume they are lying.

Why don't people report sexual harassment and assault?

Many, many reasons. Some survivors do not report harassment or assault because they are afraid — of retribution, of being blamed, of not being believed. Some do not have enough evidence, or money, or belief in the judicial process to take their abuser to court. Some do not want to deal with the harassment, slut-shaming, and victim-blaming so many survivors experience after reporting. Some believe that the assault was not serious enough, or that it is too personal. Some are simply ashamed. When predators hold power or control over their victims, these fears are only amplified. The EEOC estimates that 75% of workplace harassment incidents go unreported. Much of this underreporting comes down to a fear of retaliation from employers or colleagues. The EEOC report also found that 75% of employees who spoke out against workplace harassment faced some form of retaliation. In Weinstein’s case, he would threaten to ruin up-and-coming actresses’ careers.

If survivors decide to report, it is incredibly difficult to prove a case. Most times, particularly in harassment cases, it is the survivor’s word against their abuser’s, who oftentimes has more power and influence in their field. And if there was a physical assault? Let’s say the abuser did not use a condom, the survivor did not shower or change clothes after the assault, and was able to undergo an exam to provide a rape kit within the 72 hours necessary. Let me tell you something about rape kits. Not only does the process last up to four hours, with an examiner swabbing and photographing the exact areas where a survivor was violated, but once that rape kit is completed, it costs between $600-$1,500 to process — if it gets processed at all. In the US, there is a backlog of untested rape kits. If a rape kit is not tested before the state’s statute of limitations (how long a victim has to report a crime) runs out, it is thrown out. 

Even when women do report, in large numbers, with incontrovertible evidence, famous and powerful abusers still walk free, like Bill Cosby, or become president, like Donald Trump. Not exactly a hopeful incentive to come forward.

Why do people continue to work for or stay friendly with their harassers/attackers?

Power dynamics. Especially in the workplace, where the abuser has control over their victim’s career, survivors face serious retaliation if they come forward. There is such little incentive to report (see above), and many survivors do not have the option of finding another job. Other times, survivors may be attempting to brush off the harassment as just an uncomfortable encounter, and stay friendly with the harasser in an attempt to gain control by reframing the incident.

How is abuse like this an "open secret"?

Quite simply, rape culture. Rape culture presumes that rape is inevitable, and certain people are taught to fear rape (women) while others (men) are not. The reasons that survivors do not report abuse are the same reasons that allow abusers to continue unchecked. If a survivor will not risk professional retaliation, what motivation is there for people who have merely heard about the abuse and not experienced it to come forward? Those who have heard the rumors sometimes don’t believe or don't want to believe that they are true, or may think that it is none of their business, that if it were a real problem, someone would have spoken up by now. In this way, the cycle of silence continues, keeping survivors isolated. “Whisper networks” allow survivors to protect others, but they also keep the open secret a secret. In the case of famous abusers like Weinstein, it is difficult to investigate and publish allegations when no one will go on record. Additionally, institutional pressure to cover up allegations is strong. For example, Weinstein and his associates used nondisclosure agreements, payoffs, and legal threats to suppress survivors’ accounts. 

Bottom line: given the obstacles survivors face in coming forward, it's remarkable that anyone spoke up about Weinstein. Understanding how power dynamics underline workplace sexual harassment and assault is key to supporting survivors, whether they want to come forward or not.

You can reach the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or chat online at

Cover Photo Source: Nyanza D.

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