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Serrins & Associates LLC Employment Law Blog

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Moment of #MeToo - A Cultural Reckoning with Sexual Harassment

As anyone who watches the news, surfs the internet, or even sometimes engages in topical conversations with friends is aware, we are now experiencing an incredible national moment of reckoning on the topic of sexual assault. In many of the cases that have been reported to date, the specific topic of sexual harassment is implicated, by which we mean unwanted advances of a sexual nature that occur in a professional context. (The labels can be a little fuzzy on these issues, but here we consider sexual harassment mostly in its legal context, where it largely refers to workplace behavior.) As employment lawyers, sexual harassment is something we see distressingly often - these sorts of cases are a large part of the work we do. And so while we regret the very existence of this form of abuse, we are nonetheless heartened that Americans of all stripes are speaking out and making others aware.

Looking back on these tumultuous few months, it’s worthwhile to spend a few minutes to consider what we have learned and consider what comes next, both culturally and legally.

We’ve learned that the political persuasion of a business is no guard against a culture hostile toward female employees. Hipster favorite Vice Magazine is facing accusations of harassment in its offices, and Leon Wieseltier, longtime editor of generally left-of-center New Republic, has been outed as an apparent serial mistreater of women. On the other side of the aisle, Fox News has seen itself become an epicenter of harassment complaints: Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Eric Bolling have all been eased out after revelations of their unsavory behavior came to light.

We’ve learned that sexual harassment happens even to powerful women in glamorous industries. Perhaps the best example of this is the reign of terror engaged in by Harvey Weinstein, accused of sexual misconduct by, at last count, 57 women, ranging from personal assistants and bit actresses, to luminaries like Gwyneth Paltrow and Uma Thurman.

We’ve learned - if we didn’t know this already - that a public posture of virtue can often hide a practitioner of sexual harassment. Rep. John Conyers, a legend of Congress, now stands accused of harassment, and the public at large is re-thinking Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky, which featured what might be the greatest power imbalance in the history of workplace sex: the President of the United States and his intern. Rep. Jackie Speier of California claims that two as yet unnamed members of Congress are known harassers, one Democrat and one Republican. And because we are focusing here on workplace misconduct, we won’t even delve into the politicians accused of other sexual abuse, including Roy Moore in Alabama, and Al Franken of Minnesota. These are powerful men, all who publicly proclaim their own virtue - but personal virtue is no defense to a claim of sexual harassment.

Here’s what we should remember going forward: sexual harassment can occur in any workplace, with any employer, against any woman (and sometimes, against a man). Ironically, recent events have cemented in the public’s mind that powerful people and glamorous industries can and do suffer from harassment problems, but remember: most harassment is not of the high-profile sort. It happens to maids, bartenders, accountants, cashiers....anywhere men and women work together, sexual harassment can rear its ugly head. The headlines are actually a very small part of the story.

What comes next? Our hope is that more women are inspired to come forward and seek justice if they have been mistreated. In the end, consistent and severe accountability is the only way we can hope to stamp out this societal cancer, and for that to happen, we need women brave enough to speak out.

Read more about sexual harassment and the law at our blog, and of course, reach out to our firm if recent events have made you realize that you too, have a story to tell.





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