I can’t help being giddy that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the (now former) managing director of the IMF, was whisked off his plane at JFK and delivered to one of the most notorious criminal holding arenas in the world, Riker’s Island. It’s a great story about sexual harassment because it’s so hard to nail someone like this. And it was done so well.
Strauss-Kahn is accused of raping a maid at his hotel. Which is sad. But there are some notable things about the case: First, he forced her to give him a blow job, and now it seems that there is widespread recognition that a forced blow job is rape. This is a big deal in legal history. For a long time, blow jobs didn’t count.
Another notable thing is that a woman who is a maid took legal action against a man who was staying in a hotel room that costs $3000 a night.
Typically, men harass women who they felt were beneath them. For most of history, this has meant all women – as all women had little power. In the last few decades, though, women have gained more power, and men have paid heed to that in their harassment targets.
For example, it’s nearly unheard of for a guy to harass his boss’s boss, and it’s almost routine for an high-up executive to hit on the hot assistant. Men think that is safe behavior. Men think they can take advantage of women who have little power in their world.
But I think we’re going to find a reversal in the next few years: Sexual harassment will creep up the corporate ladder as men try to protect themselves by harassing only women who have careers they need to protect.
It has been clear for at least a decade that women who want to have a high-flying career should not report sexual harassment. I have written about this a zillion times, and before you argue with me, read the quotes from all the labor lawyers (representing plaintiffs) who agree.
The bottom line is that just about every woman who has entered the workplace has experienced sexual harassment, but the women who report it face retribution. Almost always. The Guardian reported on a French woman who was harassed by Strauss-Kahn who did not come forward because she feared retribution.
In the US, retribution is illegal, but there are not good laws for proving and prosecuting retribution. ProPublica explains that the sexual harassment laws in the US are so murky that it’s nearly impossible to use them to prosecute unwanted advances. So women who complain about harassment generally lose their jobs in some convoluted but ultimately predictable way.
Therefore it has become common practice for women to handle harassment themselves—either by confronting the guy, ignoring him, or changing jobs. Women, even young women, understand that it’s not worth derailing their career to take down some lascivious guy they don’t care about. You can’t reform a jerk. So why bother taking the time to report him? Just get away from him.
At this point, women generally understand that the legal system should handle sexual harassment at work. And just because the legal system lacks proper teeth doesn’t mean that individual women, trying to earn a living, should pick up the slack.
But, what about women who don’t care if they get fired? Those women hold a lot of power in this equation.
It used to be that women with low-level jobs did not have the socioeconomic backing to stand up for themselves in the face of harassment. Today, women feel more empowered—even women in a low pay-grade. And women across the economic spectrum can identify what crosses the line.
These women have nothing to lose when they report men who cross the line sexually. So the maid reported. And then, it turns out, all sorts of women in higher up positions spoke up against Strauss-Kahn. The women wouldn’t report the harassment on their own. They don’t want to suffer retribution. But now there will be no retribution, so it’s safe to come forward.
This is why men are going to focus harassment at the higher ranks of the corporate ladder. These are the women who have to keep their mouths shut if they want to keep climbing the ladder.
But God help the guy who harasses a women with nothing to lose.
It’s a great moment in history. Poor women are empowered to fight against lecherous men, and rich women can finally come out of the sexual harassment closet because of it.