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.

Here’s why:

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.


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  1. sandy
    sandy says:

    I’ve experienced sexual harassment at two of the companies I’ve worked at. In both cases I made it clear to the guys that I wasn’t interested. But I did seek new jobs and moved on to different companies. I think it has less to do with sex than it does with power and emotional violence.

  2. Woman with Backbone
    Woman with Backbone says:

    A little off topic-
    You guys need to educate yourself in what really is sexual harrassment. Not all unwelcomed advances are sexual harrassment cases, so please grow up and stop that victim attitude.

    Another thing: this
    “Newsflash: Women do not willingly give blow jobs to men they have never met before”
    Coming from a woman who have had one-night stands, is hilarious!

  3. Mike
    Mike says:

    These women have nothing to lose when they report men who cross the line sexually. So the maid reported.

    That is so disconnected from economic and social reality that words fail me.

  4. Skweekah
    Skweekah says:

    It must be remembered though that most people in most places in the world are mostly good folk. Crap does happen. Let’s not group all people into the catagory of finks. And, thank God for the fact that most women (and men) in our workforce will never be subjected to the act of forced fallacio/cunnilingus in the workplace (unless your an actor in a porn movie).

  5. BB
    BB says:

    Wow. Just…wow. I think the air up there in the heights of having $100K or whatever to lose has gone to your head.

    Low-status workers have days full of humiliations, and then they stop at the corner store in their local food desert and try to allot their tiny tips among the overpriced junk there so they can bring home something like dinner to their hungry kids…and they have nothing to lose? Please.

    “Nothing to lose”–I think that does not mean what you think it means.

  6. BB
    BB says:

    The headline is silly too. I would never dream of saying harassment was “going” high-end, as if it had not been true all along that some men think they have rights over EVERY woman’s body that they see.

  7. Lydia
    Lydia says:

    Ms. Trunk,
    Being one of the women, ‘highly empowered women’ in a lowly sales position at a used bookstore, I must tell you that after enduring sexual harassment in my place of employment for over three years, in fact, well over three years, I did not feel particularly empowered or that I had nothing to lose with two small children, bills to pay, a learning disability, a mother dying of Alzheimer’s disease, for whom I was caring (along with a baby), a hurricane destroying my family home, constant threats from those harassing me (even defilement of my home by these individuals) etc. When I finally could not take anymore, when I was on the verge of wanting to drown myself and finally came forth and complained, I was not taken seriously, was told that I was overly-sensitive, was accused of being mentally unstable, was told that I could work at another store in the chain over an hour away while several of the harassers were allowed to remain in the store, was ridiculed, and I think I’ve essentially made my point, I lost almost everything and I am now completely dependent upon a man, who I must remain married to, in order to have insurance and a roof over my head and food to eat. Yes, as a lowly clerk, I am unbelievably lucky. Thanks for the support and sisterhood. You are what I call a minimalist feminist, one of those elitist white women that can’t see beyond their own noses with regard to the suffering of poor sisters. Hell, who needs patriarchy when we have the ‘support’ of women such as yourself?!

  8. R. Gross
    R. Gross says:

    I couldn’t agree more with you, when I was in college I had a boss that I had to pursue sexual harassment charges against. I was working at a food service job and wasn’t worried about my future there. Fast forward a few years, in my second job out of college where I endured the advances of a senior executive that pursued a physical relationship with me. I knew that I wouldn’t keep my job if I pressed charges and he made it hard to even criticize him since his internal praise of my work was a huge reason I moved so high and fast in the company.

  9. crescent
    crescent says:

    Typical op-ed from the privileged class. Women who live from paycheck to paycheck have less to lose because their ascent up the corporate ladder isn’t threatened? Unbelievably ignorant, arrogant and elitist.

    God. Get out more. Into the real world. Of living day to day, paycheck to paycheck. Of not having the luxury of a career that “might” get stalled out. Or not. The world where there’s not enough money to pay utilities, rent and medical bills. And to lose one’s sole means of support isn’t MORE devastating than that hiccup in the career climb? Please. You really need to get out of that gated garden more often.

  10. Rosie
    Rosie says:

    This article is class bigotry at its worse. And I never thought it would be written by another woman.

  11. Janus Daniels
    Janus Daniels says:

    Incredibly, “Posted by Laura on May 21, 2011 at 6:19 pm” offered the first mention of unions, and the victim’s union membership, in this thread. PT wrote, “Today, women feel more empowered – even women in a low pay-grade.”
    IF they have a union that they can depend on.
    This woman did.

  12. William
    William says:

    The actions and behavior-sexual assault and rape of the hotel worked is most likely going to have the IMF Frechman doing time.

    That aside, it is no doubt that some women are subjected to sexual harrasment in the work place but what was left out of this post was how women use their sexuality and also sex to advance their careers. That is the little ugly that is overlooked in this conversation.

    The recent article on time about men behaving as pigs is true enough, men in power but that article as well failed to mention the role women have in swinging sex as a weapon in relationships and marriages; some women have become as bad if not worse that men in the whole power/money relationsip now and some women needed to be reminded of it.

    Plenty of women behaving as badly as men in regards to behaving as pigs. Short of the actions of the IMF, plenty of women who see sex as but another tool in their purse to advance their careers,income, and if necessary use it to end marriages and gain new husbands. The days of niceties in the sex game with women have long past so spare the fellas the song and dance.

  13. livex
    livex says:

    Here’s reporting from the Daily Beast:
    “Hotel workers described her [i.e., the maid] as traumatized, having difficulty speaking, and immediately concerned about pressing charges and losing her job, according to sources familiar with the investigation.”

    Even apart from issues about her job, which are important, imagine what she is going to go through emotionally if she is called as a witness in a trial — the media attention, the reliving of the traumatic event.

    Ms. Trunk, I understand you have Asperger’s and therefore have a hard time thinking yourself into someone else’s emotional situation, but that does not excuse your deciding to publicly proclaim that someone like this maid has “nothing to lose” by coming forward to confront her assailant. You should really revisit this issue in another post.

  14. Kenosi
    Kenosi says:

    I personally think women should speak up irrespective of their socio-economic position. But I find your take on the matter interesting.

  15. Meg
    Meg says:

    thank you thank you thank you for this. I’ve had the hardest time explaining to my boyfriend why i remain on civil terms with a married man who “put the moves on me” at an event. He kissed me. I was honest and told the BF. The bf thinks I wanted it because i won’t cut contact. Try explaining to someone that you CAN’T just cut contact because your industry is tiny and this person KNOWS people and if you tell him to f*ck off, he’ll f*ck ME in a figurative sense down the line. Sigh, sent this post to the bf, i think he’s starting to get it. thanks again for another insightful and interesting post!

  16. Lindsay
    Lindsay says:

    I (female) was sexually harassed by a coworker. I was “let go” for the complaint and when I brought legal action, the claim was I couldn’t have really been harassed since the harasser was 1) the same gender as me and 2) subordinate to me since she was a secretary and I was an in-house attorney (yes a lawyer being sexually harassed!)… but here is the thing, the female was the CEO’s mistress and the harassment was her telling me I had to get naked with her on the CEO’s boat. I ended up just letting it go and finding another job, it wasn’t worth the trouble… I regret that now… and I’m glad times are changing, one case at a time.

  17. someguy
    someguy says:

    Penelope I am Dad to two daughters, worked/work in female dominated work environments, recently found out one of my daughters was raped by her mom’s boyfriend and again by a blind physical therapist. I have been sexually harassed at work for decades – not so much recently.
    First I want to say I supported my daughter, encouraged and stood by her.
    I have always fought for what was right, risking my career and at times my physical person.
    My daughters take after me in that they stand up to what is wrong with greater odds.
    I have to point out a flaw that works against women; how they speak and how they dress, men are and continue to be brought under control – but women are becoming increasingly open how they speak and how they dress. I consider showing cleavage sexual harassment or wearing a skirt so short you see butt sexual harassment. Dressing provocatively in the work place by any female should be considered sexual harassment by any man. Just as any women should consider a man dropping his drawers sexual harassment. I reported a female for hanging a speedo calendar of men as sexual harassment. No person should be afraid of reporting anyone regardless of sex for in appropriate behavior of any kind – IT IS A WORK PLACE, NOT A BEDROOM – PEOPLE!
    NO! Women do not have the right to wear garments that belong under their clothes without cover at work or dress close to naked. Women should not be accused of asking for sexual trouble for dressing that way, but they are asking for a sexual harassment suite today!
    Dirty talk should be left outside the work place and so should the gossip ladies and gents.
    Keep this in Mind – ZIP IT! LIPS AND PANTS!
    By the way, I am not religious nor a prud – I have been improperly accused, sexually harassed and notice stupid behavior over the years.

    • anony
      anony says:

      well if that isn’t victim blaming, I don;t know what is.

      Men should be able to keep it appropriate and in their pants regardless of what the other person is wearing. it’s called being professional and respectful. This comment makes me very very sad for your daughters…

    • Amy
      Amy says:

      I don’t care WHAT a woman wears… You are a grown man in charge of your own behavior and no woman is going to force you to look at her cleavage or rape her because you saw her butt when she bent over in a short skirt. If a man wears a pair of pants that makes his ass look great or a tailored shirt that shows how hard he has been working to develop his pecs, I notice, but I can survive without commenting or grabbing him. Exercise some self control, evolve, grow up.

  18. NTP server
    NTP server says:

    I cannot believe we still live in a world where as women we are subjected to unacceptable behaviour. I know it happens to men too, but this case highlights that justice is too often sidelined by money.

  19. Tyler
    Tyler says:

    I want to believe in the story of the maid who brought down the rich French snobby Jewish banker sure. I want to feel good about America for treating a high class criminal like any other(but I know that is almost never the case). Except it turned out the accusations were false. Strauss Kahn was supposed to be the candidate to run against France’s fascist war mongering Bush worshipping Anti Romani(Gypsy) bigot of a President Sarkozy, quite the philanderer himself by the way. Sexual harrasment is real but so are false accusations. I saw where I live a great local politician brought down by a combination of his vindictive ex wife wanting to squeeze more money out of him and the big money of Republican SuperPacs. She maked ridiculous accusations of violence right before election season every time he has to run for reelection. My state has a law that the police must make an arrest if a domestic violence call is made, even if it is blatantly false. Guilty until proven innocent. Some feminists seem unwilling to accept that a woman can do wrong. This helped to elect a radical right winger who hates birth control and womens rights and Latinos and Black and Gays and well basically everybody who isn’t a rich white man who attends his church. Good job ultra feminism.

  20. Amy
    Amy says:

    I am a bit appalled by this, but do see validity in some of your points. We live in a shitty world, and whistleblowers rarely get rewarded. However, letting the harasser get away with it only promises that he or she will do it to someone else down the road. If you are going to leverage the behavior for some benefit to you, make sure it comes at a cost that will serve as a deterrent in the future. Otherwise, report it to HR and negotiate confidentiality, a positive reference, and a severance as part of the investigation outcome. Get out of there, but make the dirtbag pay. Lack of consequences ensures continued bad behavior, and that is the last thing we need these days.

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