Women advocates: Don't ignore sexual misconduct
Angela Moore was not surprised when the story broke about sexual assault and harassment allegations against film executive Harvey Weinstein.
“I was disheartened and very concerned,” the executive director of YWCA Rock County said. “But not surprised. We have all heard of the 'casting couch' and about what talented people have to go through to survive in the (acting) business.”
The Weinstein scandal is not the first disclosure of alleged predatory behavior among the powerful in recent months.
Nor will it be the last.
But Moore and others who work to empower women believe it can be a turning point.
“Whenever something like this happens, it encourages victims to come forward and to share their personal stories,” Moore said. “By telling their stories, the truth comes out, and we are saying out loud that this is unacceptable. When society does that, there is a change in behavior.”
Amanda Isunza agrees. She is the program director for the Sexual Assault Recovery Program, which serves Rock and Green counties.
“Any time there's something on the news, we pay attention,” she said. “It can lead to victims feeling power and disclosing similar events. It is empowering to know we have a right to speak up about sexual abuse.”
In the days since the first revelations about Weinstein, women and men have let their voices be heard on Twitter and social media.
In the workplace, Isunza sees this as an opportune time for employers to talk about polices in place to prevent sexual harassment.
“They need to tell employees how they are protected,” Isunza said. “They need to declare a free zone of sexual harassment in the workplace for victims to realize they can come forward and report it.”
Statistics show that mostly women are the targets of sexual harassment. But men filed almost 17 percent of the sex-based harassment charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year.
The commission defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that affects a person's employment.
“There should be zero tolerance for these behaviors,” Isunza said. “If we ignore them, the perpetrator thinks it is OK to behave that way. These behaviors should not be normalized.”
Sometimes victims might not want to talk about what happened because of embarrassment, fear that no one will take them seriously or concerns that speaking up will harm relationships at work.
“I tell people to trust your instincts,” Isunza said. “If you are questioning what happened to you, it is for a reason. You should not be questioning what your coworker said or what your boss said about your body.”
She and Moore emphasize that sexual harassment can happen to anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, background, age or race.
While famous people are in the news, transparency helps people in all workplaces recognize and do something about the problem.
For those who witness or know about sexual harassment, silence is not an option, both women said.
“In some instances, it can be misinterpreted as acceptance,” Moore said. “I would hope that people will speak up and speak out against sexual harassment if they witness something. I would hope that they support one another.”
Moore remembers listening to the testimony of 35-year-old law professor Anita Hill in 1991, when Hill publicly accused then-Supreme Court candidate Clarence Thomas of sexual misconduct.
Later, Hill got harassing phone calls because of her testimony. One caller described Thomas' alleged actions as “only normal male behavior.”
“Unfortunately, victims still face backlash,” Moore said. “They are asked: 'Why did you take so long to speak up?' We have not gotten beyond blaming the victim.”
The focus needs to be on the perpetrators, Isunza said.
“Sexual abuse or harassment is never the victim's fault,” she said. “We have to help victims understand that what happened to them is wrong.”
If harassment occurs, Isunza urges victims to report it to their supervisors or human resources departments. If that doesn't work, she said her agency is there to help.
“We are here to support victims so they don't have to do this by themselves,” Isunza said. “We will believe them. We will help them navigate the system. We want to be an advocate and a support for them because we know it isn't easy.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email email@example.com.