#MeToo, Me and You

We may know perpetrators, but do we have any responsibilities?

Posted May 29, 2018

When I was in college, I worked for a prominent man who was later accused of sexual abuse. At the time, I wondered if he might be engaging in these activities. But I had only suspicions, no facts, and thought that, as a famous, world-respected individual, he would never stoop that low. Dozens of co-workers had known him for decades–far more than I had–and didn’t seem concerned. So, I did nothing. 

Not until almost 20 years later was he formally charged. Many of his colleagues then said they were shocked, and insisted that the allegations were false. But alas, I sensed in my gut that they were true. A court found him guilty.

My awkwardness and silence at that time have confused, bothered and embarrassed me ever since.

Pixabay/The Diplomat
Source: Pixabay/The Diplomat

Harvey Weinstein's recent arrest is the latest critical event in the still-widening #MeToo movement.  Bill Cosby's conviction a few weeks ago marked an important victory for justice. But these events also raise questions about the roles and responsibilities of those of us who may suspect or know of such abuse–whether to speak to others about it, and if so, how and to whom. Weinstein and Cosby are, of course, the latest of a group of such cases, in several of which third parties knew, but remained silent.  How many of us now know or suspect such behaviors, or have in the past, and what are our duties? 

When Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered outside her Queens apartment house in 1964, 38 people allegedly saw or heard it, but did not act. Social scientists have since described “the bystander effect,” whereby the more witnesses present at an event, the less likely any one person may help. Many people prefer not to get involved, and feel less moral responsibility. Yet these presumed norms of minding one’s own business can justify dangerous silence. 

Past reporting of sexual harassment by third parties has been too rare.  Given the potential harms involved, we often have some duty not to remain utterly quiet.  At jobs, co-workers may in fact be complicit, but fear that “speaking out” might jeopardize their employment. Other third parties may suspect, but not know, and be unsure what to do. I realize how easy it is to do nothing. 

Unfortunately, human resources, public relations, legal, and other departments' various employers, including corporations and universities, frequently feel uncomfortable discussing or dealing with sexual allegations.  Taboos enshroud conversations about sex.  Bureaucracies also tend to be risk-averse and fear bad publicity. They may discourage victims from making formal complaints, arguing that these might hurt the company. At other times, after allegations become public, employers may immediately fire the accused without due process. 

Some critics now fear that the pendulum is swinging too far in the other direction, causing "witch hunts."  But much abuse persists.  Many people suspect or are aware of it, though remain silent. 

In the wake of #MeToo, some employers have admonished employees to report any cases to them immediately. Sexual ethics can be murky, however. In the complexities of the real world, the facts may be unclear. At times, it may instead be best to speak first to the victim and/or the perpetrator, rather than immediately telling bosses.

Not all suspicions or accusations of sexual harassment are true. Small innocuous gestures can get overblown. I recently heard of a man who accidentally pulled from his pocket his hotel room key, instead of his credit card, and was accused of making a sexual advance.

Other employees may want consensual sex at the workplace, or willingly decide to trade sex for career advancement (though the systems in which individuals feel compelled to make such choices are inherently unjust).  Consensual and non-consensual sex are not always easy for outsiders to differentiate, especially through retrospective reports. An individual may terminate a consensual sexual relationship with a partner who then feels spurned and retroactively retracts consent. It can be hard to prove what happened one way or the other, with conflicting accounts of “he said/she said.”

Importantly, we need to become more comfortable talking about these ambiguities and complexities, and to encourage public discourse to explore and determine what our thresholds for action should be as third parties, both individually and collectively. We should examine and consider shifting many of our attitudes, behaviors, and institutions, and develop and implement appropriate guidelines, policies and education for employers, employees, policymakers, courts, and others. Employers must establish and train ombuds offices to handle sensitive questions and reports by third parties that may be unclear and to inform employees that these offices exist. 

I can sympathize with those who feel they should simply mind their own business, but I have also become ever more aware of the costs of silence–not only to ourselves, but to others.