Why do institutions respond badly to sexual harassment?

Institutionalized harassment of women

In 2008 Hebrew University sociology professor Eyal Ben-Ari was detained by police on suspicion of sexual misconduct with a student.

An insightful article at Haaretz noted “both professors and students described a reign of terror at Hebrew University’s sociology department that kept female students from reporting his sexual harassment.” I was completing my doctorate at HU that year and remember discussing the issue with students and faculty. One after another they related that “everyone knew” this had been the case “for years.”

Students knew “certain professors always harass the pretty students, they make lewd comments, they expect that research assistants will have affairs with them.” One 20- year-old hired as a research assistant in another department described an elderly professor who closed the door to his office and asked her to sit on his lap. But university administrators were mum. There were no student protests. Ben-Ari was immediately released and charges were dropped.

The university embarked on an extensive investigation of Ben-Ari, bringing him before a disciplinary committee which suspended him for two years. The administration appealed that decision which eventually resulted in the his dismissal in 2011.  The university notes that it “permanently disqualified the accused from advising students in the future.”

Also in 2011, the university agreed to pay a student NIS 38,000 after she complained that a sociology professor named Gideon Aran had harassed her. According to reports, “as part of the deal, disciplinary proceedings against Aran were dropped.

The university said the agreement ‘serves the public interest.’” In each case the university, rather than loudly condemning sexual harassment and vowing clearly to root it out and make it easy for students to complain, quietly made the issue go away. Reports noted that one professor who received complaints tried to “mediate” between the student and the faculty member and “protect all those involved.” Those are code words for inaction.

When a criminal steals a car, the police don’t suggest “mediating” with the criminal and “protecting those involved.” When a professor has sexual relations with his students there is nothing to “mediate,” since the affair itself is inappropriate.

Consistently, when cases of sexual harassment at institutions or businesses come to light, they follow a pattern of cover-ups and obfuscation.

Let’s consider a series of cases.

In 2012 Transportation Ministry director-general Alex Langer was reported to have “sexually harassed women who worked for him and promoted those who slept with him.” The Civil Service commission docked him one month’s pay and in effect sent him to early retirement at age 64.

Now there is the case of Channel 10 journalist Emmanuel Rosen. Despite the fact that, according to reports, Channel 2 fired him two-and-a-half years ago over sexual harassment complaints, his career was not harmed. According to one report, “a large number of women said Rosen stalked them, barraged them with SMS messages, sometimes with lewd suggestions, telephoned them repeatedly in the middle of the night and was verbally abusive when rebuffed.” This type of behavior is alleged to have gone on for more than a decade, but the women remained silent, moving on to other positions in journalism.

In every large institution there are offices where people know harassment is the norm. In the army, for instance, there is a certain unit where people relate that “the officer in charge forces himself on a pretty woman, harassing them constantly until they give in or leave.”

There is often no way for the victim to report harassment because the offices that hear the complaints are primarily designed to protect the institution’s reputation and keep the complaints quiet – to “mediate” and “protect those involved.”

A report by The New York Times on rape in the Peace Corps in 2011 noted that the organization had made it difficult on victims for years.

Every year almost two dozen women are raped while on Peace Corp assignments.

According to the article, “Jessica Gregg, who was drugged and sexually assaulted in 2007 in Mozambique, said a Peace Corps medical officer ‘made me write in my testimony that I was intoxicated’ and suggested that ‘I willingly had sex with this guy.’” Naomi Wolf revealed that for years Yale had seemingly silenced victims: “I discovered that the university and its lawyers used the sexual harassment ‘grievance procedure’ as a screen to protect the institution, its harassers, and even its rapists, rather than as a means to investigate incidents of abuse.” She related that allegations kept popping up against the same faculty members, and yet nothing was done.

INSTITUTIONS TREAT sexual harassment, including sexual assault, as a class of inappropriate behavior that is supposedly unlike other types of workplace abuse. For instance, if a boss sent a male assistant hundreds of rude and abusive SMSs over a weekend, one would consider the boss unstable and reprimand him immediately.

But so long as the texts are of a sexual nature and directed at a woman, the notion is that such behavior calls for “mediation.”

If a manager slapped one of his male research assistants in the face, he would not only be fired, charges of assault would be filed. But if he grabs a woman’s behind it is considered a special type of conduct, the proper response to which is “protecting all those involved.” If a man exposes himself to male colleagues in the office it would be taken as a sign of severe psychological problems, and he would be sent packing – but so long as he closes the office door and exposes himself to his female secretary, it is considered simply a “grievance” that might be “investigated.”

Organizations traditionally work to silence victims and shield abusers. One will almost never encounter an institutional response which is decisive in meting out punishment and firing those involved. Instead serial abusers and even rapists are given a “leave of absence” or “early retirement,” and their pensions are protected. The organizational response is rarely to encourage women to come forward, but rather to tarnish the women’s reputation through endless inquiries and insinuations of “consent.”

Consider the case where every semester a professor has an affair with a student, where he is always having sexual relationships with his assistants and the women he “supervises” for PhD work.

And it goes on for years, and no one bothers to say anything.

Such conduct is condoned by the institutions that tolerate it. Procedures for complaints are circuitous, complicated or non-existent.

In many cases women are never informed of their rights.

There is no difference between “progressive” institutions, such as the Peace Corp or a university sociology department, and male-dominated, conservative workplaces. One also doesn’t find that women supervisors are necessarily more effective in rooting out serial harassment by male colleagues than male supervisors. Feminists at HU, for instance, never spoke out against the rampant harassment by their male colleagues, many of whom were themselves described as “feminists” and even hired by the IDF to be consultants on women’s affairs.

The media doesn’t listen to the victims sufficiently but provides others a voice; Israel’s leading leftist, Gideon Levy, compared accusations against Ben-Ari to a “blood libel” for “impugning the honor of a innocent man…his life has been ruined by a few baseless headlines.” Bernard-Henri Levy cast doubt on the those who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), “I hold it against those who complacently accept the account of this other young woman who pretends to have been the victim of the same kind of attempted rape.” Why are the powerful and their allies able to use the media to attack the victims who are not afforded a column in a newspaper to tell their stories? Institutions think somehow that their reputation will be tarnished if it turns out senior members are harassers. For instance, left-wing peace groups faced a series of allegations of coverups of rapes and sexual harassment in 2010. According to Arutz Sheva a “rape occurred several months ago in the village of Umm Salmona, near Bethlehem.

The victim, an American activist, wanted to press charges but leftist activists put pressure on her not to do so, so as not to damage the struggle against the ‘occupation.’” However, if the organization had quickly come forward and ferreted out the rapists, it could have formulated it as part of the overall progressive struggle. It could have served as a teaching lesson for activists, it could have emphasized the proper way to complain quickly in order to see justice done.

That type of response would reflect well on an institution.

If the Peace Corps, for instance, had come forward years ago and said it would no longer allow the sending of activists to countries where rapists walk free, it would have protected its female volunteers. Instead it offered them up, year after year, as sacrificial lambs to the overall “cause.”

WOMEN WHO say they were victims of the harasser at Channel 10 claim that they didn’t come forward for fear it would hurt their careers.

Instead of hurting their careers, institutions should hold up as role models those women who do speak out, so that it is the harasser who must hide in the shadows, not the victim.

Consider the case of BBC presenter Jimmy Savile, accused of literally hundreds of cases of sexual assault against teenage girls. The BBC is accused of knowing about the claims but keeping them under wraps until after Savile had passed away. A proper response would have been to publicly accuse Savile while he was alive, and use it as a way to show that the victims had a voice.

Instead the monster ran wild, receiving a knighthood and abusing his charity to rape women.

In the case of IMF head Strauss-Kahn, when a maid and a journalist came forward to accuse him their reputations were attacked by numerous prominent figures, and the journalist was even threatened with lawsuits for daring to “libel” Strauss- Kahn. When a victim cannot even file a complaint without it being “libel” the odds are stacked in the perpetrator’s favor.

Sometimes it does seem a corner is being turned, for instance, the 2012 documentary The Invisible War exposed a pattern of sexual assault in the US Army. The Catholic church has begun to learn the lessons of numerous priest sexual abuse scandals. However, responses have been slow in coming.

Since the 1990s we have learned that sexual harassment is unacceptable, but our institutions are still living in the 1980s, if not the 1950s.

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