“Don’t Do That — She Might Sue You” | Sarah Tunnell
We’ve all heard it.
The men in our lives — colleagues, friends, family-members, public figures — express concern about frivolous sexual harassment lawsuits as if they are hiding around every corner, waiting to jump out and ruin the lives of innocent hardworking Americans.
Only weeks ago I spoke with one male friend who, after attending a concert in a packed venue, expressed bewilderment that women in crowds did not tie their hair back. He was frustrated because the woman who stood in front of him had an abundance of long, wild hair which was difficult to avoid coming into contact with due to their close proximity. So he twisted uncomfortably the entire night, petrified that an accidental touch might result in a harassment suit. At the time I had a difficult time understanding why this statement affected me so viscerally, but from the moment the words were spoken I felt my stomach begin to twist itself into knots: something here was wrong.
This was far from the first time I have come across such sentiment. It joins a laundry list of experiences of working with men who tiptoed around their female colleagues in fear of being falsely accused of harassment, dating men who told me most of the sex offenders listed on the national registry are just unlucky men taken in for drunkenly urinating in public, and meeting men who misconstrued the debate around gender identity and bathroom access as an issue of potential harassment claims.
The unfortunate reality is that many American men are more likely to demonstrate concern for being falsely accused of harassment or assault, than to speak to the prevalence of the actual crimes. Likely a symptom of progress backlash, this issue has risen to the forefront of perceived threats in the male psyche. As this clearly “unbiased” and “independent” article from the Telegraph reports, men are now so afraid of being accused of harassment in the workplace that they are unwilling to help or support their female colleagues. And while this “top-notch” reporting may not be in the running for a pulitzer, or even an elementary school journalism prize, it is an excellent example of the kind of dialogue surrounding this issue.
“How can we make this waking nightmare end?” the author asks of workplace equality initiatives. In his canon, harassment lawsuits are a “poisonous smog” ravaging the American workforce, the result of feminism’s toxic campaign to divide the genders. Instead of equality, hardworking men live in terror of office cultures which “nurture and mollycoddle victimhood,” and working women are falling behind as a result. In the author’s view, even holding a door open for a woman or saying hello risks a lawsuit.
My friend, an ally who has proudly marched alongside me for the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter, would never spout the sort of vitriol found within this editorial, yet he spoke a similar sentiment. He was afraid that if he accidentally touched a strange woman’s hair she would sue him for assault, as if women do not routinely brush off street harassment and groping as a part of daily life, and as if the woman in question was so irrational that she could not perceive that people might unwillingly brush up against each other in a packed stadium.
As in all prejudice, the reach of misogyny is often unseen, an internalized bias only rearing its head if you know how to recognize the signs. This was the feeling in the pit of my stomach when my friend told me his story — recognition.
The preponderance of male concern for harassment suits not only discounts the reality of endemic sexual and gender-based violence in this country, but also assumes women are overly-sensitive, illogical, and trigger-happy attention-seekers who cannot tell the difference between benign interaction and sexual assault.
When I finally found the words to relate to my friend why I found his statement problematic, I found that he was wholly unaware of the realities of harassment, or how difficult it is for women who have been assaulted to garner justice. Studies have shown that one in three women experience sexual harassment at work, but only twenty-nine percent of these cases are ever reported. Further a scant fifteen percent of reported cases will ever result in a lawsuit, which are notoriously difficult to win. In total, this means that only four percent of women who are harassed will ever bring suit.
This breed of harassment is only one side of the issue, because the inequities extend far beyond disrespect, objectification, and discrimination in the workplace. One in six American women are estimated to experience rape in their lifetime, yet only one third of rapes are reported, and only about six percent of rapists are ever convicted for their crimes. These are the facts, but as I have experienced first hand, facts often lie far beneath the surface of prevailing societal beliefs.
Rape culture is not merely the normalization of abuse, it is the suppression of reality: It is the denial and concealment of inequity. It distracts our attention from the real issues at stake, diverts blame from perpetrator to victim, and drives forward narratives that discredit and demonize women. So while American men are more likely to be murdered than sued for legitimate harassment, rape culture seeps in, whispers in our ears, and fans the flames of paranoia. And while men and women alike may be allies of the cause, acknowledging the complex and intersecting threats faced by vulnerable and marginalized populations, implicit and internalized bias has a unique ability to seep in between the cracks.
So what is the solution? How do we move forward?
One key path is education and raising awareness. As the resistance surges on, it is our duty as feminists to ensure that bias is not allowed to smother fact. This is not merely an issue of political and legal reform, but requires cultural transformation. We must teach our children inclusivity and respect, counter ‘alternative facts’ and propaganda with hard evidence and research, empower the voices of survivors to shed light on the impact of these crimes, and above all else, elect officials that will evoke truth, empower communities, and guarantee justice.
The second path is confrontation, not violence and antagonism, but genuine empathy and advocacy. There are a great many people who will never change their minds and always fall back on bigotry and hate, but there are also a great many potential allies out there who may simply be unaware of the reality. This was my experience- and this is how movements build. We must have the difficult conversations to succeed.
So as it stands men do not need to fear being sued for harassment, because when women are harassed, or even raped, more often than not it goes unreported. But my hope is that one day they will need to fear accountability- because when sixty-five percent of women experience street harassment, thirty-three percent experience workplace harassment, and fifteen percent experience rape — there are a great many guilty parties out there due their day in court.
Let’s make sure they get there.
Sarah Tunnell is a New-York based human rights defender and researcher who spends her free time roaming city parks in search of ice cream stands and dogs to cuddle.