How The #MeToo Movement Reinforces The Importance of Civil Justice for Victims of Sexual Assault and Harassment at Work

 Image from CNN.com

Image from CNN.com

On November 27, 2018, more than 20 million people watched the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Dr. Blasey-Ford offered compelling and emotional testimony detailing a sexual assault she suffered at the hands of Brett Kavanaugh when the two were in high school. The nation has watched wondering whether a man accused of sexual assault will be put in one of the most powerful positions in the country.

The Nation has also watched as Dr. Blasey-Ford, who courageously came forward with her story, has been challenged, disbelieved and even mocked. But Dr. Blasey-Ford has also inspired many victims to come forward with their stories and has brought much needed attention to the treatment of victims of sexual assault and harassment. For too long, victims are subjected to ridicule instead of respect when they come forward, while perpetrators have suffered little to no consequences. Rape is the most under reported crime in this country, with 63% of sexual assaults going unreported. The #MeToo movement has brought much needed attention to sexual assault and harassment but it remains to be seen if it will lead to lasting change.

Sexual assault and harassment in the workplace are often about power and for that reason, sexual harassment lawyers know that too often these acts go unreported. One in five women will be raped in their lifetime and 8 percent of those rapes will occur at work. And while there are a long list of reasons that prevent victims from coming forward, the law protects victims of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. Both the Iowa Civil Rights Act and Title VII (the Federal Civil Rights Act) have anti-retaliation provisions that make it illegal to retaliate against employees who make complaints about sexual harassment and sexual assault. An employer cannot demote (or refuse to promote), fire or reduce the pay or responsibilities of an employee because the employee complained about sexual harassment and assault.

In addition to the employment laws already in place that protect victims who report, both the Senate and the House have proposed legislation aimed at further combating workplace sexual harassment and assault. The Empower Act, H.R. 6406, is described as an Act “to deter, prevent, reduce, and respond to harassment in the workplace, including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and harassment.” The Act is sponsored in the Senate and in the house by both Republican and Democratic women legislators. If passed, the Empower Act would prohibit employers from requiring employees to sign non-disparagement or confidentiality agreements as a condition of employment if the agreement would prohibit employees from discussing sexual harassment or assault.

While retaliation has long been illegal, and nearly every employer knows they are not permitted to retaliate, as a sexual harassment attorney, I have represented many clients who have been retaliated against. We have learned from cases like those involving Roger Ailes and Harvey Weinstein that widespread sexual harassment and assault can go unreported for YEARS because of fear of retaliation.  If you or someone you know has been retaliated against by your employer for reporting sexual harassment or assault or if you are afraid to report sexual harassment or assault in your workplace, you should speak with a sexual harassment attorney.

As a sexual harassment attorney, I find that one of the most powerful things I can do is believe in our clients. We believe victims. Oftentimes in these cases, we will do what an employer failed to do and investigate and substantiate the stories of victims of sexual harassment and assault. This allows us to be their best advocate.

If you have been sexually assaulted or harassed at work or are currently being sexually harassed or assaulted and would like to discuss your options, please call us at (319) 826-2250.