Recently, stories of sexual harassment seem to be everywhere. The #MeToo movement has helped women across the globe find the strength to step forward and accuse their attackers of unwanted actions and violations. Even a waitress at a Denny’s in a small town in New York gained worldwide attention when she called the police to report being sexually harassed by a customer when he smacked her in the butt as she walked away from his table.
Sexual harassment, no matter how small or seemingly innocent, is no longer being tolerated – as it shouldn’t ever have been. But even with so many people coming forward and refusing to stay quiet about their experiences anymore, many others still feel scared and afraid to stand up for themselves.
There are many rational reasons why it’s hard to admit that you were the victim of sexual harassment. Embarrassment is usually the number one reason, but then there’s the concern that others may not believe you or, worse, may tell you that you “asked for” the attention. The fear of retaliation is common, too.
Whatever the case is, if you were sexually harassed, you need to know your rights and your options. As the Denny’s waitress learned, it isn’t your fault, and the police – and justice system – take your violation gravely.
The Law is on Your Side
Sexual harassment in California is taken very seriously. There are many laws in the state to protect a person from this violation. Even the state’s legislature itself is not immune – Bill number AB 403 imposes criminal and civil liability on anyone in the Legislature or its employees if they so much as try to hinder someone from exercising their right to disclose harassment, and multiple other bills are in process of being enacted to require further ethics training and compliance with sexual harassment laws.
Beyond the state, though, federal laws protect you from any kind of discrimination based on your gender, including sexual harassment. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for your employer to discriminate against anyone in their terms of employment, for instance. From there, most states offer their employees protection against sexual harassment in the workplace completely.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment in the workplace as any unwelcome sexual advances, verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, or requests for sexual favors. Anyone can be a victim of sexual harassment.
But what if you were harassed outside of the workplace? You have rights, too. While this type of harassment is not criminalized as it is when it occurs in schools or at work, it is still illegal. It’s called street harassment and is covered in most state laws under headings like Disorderly Conduct, Invasion of Privacy, or Sexual Misconduct.
In California, illegal street harassment includes lewd comments, indecent exposure, obstructing paths, following, and groping. If you feel threatened, even if there has been no action taken yet by the other person, you are allowed to call the police and report the harassment.
In fact, California has six laws against street harassment: Disorderly Conduct, Harassment at Adult Education Schools, Harassment on Public Transportation, Loitering at or Near a School, Public Nuisance, Unlawful Assembly, and Indecent Exposure, so if you were sexually harassed in public, contact a police officer and report it.
Sexual Harassment Lawsuits in the News
Courts have stepped in to publicly ensure that perpetrators of sexual harassment pay for their violations. It’s not that the harassment is happening more often. It has always been there. It’s that victims of the harassment are finally feeling confident enough to step up and accuse their attackers.
For instance, actress Eliza Dushku accused CBS of unlawfully firing her because of her accusation that she felt uncomfortable with comments made to her. CBS paid the actress $9.5 million to settle her harassment claim.
Congress has also realized the scope of the problem and is cracking down on those on Capitol Hill. The old rules that governed sexual misconduct claims for those in the government there have been toughened.
Across the country, laws have been amended, added, and enforced to prove that each particular state or arena is not going to tolerate sexual harassment.
And, if you were wondering what happened to the man who slapped the Denny’s waitress’s butt from earlier, he was arrested and was refused a plea deal. With no prior criminal history, the man was still sentenced to a $500 fine, a $200 surcharge, a $50 DNA fee, a $1,000 supplemental sex offender fee, a $50 sex offender fee, a permanent stay away from the victim under an order of protection, and a one-year conditional discharge to obey all laws.
Sexual harassment, no matter how innocent you think it is, is serious, and if you’re the perpetrator, it can get expensive.
Your Next Steps if You Were Sexually Harassed at Work
Because retaliation is so common when it comes to reports of sexual harassment, even with all of the spotlight on victims coming forward and winning their cases, it is still hard for many people to report their accusations of harassment at work.
But sexual harassment in the workplace is not usually about sex – it is about exhibiting power over the victim. And you have to step forward to break that unhealthy power cycle. It’s your right, and it’s your duty. If you don’t report it, the typical trend is that there will be other victims behind you.
Your employer has the legal obligation to protect you and all of the other employees from sexual harassment in the workplace. To do this, though, they have to first know of the harassment.
If you have been sexually harassed at work, you should take the following steps to end the behavior:
1. Document, document, document. Any instance of interactions in which you feel threatened, uncomfortable or harassed should be documented. Write down anyone who was involved, where the interaction occurred, what was said or done and how you felt. Be sure you include the date and time, and anyone who may have witnessed the situation.
2. Write down any hostile environment scenarios, as well. When you are stuck listening to someone make rude, disrespectful, or vulgar comments about your gender, even if they are not directed at you, this creates a hostile environment. Take notes of these comments as mentioned around you or directed towards others and document them.
3. Store your notes and evidence safely. Keep your documents where only you can access them until they are needed. They are evidence, and combined with any other evidence you may have, such as emails or texts, they can help you put an end to the harassment. Print out any phone or email documentation in case something happens to the online evidence.
4. Report the harassment to your employer. Your job should have a company sexual harassment policy. This has to be followed before you can legally sue if your employer fails to stop the harassment. It’s important to document this report in writing to confirm that you did, in fact, report your accusations.
Your employer is legally obligated to stop the harassment, but they do not have to report to you what they did to make it cease. However, if the harasser continues with the unwelcome behavior or retaliates against you in any way, you need to report those actions again. At this point, your employer must stop the harasser or they can be held liable.
5. Contact the EEOC. If your employer fails to take appropriate action to stop the harassment after you reported it, you can file a complaint with the EEOC. There’s a time limit for when you can file, so you may want to contact an attorney to help you with your complaint and the steps you will have to take to file a charge of discrimination.
6. Contact an employment lawyer. Sexual harassment is a crime, but it is often hard to prove on your own. Finding a lawyer who understands the laws, like Hershey Law in California, can help you to use the laws and regulations to prove your case and reinforce your confidence in your decision to file a lawsuit.
7. Decide what you want to do about your workplace. Once you hire an attorney to file a claim against your employer, you are not mandated to quit, but you may choose to do so. Things in your work environment might naturally get tense, and if the accused person is continuing to threaten or harass you, going to work may be downright difficult for you.
If you feel the need to get out of there completely, you can do so without affecting your case. In fact, it’s completely understandable that you’d want to get out of an uncomfortable situation.
Popularly Unpopular: Sexual Harassment is Out of the Bag
Once considered an embarrassing spectacle best swept under the carpet, sexual harassment is now popular in its unpopularity. No one wants to be accused of being a sexual harasser, and no one wants to be a victim of it, either.
If the laws haven’t stopped someone from harassing you, you don’t have to remain a victim. Stand up and speak up for yourself by contacting Hershey Law to help you make your voice heard and end the harassment.