Friday, April 30, 2010

The Sexual Harassment Bind

How many of you followed the recent sexual harassment trial in which NY1, a cable news show, was sued for sexual harassment by one of its reporters? The plaintiff, Adele Sammarco, claimed that the newsroom of the station functioned like a frat house with lewd and sexist remarks, crude come ons and, in plaintiff’s case, the circulation of an email showing a picture of her with enlarged breasts and an unwelcome kiss.

NY1’s defense was, in essence, that she joked about the email and was a willing participant in sexually charged office hijinks. The defense worked. Its success reminds me of the defense invoked by urban trolley car operators who argued that passengers “assumed the risk” by boarding the trolley and could not, therefore, claim damages for any injury they might suffer. This defense has gone by the wayside. After all, if you had to get to work, and the trolley was the available transportation you could afford, you had no choice but to ride on it.

Isn’t it also the case that a young reporter seeking to advance her career who finds herself in a “frat house” newsroom will go along with and even seem to enjoy the behavior that victimizes her? She may even actually enjoy it; after all what we enjoy and don’t enjoy is socially determined. My experience in working with victims of race or sex discrimination is that they are sometimes the last to see what is going on.

The problem, of course, is that the success of such a defense gives a green light to the continuation of hurtful and backward behavior. Sometimes the law impedes rather than contributes to human development.

If you find yourself in a situation where you are subject to this kind of sexual harassment, despite any reservations you might have about workplace reaction, it is best to report what is going on to the appropriate management person. And that might include a discussion of the bind it puts you in. At a minimum you will have put your employer on notice, and that can be critical if you later decide you have to “go legal.”

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