Victims of sexual harassment need to examine their options

April 1, 1998
After rubbing my back, feeling for bra straps, a former employer once told me, "Of course I sexually harass my employees. It`s a perk for me and for you." He`s still a dentist and he`s probably still sexually harassing his employees.

Heidi Emmerling, RDH, MA

After rubbing my back, feeling for bra straps, a former employer once told me, "Of course I sexually harass my employees. It`s a perk for me and for you." He`s still a dentist and he`s probably still sexually harassing his employees.

I know I`m not alone.

Sexual harassment is more than a little annoying to its victims. Although sexual harassment is not physical violence, it is violence, nonetheless. The scars left on women from sexual harassment have unspeakable consequences - unspeakable because sexual harassment is yet another ploy to keep women subordinate and silent.

Not only is sexual harassment bad for the victim, it is just plain bad business. It costs businesses via absenteeism, low morale and potential litigation. It is in the best interest of a company to have a clear policy on harassment to encourage workers to speak out, to take prompt action and to protect the complainant from retaliation.

However, there are problems. The brave few who do indeed come forward are just the tip of the iceberg. And, according to NOW, women who do report harassment are more likely to lose their jobs than to win. Obviously, when a woman who makes a complaint is labeled a troublemaker, her morals are attacked ("Are you sure this wasn`t consensual?"); yet, in many cases, the harasser is not even investigated or reprimanded. Court cases have established that it is the complainant`s burden to prove that the alleged harassment was unwelcome. Although Congress extended the federal rape-shield law (which prohibits lawyers` abusive questions) to include sexual-harassment cases, women still are under attack in the courtroom.

What the courts say

Sexual harassment is hard to define. Sometimes, it is hard to detect, except that the results make women feel demeaned and humiliated. Courts have ruled that employers are liable for two types of sexual harassment. If the boss demands that the employee submit to sexual advances to get raises, promotions or merely keep his or her job, it is termed "quid pro quo." The other type of sexual harassment for which an employer is liable is sexual harassment by coworkers, creating a hostile work environment due to the severe and pervasive nature of the harassment. According to NOW, studies have found that a whopping 50-75 percent of employed women will experience sexual harassment on the job. From 1990 to 1995, cases reported to the EEOC increased by 153 percent.

Not all women protected

The law does not protect all women. Of particular interest to many hygienists is this fact: women working for employers with fewer than 15 employees are not protected by federal laws, though state laws may apply. Noncaucasian women are especially vulnerable; they are the majority of employees in low-paying jobs with little job security. Illegal immigrant women have no legal recourse when harassed, and lesbian workers have many reasons for not reporting harassment.

However, even in the military, evidenced by the Tailhook scandal, and even in large corporations, where there is a so-called "zero-tolerance policy," assaults and harassment continue. A 1995 Pentagon study revealed that 78 percent of all military women have been sexually harassed.

Our schools, in many respects, are training grounds for sexual harassment. Boys are rarely punished or reprimanded, sending the message that "boys will be boys," while girls are taught that it is their role to tolerate this humiliating conduct. According to a 1993 survey cosponsored by the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, 89 percent of girls and women had been sexually harassed in school and 39 percent were harassed on a daily basis during the prior year.

What are your options?

So what can we do if we are individually faced with sexual harassment? That`s a difficult question. It`s easy for me to say, "Make noise." After all, like rape or other sex crimes, perpetrators of sexual harassment often count on women being embarrassed and often urge "discretion" (i.e. silence). It`s easy for me to sit here in front of my computer and urge you to rebel, to fight the attitude, "If you don`t like it, leave." After all, if Rosa Parks had not decided to take a stand, African Americans would still be riding in the back of the bus. If Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had not fought for women`s rights, women would still not be voting.

Yet, I have pointed out some very real consequences when women make noise. Some women are not prepared to deal with those consequences. Thus, women should not feel put down if they quietly move on. Many times, the victim has neither the funds nor the energy to pursue complaining. In my case with the dentist, it was much easier to just leave and find another job. Only when you are faced with the situation can you decide what is appropriate for you and your circumstance. Then, trust your own instincts.

I do, however, recommend being proactive in dealing with this issue. Perhaps if you are not currently in a sexually harassing situation, you have the mental stamina to fight this problem. NOW has several suggestions for making noise and attacking sexual harassment: For information on filing claims, call the EEOC: (800) 669-4000. Lobby your local school board to make sure that girls are safe from sexual harassment while at school. Join in NOW`s Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign [National Organization for Women, 1000 16th St. NW #700, Washington, DC 20036. Phone:(202) 331-0066; Fax:(202)785-8576; e-mail:now@;website: wfw/].

Look before you leap

Investigate sexual-harassment policies of dental corporations with which you do business. Educate others that it is bad business not to have a clearly stated and enforced policy. Advocate employee-training programs. Picket or boycott businesses and military bases where sexual harassment is prevalent. Do not patronize companies that break the law by tolerating sexual harassment.

Urge members of Congress to increase the EEOC`s budget so it can adequately handle the increased sexual-harassment caseload. The Congressional switchboard number is (202) 224-3121, and the address is U.S. Senate or U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515.

Ask your congressional representatives to remove the limits placed on damages for sexual harassment or discrimination against women. Because of caps on damages awards, employers have less incentive to end sexual harassment, and lawyers have less incentive to take on women`s cases.

Hopefully, the future will show us that sexual harassment is not a woman`s dirty little secret to endure and be swept under the rug, but, rather, a societal embarrassment not to be tolerated.

Heidi Emmerling, RDH, MA, is a consulting editor for RDH, a writer, speaker, and clinician from Sparks, Nevada. Her e-mail address is [email protected].