One thing we can all agree on is that Tara Reade’s allegations against Joe Biden keep the spotlight on sexual harassment in the workplace. As debate grows over what Reade’s accusations mean for the MeToo movement, it’s instructive to consider some of the things the MeToo movement has revealed.
MeToo has shown that when victims of sexual harassment report, they often face retaliation. According to Reade’s account, after she reported the retaliation was swift and career-ending. This continues to be the case today, with many victims realizing that institutional policies declaring “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment really mean zero tolerance for victims coming forward.
To date neither Biden nor President Donald Trump have presented viable solutions for safeguarding people who come forward to report either sexual harassment or other serious wrongdoing. Systems that protect and promote sexual predators are systems that also protect and promote people engaged in other misdeeds.
Today, in the midst of a global pandemic that disproportionately harms poor people and people of color, we need whistleblowers to know they can come forward to report unsafe situations, whether it’s sexual harassment, exposure to COVID-19 or improper use of government resources.
MeToo has also shown that protecting and promoting known sexual harassers/abusers creates an environment in which predatory behavior is encouraged. Both Trump and Biden have exhibited unacceptable behavior on camera or audio.
When the commander-in-chief has been accused multiple times of sexual harassment/assault, and has been caught on tape bragging about grabbing women’s genitalia, that sends a message — it’s OK to do this.
When multiple women come forward and state that a candidate got way too close to them — and then that candidate is accused of assaulting a woman, that is also problematic.
Reports of sexual assault have risen 3% in the military. What is shocking is that neither Trump nor Biden are calling for systemic changes that could curb sexual harassment.
There is a lot of low-hanging fruit: extend the statute of limitations for reporting sexual harassment to five years, allow victims of confidential agreements to come forward, create oversight for confidential agreements so that institutions have to pay victims properly and have to report the payments to their insurers. (Note to insurers: it would be in your interest to push for this. Institutions that are concealing sexual harassment settlements and promoting the predators are raising risk.)
Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of MeToo is that it has shown how sexual harassment does not just happen in a bubble. Predators build a support network over the years. These supporters are sometimes the ones who retaliate against victims. They are also the people who look away and ignore the harassment, too timid to come forward. And they are the people who groom victims.
As institutions promote credibly accused individuals, they shore up the pipeline that protects harassers. They clearly send a message to victims that it is not a good idea to speak out. Enduring harassment/abuse becomes the most logical response.
MeToo spokesperson Alyssa Milano issued a statement that she still supports Biden. That should not translate into MeToo silently standing by Biden, who needs to answer tough questions.
What does he intend to do about the allegations that he made women in the Secret Service uncomfortable by skinny-dipping in front of them? Biden needs to address the reality that these accounts also send the message that it’s OK to harass women on the job. What is he going to do to counter that message?
At minimum MeToo should speak out against actions by Biden’s campaign that marginalize women. It could issue a statement about why selecting former Sen. Chris Dodd to be on the vetting committee for Biden’s VP pick is unacceptable.
Imagine being one of the women under consideration and having to respond to questions from a man alleged to have made a “waitress sandwich” with Ted Kennedy — that is, attacked waitress Carla Gaviglio. This is flat-out disrespectful, and it green-lights predatory behavior. Dodd, a longtime friend of Harvey Weinstein, was one of the politicians who received large contributions from both Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein.
Requiring all of the women who are being considered for VP to respond to Dodd? Is that a test to find out who is comfortable working with men who have a track record of inappropriate behavior?
Biden may fancy himself a strong supporter of women, but for decades his actions have undermined so many women. And now, the very women he seeks to empower are coming forward and saying they believe his version of events, encouraging the destructive messaging sexual harassment/assault victims have heard far too long — don’t report, don’t come forward, you won’t be taken seriously, you will be further victimized.
It’s 2020, it’s time to get serious, stop enabling sexual harassment, and present the leadership and solutions necessary for gender equity in the workplace.
Julie Risser, of Edina, is an editor and art historian.