The criticism came swiftly last week after the Atlantic magazine published a writer’s account stating that Sen. Al Franken “groped” her in 2009 by putting his hand on her waist during a photo op, “grabbing a handful of flesh” and squeezing at least twice.
“I’m sorry, is that sexual assault now? To squeeze someone’s waist?” one Twitter user wrote.
“And this is your definition of a grope? Come on! This accusation trivializes real predation and abuse. Knock it off!” a woman echoed on Facebook.
“We are officially #offtherails,” tweeted another.
It was the type of backlash some feared. As a reckoning over sexual harassment sweeps the country, leaders in business, academia and other walks of life are pushing to sustain the momentum and ensure a positive, lasting cultural change without it getting derailed by politics, social media frenzies and outsized responses to infractions many deem small.
“There’s just too much putting everything into one big bucket instead of looking at the nuance,” said Fran Sepler, a Minneapolis human resources consultant who has helped develop training for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
As a cascade of allegations spreads from Hollywood moguls to powerful lawmakers in recent months, what started as a “really extraordinary conversation” about the need for industries to examine their cultures and people feeling emboldened to speak out is, in some instances, getting politicized and weaponized, Sepler said. As a result, she added, it’s turned the discussion into “something a little more complicated and a little more nasty and I think a little less productive.”
Silicon Valley executive Sheryl Sandberg cautioned early last week that she’d heard “the rumblings of a backlash,” including men becoming afraid to hire women.
Conservative columnist Christine Flowers, in Philadelphia, called the #MeToo movement denouncing sexual assault and harassment “unwieldy and unforgiving, mixing all sorts of conduct together and retroactively stigmatizing acts that — until the social media age — were considered boorish and brutish but not capital offenses.”
Those who have spent part of their careers working to end sexual harassment are finding that the digital age has catapulted society into uncharted territory on the issue, bringing new voice to the debate while also posing a danger of distracting from it.
To change the culture, they say, people need a sense that fair process will prevail and responses will be commensurate to the behavior. Society needs to stay focused on tackling the ubiquitous confirmed cases of sexual harassment and assault, they say.
“We lose the opportunity for education if everything is [seen as] a criminal offense,” said Hamline University business Prof. Peggy Andrews, a longtime human resources and management consultant. “On the other hand, we’ve allowed criminal offenses to go unpunished for so long.”
The recent wave of attention and awareness is widely seen as a long-overdue milestone, empowering victims to speak up while toppling perpetrators. It flooded social media when victims of sexual harassment and assault started typing #MeToo on their accounts after allegations were lodged against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.
“I think this is a watershed moment for relations between the genders and this whole issue of harassment in general,” said University of Minnesota School of Public Health Dean John Finnegan, who is coleading a multidisciplinary project to tackle sexual harassment and assault on campus. “So many women … don’t live and breathe this, but they talk about a lifetime of indignities that they have suffered … I think this is really a wake-up call to American culture, and I really, really hope that we’re able to benefit from this in the long run.”
While distinctions need to be made between the severity of allegations, it all is part of a continuum that “has to do with a sense of entitlement” by the perpetrators, said political science Prof. Jill Locke, who directs the Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies Program at Gustavus Adolphus College. People have to be careful about sending a message that victims can’t come forward unless certain criteria are met, she said.
If someone comes forward alleging something that people on social media don’t think is a big deal, she said, then people should instead “focus on the plethora of cases that are a big deal and do something about those.”
Sepler, who has spent 30 years investigating harassment claims as part of her work, said that she thinks that “99.9 percent of the people who come forward claiming they’ve been sexually harassed believe they’ve been sexually harassed … Whether the behavior they’re complaining about rises to the very high bar of unlawful harassment, and whether they feel sexually harassed are two different questions.”
A one-time, awkward hug, for instance, won’t typically get someone fired, human resources professionals said, though it might yield a conversation. So, getting caught up in too much debate about “gray areas” of social interaction isn’t productive, they say.
“Personally, I don’t see that it’s any more gray now than it’s ever been,” said Susan Strauss, a trainer, consultant and harassment and bullying investigator based in Burnsville. Even workplace flirting and dating will not end, she and some others predicted, nor should companies expect it to.
“You just use common sense,” she said. “If you ask somebody out and they say ‘No’ … then you say, ‘You know what, I’m sorry. I didn’t intend for that to be offensive and won’t do it again.’ ”
Creating new norms
Lasting change will require specific cultural shifts, Finnegan and others say.
Male and female bystanders can help define what is considered acceptable by letting offenders know when a mildly lewd joke isn’t appropriate or when they see unwelcome interactions taking place.
“That helps people who are likely to harass or do other things, they will see that and they will recognize ‘Oh, the norm here is different,’ ” Finnegan said.
Hollywood can play a role, too, by putting story lines about harassment into movies and television, Finnegan said.
Fewer nondisclosure agreements in legal settlements will also help to show victims that action has been taken in cases, and will “stop allowing people to hide behind their settlement agreements,” said Minneapolis employment attorney Stacey DeKalb.
Most critical for companies, schools and other institutions is for leaders to set a respectful tone, women’s advocates agree. Highlighting examples of positive behavior is more effective than focusing on what people should not do.
In the end, though, many say, much of the hoped-for change will come down to finding ways for people to have potentially uncomfortable conversations with others.
“We’re human and we’re awkward; we need more pathways to have awkward conversations without fear of legal reprisals,” Andrews, the Hamline professor, said.
Speaking up at the outset
Although the law says victims never have to directly confront someone who is harassing them, that doesn’t mean victims shouldn’t, Sepler said. While that might be the best way to address harassment from a manager, the more common peer-to-peer harassment can often be handled face to face and on the spot.
“I think there’s a powerful place for women to take on their own agency in those situations where they’re not afraid of reprisal and speak up for themselves or speak up for others,” said Sepler, who teaches people how to do it.
At company trainings, Sepler presents a scenario where someone is unknowingly annoying a co-worker — tapping their toes or looking at them in a way that makes them feel gross.
“Would you rather that they tell you? Or would you rather that they report you to human resources?” Sepler asks. “One hundred percent of people say, ‘I would rather they tell me.’ ” Addressing it with them can be a gift if it’s presented in the right spirit, she says. That may include telling the person that they are appreciated and that you don’t want to see their success derailed.
“We’re learning that if you actually tell them what they’re doing is bugging you, there’s a good chance that they’ll stop,” she said, “and that they won’t retaliate against you, if you do it in a way that’s you know, ‘Hey, you know, I really like you, but I’m not a hugger.’ ”