By jessie kornberg • November 13, 2007•Sexism, Sexual Harassment, and Other Forms of Discrimination
I can't stop thinking about a recent story out of a Texas district court of several alleged acts of extremly severe sexual harrassment by a federal judge. There are a number of disturbing circumstances involved. The alleged aggressor is a federal judge-a person we all trust to uphold the law. The alleged attack was barbaric and, according to more than one accuser, just the most recent and sever in a long history of abuse of female subordinates.
I'm clerking this year, so the intimate setting in which these attacks purportudely took place is familiar to me, and it's a particularly difficult environment in which to combat this kind of aggression. I know I look to my judge as a mentor. Imagining a person in that position abusing my trust and exploiting my dependence and vulnerability is heartbreaking. Fortunately, the victim in this case had family and professional support and was able to come forward with her story, but I think that represents the exception not the norm.
Recently, two friends have also been the victims of sexual harassment in similar mentorship relationships. Both of these women are smart, talented, and confident. They are poster-children for the success of the women’s movement: attaining higher education degrees in the hard sciences – succeeding in fields once dominated by men. They’ve been in competition with men in classrooms and stuck up for themselves and their points of view. I’m not sure what qualifies a person to deal with harassment effectively, but I expect these women are as likely as anyone to fit the bill. And yet neither confronted their harassers and really stuck up for themselves in the moment of the attack. Totally humiliated, both women just responded to the harassment by compromising their own professional options in favor of avoiding their aggressors.
I don’t blame them. I’ve worked on sexual harassment suits. It didn’t take long for me to learn that the options for the victims of this kind of harassment are limited and unappealing. As one of these two friends said to me when talking about why she doesn’t want to pursue administrative or legal action, “it only leads to negative attention.”
There are so many conversations that need to take place at this point: fundamental societal change will be needed to prevent this kind of behavior, a serious collective action problem must be overcome to respond to the behavior, the law and its enforcers must do more to protect against retaliation. In the meantime, I feel like sexual harassment is an inevitable part of almost any woman’s future. I wish I could guarantee that I’ll be more resolute if I face a similar situation. I think awareness and sensitivity to the problem is a beginning. I wish my preparedness hadn’t come at the expense of my friends’ and this Texas woman's well-being.