Sexual harassment and assault allegations against high-profile entertainment and news executives have surged over the past few months. They spurred the “#MeToo” movement, in which people took to social media to disclose their own stories as victims. The campaign sparked questions of how sexual harassment in the workplace is handled.
In this week Friday Forum, WNIJ’s Jessie Schlacks examines the prevalence of sexual harassment on a smaller scale – and how local officials are working to amend their own policies.
Lynnea Laskowski acknowledges the heightened awareness coming from the recent sexual assault allegations. She heads the communication and prevention services at Safe Passage and says it’s nothing new for her agency.
“We’ve always known that this has been here and that this has been a problem,” she said. “But it really does feel like the world is starting to wake up and recognize that as well.”
Laskowski says Safe Passage serves as a frontline advocate for victims – which can be as simple as providing information.
“‘What could I expect to come out of this as a verdict? What is it going to look like in the E.R.? What is it going to look like to have a rape evidence collection kit taken? What are the pros and cons of that?’” are among the questions that Laskowski says her agency attempts to answer for the victims.
She says it’s important to take allegations seriously. Laskowski says we have a culture that is skeptical of – and even willing to blame -- victims.
“When you go to the police to report a robbery, people don’t really second-guess you right away. They give you the benefit of doubt,” she said. “I would like to see that for survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault – that we give them the benefit of the doubt and we start by believing.”
And she says some victims tend to question themselves.
“If something is making you uncomfortable, trust yourself,” Laskowski said, “and, if it doesn’t seem safe enough in that moment to tell someone right then, ask them to back off. As soon as you do feel safe, tell someone else.”
But Laskowski says some victims end up never reporting sexual abuse. She says some figure the repercussions are too costly.
“If you have a family, or if you’re trying to survive on your own, can you wait five or ten years for a settlement?” she asked. “You might need that job right now, and you stay quiet so you can keep that job.”
Laskowski says power and privilege drives sexual harassment and assault. She points to the need for institutional change.
“We’re not just taking down a few Harvey Weinsteins or a few Al Frankens,” she said, “but we’re really changing the system that allowed people like Harvey Weinstein to get to the point where he had that power and that access and could use it.”
She says Safe Passage often connects victims to different resources to move forward. Laskowski says they strive to help people as a whole – not just the parts that have been victimized.
“Someone who is fleeing an abusive relationship and wants to go back to school to create a better life for themselves and their kids,” she explained, “we’re happy to help them figure out student loans, figure out how to apply to college, figure out what kind of program they want to study.”
She says she hopes to be out of a job one day.
“We want to get to a point in DeKalb County that we don’t need a Safe Passage because people are safe in their relationships,” she said.
Laskowski says education is critical to curb sexual misconduct cases: “The earlier we talk about consent and body autonomy, the more kids are going to be prepared to respect each other and respect themselves.”
Molly Holmes also works to boost knowledge of what sexual harassment can look like. She’s with the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center at Northern Illinois University. Holmes represents LGBTQ individuals, who she says tend to face extra barriers in reporting sexual assault.
“Would they be believed because they are a victim first and foremost,” Holmes asked, “or would they be believed because of their sexual orientation and gender identity?”
Holmes says the typical image of sexual harassment is a man victimizing a woman.
“Societal stereotypes and marginalization of LGBTQ people comes out everywhere,” she said. “It comes out in perceptions of behavior. It comes out in, unfortunately, victim scenarios.”
She says her department doesn’t push people to report cases if they’re not comfortable. But Holmes says it aims to provide support.
“Because it can do a service to say, ‘We hear you. We see you. We count you when it comes to knowing who the victims are,’” she said. “Because if we don’t ask and we don’t know, then it’s really hard for anyone to see themselves in the process.”
Holmes says some non-traditional people reporting sexual abuse are thrust into the role of being an educator “… about what it means to be an LGBTQ person, what it means to be in a same-gender relationship, and what it means to be non-binary gender expression, for example.”
Holmes says she’s pleased with growing inclusiveness. She says transgender and non-conforming students received their own gender category for the first time in a 2015 survey by the Association of American Universities. The survey examines the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault on college campuses. Holmes says the change in the data collection process was a turning point.
“If LGBTQ people don’t see themselves in statistics – in reporting procedures – then it’s less likely that they’re going to feel safe and comfortable and trust the people that are meant to advocate for them,” she said.
More than 150,000 students across the country participated in the survey. Results found reported rates of sexual assault and misconduct were the highest among students identifying as transgender, non-conforming, questioning, or non-listed gender – or TGQN.
Meanwhile, respondents identifying as TGQN were less likely to believe the university would conduct a fair investigation into the report. Holmes says that, to change the statistics, we need evolving education and robust policies in place.
“Continue to improve our training, continue to improve our language, and continue to improve our reporting processes so that victims continue to see themselves in the institution or facility that they’re reporting to,” Holmes advised.
Karen Baker, Associate Vice President and Title IX Coordinator at NIU, is working behind the scenes to revamp training and policies on sexual harassment and assault. She says she receives the most cases when students aren’t in the classroom.
“The trend I’ve seen over the years that I’ve been here is that break time gives them a safety net that, ‘I can file it and then go home and not think about it,’” she explained. “They can let the dust settle and then come back and deal with the complaint.”
A Freedom of Information Act request of Illinois public universities revealed that NIU has received at least five formal complaints of sexual harassment by an employee – and 24 complaints about a student – so far this fiscal year.
Each state college develops its own system for tracking complaints. Southern Illinois University’s case list revealed diversity in complaints. A handful of reports involved staff and faculty making complaints against students.
Baker says the university won’t force anyone to file a complaint but wants people to know resources are available when they need them.
She tells them, “Let me see what policies and procedures prohibit that. So, people then look at the policies and then they see, ‘Oh. I have rights that I can do here – that I can address through our policies and procedures.’”
Baker says there are two types of sexual misconduct. “Quid Pro Quo” refers to direct propositions.
“‘If you go on a date with me, I will give you a promotion,’” is one example she offered, “or, ‘Because you wouldn’t have sex with me, I am going to fire you.’”
She says the other instance is “hostile work environment.” Baker says these cases rely on circumstances and more investigation.
“So if you say one comment does not rise to the level of sexual harassment … well, if it’s severe, it might,” she said, “so we have to really look at everything at a case-by-case basis.”
Regardless, she says, valid offenses will result in swift consequences.
“Say you have engaged in that: We’re going to put that in your file,” she said. “We’re going to be watching you. We might terminate you. All because of what? This behavior is not OK.”
As students are heading back to class, Baker says she’s working to make trainings and group dialogues more relatable.
“Students will learn differently by having less lecture and being able to see themselves in particular scenarios and say, ‘You know what? I know someone who went through that.’ And being able to hear, ‘This is sexual assault,’” she said.
She says she plans to incorporate some graphic videos in upcoming trainings. Baker says it’s necessary to depict what sexual assault looks like.
“It’s hard to talk about consent without showing a video if a person is passed out drunk and not saying ‘no,’ and is still engaging in sex,” she said. “Is that consent? How do you tell if the person is incapacitated or not?”
A new law requires all state government bodies to implement updated sexual harassment policies. It includes municipalities, school districts, and fire protection. The required provisions clarify how to report an allegation – and specifies the consequences of retaliation and making a false report.
“One of the things this law is trying to do is raise the level of sensitivity of people that, ‘That’s not acceptable behavior and, if it occurs, here’s something to do about it,’” explained State Rep. Bob Pritchard, R-Hinckley.
He says the revamped sexual harassment policy is in addition to the annual required training for all government leaders and their employees. Pritchard says he hopes the changes don’t become overkill, but he says it’s better to err with caution.
“There are just differences of people who are touchy types of people,” he said. “They like to hug and they like to shake hands. For some individuals, that might be intimidating.”
Pritchard says we’ll have to wait and see if the extra efforts help curb sexual misconduct cases. But there are still more changes to come.
Next month, the Department of Human Rights must have in place an anonymous sexual harassment hotline and website. It aims to connect victims to resources and help them file formal complaints.