Sexual harassment has been in the news a lot lately. And how we talk about it — or rather, don’t talk about it — says a lot. Like rape, domestic violence and many other crimes that happen primarily to women, it’s relegated to he said/she said reports and raised eyebrows. As a society, we just can’t wrap our heads around the idea that these pink-collar crimes are really a full-body manifestation of misogyny and reinforced male domination. To put it bluntly, they are about power. The power of one group over another.
News broke yesterday that Las Vegas nightclub and restaurant executive Michael Morton was being sued for sexual harassment by former employee Leslie Culler, who was the art director for the N9NE Group. The lawsuit alleges that Culler after working with the company for eight years she was fired after she refused Morton’s sexual advances. She also says she was subjected to “constant sexual harassment” in the workplace during her time there. This case seems like the so-called “classic” sexual harassment lawsuit we are accustomed to hearing about in the media. A woman is fired because she did not want to have sex with the boss.
Like many sexual harassment cases, this one comes with a male boss exerting power over a female employee. She lost her job, her income and, potentially, may suffer consequences like being black-listed in her profession.
While sexual harassment cases are not always about sexual activity, they are always about someone using their position of power to hurt an employee. And in most cases the person in power is a man and the person who is getting taken advantage of, threatened or otherwise harassed is a woman. Take the Walmart class-action suit — the biggest in US history — which includes as many as 1.5 million women. In that lawsuit, which now includes every female employee of the company over the past decade, the allegation is that Walmart knowingly paid women less than its male employees and systematically denied promotions to women.
According to Reuters:
The original lawsuit by seven women, filed in 2001, claimed that Wal-Mart paid female workers less than male colleagues and gave them fewer promotions. Wal-Mart denied that it discriminated on the basis of sex.
So, in the Walmart case, it was not about the act of sex at all but rather the gender of those (allegedly) wronged. Indeed, the definition of sexual harassment is not just about sex (even though as a society that’s the only part of the term we hear). According to Equal Rights Advocates, sexual harassment is “unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is severe or pervasive and affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment.” (their emphasis added)
The truth is, we have to get our heads out of the gutter when it comes to sexual harassment and other crimes related to gender inequalities. We still ask rape victims (who are disproportionately women) to not just prove it, but show that they were not dressed too sexy, drinking, out late by herself and a myriad other morality based questions. The worth of the victim, and thus the validity of her statements is not just fact-checked, it’s filtered through a lens of societal judgment about women. Honestly, the best example of this is Chrissy Mazzeo’s sexual assault case against former Governor Jim Gibbons, in which allegations of a good-ol-boy cover-up remain. A single mom and cocktail waitress, Mazzeo says she was blacklisted from working in Las Vegas and had to leave town after the incident happened.
So what’s going to happen to Culler? Or the millions of women who have or are now working at Walmart? Are we going to giggle like 12-year-olds because their cases involve the word “sex?” Or are we going to treat this with the seriousness it deserves? There’s nothing fair about working for a boss or a company that doesn’t respect you as a person simply because of how you were born. These lawsuits speak to the still-unfinished work we have in our society when it comes to gender equality.
And in a town like Las Vegas — hell, a state like Nevada — where women are told by the courts that they can be fired for not wearing makeup or protesting the height of the heels for their cocktail waitress uniforms… the issue of worker rights and a fair workplace suddenly seem a lot bigger than what pair of chromosomes you were born with.