101 reasons not to complain

By the numbers: When a woman accuses a man for sexual harassment, who is more likely to be hurt as a result?

table (photo credit: coutesy)
(photo credit: coutesy)
CONVERSATION ABOUT POLICE-CHIEF-HOPEFUL Uri Bar-Lev and Dr. Orly Innes was heated. Innes, a longtime, senior-level outside consultant to the police force, had recently accused another senior police figure, Hagai Peleg, who was also in the running for police chief, of sexual harassment. During the investigation, incidents concerning Bar-Lev also came to light; the police investigations department concluded that there was sufficient material to indict him. Peleg resigned. Bar-Lev took himself out of the competition and also took voluntary leave.
But Innes’s ordeal was not over. Scrutinized by the press – which by law, had used only her initial (the Hebrew aleph) and blurred her on television screens – all possible details of her sex life were either revealed or (she says) invented. Finally, she took the unprecedented step of deliberately revealing her identity in a public speech. She says she did so in order to expose the trauma victims must suffer when they lodge formal complaints against powerful men and to show that she was not afraid.
Facebook debates raged. Some were convinced that Bar-Lev would never pay a price. Others felt that despite her highly emotional speech, his guilt ought not to be determined in the media but in the courts. Angry friends scoffed back that the “system” in Israel would never work for women, implying that there’s no point in using it.
But there is a system for addressing sexual harassment in Israel, and it’s robust. Twelve years ago, Israel passed legislation that defines and outlaws sexual harassment, including a detailed focus on the workplace. The law is rooted in the language of Israel’s quasiconstitutional 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. The sexual harassment law is prefaced by the line: “The goal of this law prohibiting sexual harassment is to protect human freedom and dignity, and privacy, and to advance equality between the sexes.”
Of course the law, progressive as it may be, did not put an end to sexual harassment (or other forms of sexual crimes). The Peleg/Bar Lev/Innes affair and other high-profile incidents highlight the fact that the workplace is one of the main arenas of sexual harassment. But how well does Israel’s highly comprehensive law protect or provide justice for women (or men) when they are subordinate to powerful, often male, authorities?
The law tries to be proactive. It is posted right there on the website of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor. It requires employers to undertake prevention measures and establish procedures for complaints. The law tries to protect the privacy of the plaintiffs to make it easier for them to come forward. Most important, the foundation for justice exists.
But there’s one catch: The law only works if people use it. And the painful treatment Innes – and others – received may discourage women more than fuzzy-faced identity protection encourages them to come forward.
The young female soldier kissed by Minister Haim Ramon in 2006 was mocked as a vixen or a fool; the press treated the issue as petty and Ramon’s punishment (and his dismissal) as an overreaction. “A,” from the President’s office, who accused then-president Moshe Katzav of rape, has seen her life taken over by the trials and coverage; she is jobless, relationship-less and depressed, says one of her acquaintances. Four years after her accusations, Katzav’s verdict is expected on December 28. And, in August 2010, a juicy international debate about racism arose when Arab-Israeli Saber Kashur was prosecuted for rape by deception for having portrayed himself as Jewish. The accuser was portrayed as a racist whiner. Then the facts came out: She had been found naked and bleeding after Kashur forcefully raped her. Until then, the press and the public had largely neglected her horror.
True, in the harassment case against Yitzhak Mordechai in 2000, who had recently run for prime minister, the accuser was relatively left alone while Mordechai ultimately left political life. But that seems to be the exception.
Back in the Bar Lev case, the public and the press were quick to accuse Innes of ulterior motives. In conversations, the following points were heard, mainly from men: “She’s politically motivated, she didn’t complain until he was in the running for police chief.” “She thinks she can get PR now that he’s becoming more important; before that she didn’t feel strongly enough to complain.” “She’s manipulative.” Her sexual life became public record.
If these are the results of “going official” with sexual charges, many victims might not bother. But this denies justice to both the victim and the perpetrator; it can perpetuate the abuse. If tried in the court of public opinion, people can be wrongly accused, and the rights of the defendant denied. If a law is not used, the next victim is less likely to know about it in the hour of need.
THIS MONTH’S JERUSALEM REPORT SURVEY ASKED the public to think about these cases and decide: “When a woman accuses a man of sexual harassment in the workplace, who is more likely to be hurt by the complaint – the woman or the man?”
Confirming suspicions that people feel the victim of the crime becomes a victim of the legal process, nearly half of the Jewish Israelis surveyed – 44% – say a female victim is more likely to be hurt than the accused if the accused is a male, and 33% said “much” more likely. Just 33% felt the male was more likely to be hurt. Among women, 49% said the female was more likely to be hurt, compared to 38% among men. Also, 12% said both would be hurt, which can be added to both responses – in other words, 11% of the women said both men and women are equally likely to be hurt. Add the 49% of women who thought the female was more likely to be hurt, and 60% of the women saw further suffering if they were to complain through legal channels.
Women are the overwhelming majority of the victims, yet a broad majority of women don’t feel they can use the law to seek justice.
To understand more about why women do not often go public about their experiences, The Report spoke to three women professionals, all of them highly educated, relatively well-off financially, and young but not naïve. They work in a traditionally maledominated profession, and all had worked at a prestigious private company but no longer were. Not one agreed to be identified.
Their stories are similar to many others – some readers might wonder if their company is the one involved.
Although the women were friends, they had never discussed their personal experiences of sexual harassment among themselves, nor, apparently, with anyone else. Two of the three, who were all married at the time, did not tell their husbands. Suddenly, stories and emotions come pouring out from each of them. Not one had lodged any sort of formal complaint.
Why, we ask.
One, who had suffered unwanted attentions from her boss for several years, begins, “I was afraid of his power.” Slowly, the story unfolds, revealing her confusion. “When it started, I didn’t know what to do. Then it went on so long, I wasn’t sure how to stop it… I don’t even think he knew he was doing anything wrong.” She pauses, recalling that she had repeatedly told him his behavior upset her. She had cried and written letters; she had threatened to tell his wife. Finally she says, “I don’t see how he couldn’t have known.”
This woman felt she had to choose between career advancement and her dignity – something that would make early feminists writhe if they heard it in 2010. “I was just starting my career… I was just starting to build myself and create new opportunities. I knew all that would end [if I complained publicly]. I assumed I’d have to leave the country.”
The second woman had experienced a single incident with a colleague that involved unwanted physical contact. This overeager, bright, shining-eyed young woman looks away and says: “I thought maybe I didn’t handle it well.” Her eyes drop and she says, “I don’t even like talking about it. I thought maybe I did something wrong.”
None of the women had ever been given a briefing or pamphlet about sexual harassment in any workplace. The longtime sufferer was not even sure how to complain: “Who would I complain to among the superiors? He was the CEO. The CFO has been his friend for years.” Ultimately, she quit her job after reaching a very senior position, saying the sexual harassment had been the main reason.
These are supposedly the elite women of Israeli society. What about lower-educated, lower-earning, less “empowered” women? The survey shows that they are even more likely to think that the female will be more hurt by a public complaint of sexual harassment than the male: 47% of these respondents felt this way, compared to 40% in the highest socio-economic and educational bracket. Over half – 51% – among the lowest educated women, and 47% of those with only a high school education felt the female would be hurt, compared to 39% among the highest-educated respondents. The law alone hasn’t been able to strengthen their self-perception.
Furthermore, the secular and traditional (masorti) respondents were more than twice as likely to say the female would be hurt than were the religious respondents (49%, 47% and 22%, respectively). Perhaps these women encounter sexual harassment more frequently, or perhaps they are more likely to consider complaining about it – or both. If so, we see yet again that those who need or seek to use the law are more intimidated by the possible outcomes.
IS THERE ANY HOPE of improvement? IsraelI legislation has taken the first step – now people must catch up. The dream is that one day disrespect, manipulation, coercion and violation will be erased from human interaction. Imagine if they were replaced by something like Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” formulation of total engagement with the whole being and spirit of the other. But that seems like a distant dream. In the meantime, men – and women – who abuse power by violating another human being’s sexuality and dignity simply must do better. Too often, men view women as mere props for their hedonistic, egotistic fantasies, erasing the women’s humanity in the process.
And yet it would be naïve to think that abusive behavior will simply end. As such, the first priority must be full realization of the existing law: posting the protocols in the workplace, distributing information and making the complaint mechanism visible and accessible.
Finding additional means to deal with borderline cases might also be valuable, such as alternative dispute resolution, which is increasingly common in the US.
But the law is the starting point. Israel has developed bad habits, like failing to implement Supreme Court decisions and failing to respond to emergency warnings – most recently about its firefighting units. It will be bad for men, bad for women, and bad for society if the legislation against sexual harassment also fails to be implemented – or used by the people who need it.