How #MeToo Exposes Our Antiquated Laws: Women Are Not Protected

In many instances over the past year, #MeToo has helped multiple women discover they were abused by the same powerful man, but the victims were unable to file a criminal complaint because the statute of limitations had expired.

High-profile examples include Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times notes that in another high-profile case, that of disgraced former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the prosecutor just announced that no charges will be filed for domestic violence committed against several women because their cases are all past the statute of limitations. Bellafante explains that there has been pressure on the legal system for some time to expand or eliminate these time frames, but little progress has been made. She notes, “Serial predators will continue to elude punishment, given that the crimes they commit often occur over a period that can span decades. Cases built on one or two recent accusations [like those of Weinstein and Cosby]—ignoring along-term pattern of abuse—easily fall apart.” There is now abundant evidence that the trauma of sexual abuse combined with fear of retribution by powerful abusers often causes assaults to go unreported until well past the statute of limitation allowed by law.

Our laws need updating in other ways as well to hold sexual abusers criminally accountable. For example, Bellafante explains that it was not clear what crimes Schneiderman could be charged with for physically attacking and demeaning aseries of women with whom he was involved:

  • Felony assault requires the demonstration of significant injury, such as a broken limb.
  • Misdemeanor assault requires proof of substantial physical pain but does not include mental anguish.
  • A prosecutor must be able to prove there was intent to cause physical injury, which can be invalidated by claiming that injury resulted from momentary passion or anger but was “not intended.”

In addition, our laws need clarification and expansion to include protocols and standards requiring colleges to call the police to report campus rape and assault. Instead, new rules recently released by Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education protect schools but not students. Dana Bolger explains the following about these rules:

  • They narrow what counts as sexual harassment. The rules require that harassment must be “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access” to education. Even a rape may not count as sexual harassment under this standard because a one-time act of violence is “not pervasive.”
  • They only hold schools accountable when they are“deliberately indifferent” to sexual harassment.

We also need to clarify the standards used to hold someone accountable for rape or attempted rape when there are no corroborating witnesses. The deck is stacked against women regardless of how long it takes them to come forward to seek justice for an assault.

Our laws need to change.

Photo courtesy of southernfried (morguefile)


Universities Must Do More to Stop Harassment: New Report

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, highly respected independent agencies, issued their first-ever report on sexual harassment and found that universities have failed to prevent sexual harassment. Pam Belluck of the New York Times writes that the conclusions of the 311-page report are the result of a two-year study started before the #MeToo movement began. Belluck notes that “academic workplaces are second only to the military in the rate of sexual harassment.” One study cited in the report found that 58 percent of academic employees report experiencing sexual harassment. The report also cited a 2017 survey by the University of Texas system of students in scientific fields that found the following rates of sexual harassment:

  • 20 percent of female science students.
  • More than 25 percent of female engineering students.
  • More than 40 percent of female medical students experience sexual harassment from faculty or staff members. In addition, female medical students experience sexual harassment from patients.
Belluck notes that the report identified three types of sexual harassment in universities:
  • Sexual coercion
  • Unwanted sexual attention
  • Gender harassment, described as “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion or second-class status.”
Gender harassment was by far the most common type women experienced. The National Academies report notes that the cost of any form of sexual harassment for women is high and can “undermine work and well-being in a whole host of ways.” For example, the experience can trigger depression, sleep disruption, cardiac stress, and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Lilia Cortina, a member of the study team. Cortina, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, notes that sexual harassment experiences can be even worse for women of color and lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women. The cost to the scientific fields themselves is also high because women leave and the fields are not able to retain a full range of talent. The National Academies report states that universities must stop focusing on “symbolic compliance with current law” and on avoiding liability for their institutions and instead focus on preventing sexual harassment. Belluck notes that the report offers fifteen detailed recommendations, including
  • Overhauling academic advising systems so that students and junior researchers are not at the mercy of one senior researcher for advancement and access to grants.
  • Establishing informal ways for students and staff to report sexual harassment.
  • Urging legislators to pass laws so people can file harassment lawsuits directly against faculty and not just the university.
  • Abolishing nondisclosure agreements where settlements are made. These agreements currently allow a perpetrator to move on to other academic institutions without disclosure of their inappropriate behavior.
  • Adopting training programs that focus on changing behavior, not beliefs.
Ultimately, the cultures of academic institutions have to change if sexual harassment is to be prevented. Power structures, policies, and procedures that protect powerful faculty and prioritize protecting the institution from liability will never be able to create safe and respectful work environments for students and staff.   Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash]]>