There are long-standing social issues getting more exposure today than they did when we baby boomers were kids, and there are movements that are picking up steam that we never imagined would grow as they have. One obvious example today is sexual harassment. Baby boomers Rick Miller, from Columbia, Maryland, and Eric Mondschein, from Queensbury, New York, are the co-authors of Sexual Harassment and Bullying: Similar, But not the Same. And they write now for BoomerCafé about where to go from here: Confronting and Preventing Sexual Harassment.
The news today is filled with women speaking out about being sexually harassed, and in some cases, assaulted by prominent and powerful men of business, entertainment, and politics. We also are hearing of young women and girls being sexually harassed and assaulted in our schools, colleges, and universities. Many of us are shocked by the news, yet this has been a serious issue for not just years, but decades. Sexual harassment has been around forever, but as we baby boomers came of age and even as we moved through our working lives, it didn’t have the widespread public import or awareness it has today.
It makes us wonder, why have we as a society not addressed this problem until now? The short answer is, we have. In both employment and education, sexual harassment has been identified, defined, and prohibited by federal law since the 1970s. The men and boys who have harassed women and girls knew or should have known that what they were doing was prohibited. But more than that, they should have known that to disrespect another person in such a way was wrong, and the idea of doing such a thing should be repugnant in and of itself.
The law, in general, is clear about what sexual harassment is in employment and in education. In employment, it is considered to be a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which applies to all U.S. employers with fifteen or more employees.
In education, sexual harassment is also considered a form of sex discrimination and the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education is charged with enforcing Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.
In general, sexual harassment in education and employment is conduct that is 1) unwelcome; 2) of a sexual nature; and 3) interferes with a student’s or employee’s ability to learn, study, work, or participate in school or business activities. Both male and female employees and students can be victims, and the harasser and the victim can be of the same sex.
We should not, however, have to be discussing the law only to redress a grievance already committed. We should be talking about prevention. This is a problem we all must confront, and it begins with parents, grandparents, even sisters and brothers! Somewhere along the line, these men, boomers included (so many of the powerful figures who have fallen are baby boomers), and sometimes boys, evidently never learned that sexually harassing, or worse, sexually assaulting women and girls, was terribly, indefensibly wrong.
Males must be taught from an early age to respect females. They must learn boundaries and limits concerning behavior of a sexual nature and of physical interactions. There must be real consequences for those who cross the line from flirting to harassment, let alone assault. It should be noted that men and boys can and have been harassed or assaulted too, but most victims are females and it must stop. The most effective way is to prevent sexual harassment from happening in the first place.
Given the length of time that both educational institutions and businesses have been covered by Titles IX and VII respectively, one would expect that there would have been training occurring in schools and workplaces that was effective and that provided knowledge and understanding of student and employee rights and responsibilities. Obviously, it hasn’t been universal. This benign neglect, where training is often perfunctory, and sometimes just reserved for management, is seen as a waste of time.
Training is essential beginning at home and at schools, colleges, and universities, and continuing in the workplace. Training can be effective when there is willingness and commitment to do so coupled with strong enforcement. It should be interactive, it should use case studies, and it should provide the opportunity for students and employees to know and understand the law, their school’s or company’s policies, what they can and cannot do, and the consequences. This needs to be followed up by enforcement of the policies that is fair, timely, and addresses the allegations.
Educational institutions and businesses need to have comprehensive training for all in their respective communities. When the focus is solely on protecting the organization from liability, and only administrators and executives are trained, it leaves others in the dark and disempowered concerning their rights and responsibilities. Training without enforcement leads to complacency and the sense that individuals will not be held accountable.
In other words, slipshod training and enforcement leads to slipshod results! But we as boomers know that programs such as ‘Stranger Danger’ and DUI prevention can be and have been effective when there is a will and commitment by parents, teachers, employers, and the community. Sexual harassment and assault will continue to occur unless and until we as a society take these issues seriously and commit to taking effective action to educate, train, and hold offenders accountable.
In many ways, baby boomers have been at the center of this problem— on both sides of it too— and we can be in the forefront of finding solutions if we have the courage, willingness, and fortitude to do the right thing.