As the effort to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace gains steam, California has recently passed two bills that would prevent silencing sexual harassment victims. The bills, currently pending California Governor Jerry Brown’s signature, are both aimed at assisting men and women who seek justice after suffering sexual harassment by their co-workers or employers and protect them from binding confidential settlement agreements. Similar bills are currently circulating around legislatures in 16 states and have already been enshrined in law in Arizona, Maryland, New York, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington. While such pieces of legislation are certainly valuable, it remains unclear whether they pose a big enough deterrent to sexual harassment in the workplace and the silencing of victims.
There is no doubt that both bills constitute positive developments, and will hopefully encourage legislators elsewhere to adopt the same approach when it comes to protecting sexual harassment victims. That being said, it remains unlikely that such legal action is sufficient in combating sexual predators who seek to silence their victims. One issue is that bills adopted on the state level only protect victims within the boundaries of those states (currently a mere fraction of the entire country).
Bills of this type generally protect victims who have made the decision to come forward and hold their aggressors accountable; a step many are hesitant to take in the first place. This directly ties to a broader issue, which is the general failure of the political and justice systems to foster an environment in which sexual harassment is truly discouraged and in which victims feel sufficiently empowered to come forward and seek prosecution. When across the country politicians, legislators, and judges continuously weaken protections for women and members of the LGBTQ community, and place under doubt their right to their bodies and lifestyles, it becomes ingrained in the national psyche that they are, for lack of a better term, ‘fair game’. It therefore seems that serious gaps exist in the U.S. legal system when it comes to protection of sexual harassment victims and their ability to properly pursue their cases.
What, then, could fill in such gaps and provide an extra support to those seeking to come forward? The answer, perhaps not so shockingly, is tech. Numerous technological startups and innovations have been launched in recent years to support victims of sexual harassment, particularly in taking the first, arguably most daunting step, of coming forward. Stopit, which started as an app designated to assist victims of school bullying report their abuse, has now evolved into a tool for people to instantly and anonymously report abuse or harassment. The app currently operates within educational institutions, businesses, and government agencies. Callisto is an online sexual assault reporting platform, which operates across college campuses as well as various business industries. Through Callisto, victims may insert encrypted information regarding their harasser while their name and contact information remains private and confidential. The report is then decrypted by a Castillo Options Counselor (a lawyer), who provides support and practical information regarding the different legal paths victims may take to win justice. The app also provides a “Matching Escrow” service, which alerts the counsellors whenever two or more people were abused by the same individual, consequently helping identify (and hopefully prosecute) serial offenders.
This isn’t to downplay the role of laws and regulations in the fight against sexual harassment. The first bill passed in California, titled AB 3080, is set to outlaw confidential agreements in sexual harassment cases as well as prohibit mandatory arbitration agreements in employment contracts, both of which discourage many victims from pursuing their legal cases. The other bill, SB 820, would ban agreements that prohibit “disclosure of factual information” in sexual assault and discrimination settlements. Among other stipulations, the bill would allow the name of the victim to remain private but require that perpetrators’ names be made public, thus encouraging victims to come forward without fearing the consequential public recognition. According to Senator Connie M. Leyva, one of the bill’s sponsors, “Legislative approval of SB 820 sends a resounding message to victims that we will do all we can to make sure that their perpetrators are held accountable for their reprehensible actions.”
The introduction of these bills shows that the legal system is waking up to its duty by providing better protection for victims of sexual harassment. In the same breath, the flaws and limitations of the justice system in preventing such abuses and prosecuting perpetrators should be acknowledged, and technological advancements ought to be adopted to complement the legal tools available to victims.