This is San Diego Mayor Bob Filner’s last week in office. For the last 2 months, we have endured ubiquitous news coverage after 18 courageous women came forth to tell their stories of humiliating sexual harassment, literally, at the hands of Bob Filner. These accounts brought to light the Mayor’s affinity for subjecting his employees and female colleagues to his abusive conduct, including persistent verbal sexual assaults, unwanted kissing, and groping, and what has been coined the Filner Headlock. After 3 days of mediation, 1 week of intensive therapy, and no end in sight, the nation welcomed Filner’s resignation.
Everyone tuned in to witness Filner’s parting words, certain that he would sincerely apologize to the many women he had intimidated and disenfranchised throughout his short term of office. Instead, he denied sexually harassing anyone, stating that his intention was not to offend or violate but to “establish personal relationships.” As it turned out, amidst a barrage of self-serving “explanations,” the most authentic part of Filner’s resignation speech was the admission that his conduct was a “combination of awkwardness and hubris.” In ancient Greece, hubris referred to actions that shamed and humiliated the victim for the pleasure of the abuser. Even after his “rehabilitation,” Filner doesn’t know what sexual harassment is, but his comment about hubris was right on the money.
More often than not, sexual harassment is about abuse of power, not sexual desire. Last week, in a progressive step toward increasing protection for employees, Governor Jerry Brown signed off on SB 292, overturning Kelly v. The Conco Companies, clarifying that sexual harassment need not be motivated by sexual desire to be unlawful conduct under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.
In Kelly v. The Conco Companies, a male employee was subjected to demeaning sexual comments and gestures by his male supervisor and then physically attacked and retaliated against when he complained. The Kelly decision misconstrued the Fair Employment and Housing Act, when it held that sexual harassment must be motivated by sexual desire. By this logic, you could intimidate your co-worker with sexual innuendo and profanity day after day but if you did not desire to have sex with her, then you would not be guilty of sexual harassment.
SB 292 reaffirms existing California law, which recognizes that sexual harassment is not always about sex. Indeed, it is frequently about the abuse of authority, dominance and self-gratification. Whenever people hear about women (or men) who have been continuously sexually harassed in the workplace, the first question asked is almost always, “why did she put up with it for so long?” The answer, of course, is abuse of power. When a victim does not immediately come forward to complain, it doesn’t mean that the victim enjoyed what was happening or that the harassment was welcome. Perhaps they are ashamed. Women harassment victims may feel the need to keep it to themselves to avoid the innuendo that it was somehow their fault. Men harassment victims may be embarrassed of how others will react when hearing that he “let this happen.” More often than not, it is the result of an intimidated victim in fear of getting fired and being unable to support themselves and their families.
When Filner came into office, I am certain that he wanted to set an example during his term. It just so happens that in his short reign, he did. Although unintended, the example worth learning is that the balance of power can shift. After his “inspiring” resignation speech, yet another woman, moved by the strength of the others, stepped forward to speak out against Filner. These 19 women were all subjected to harassment by a man who thought he was invincible. Thanks to them, he was wrong. Now, with the signing of SB 292, the State of California has reaffirmed its commitment to protecting workers from sexual harassment, whatever the motivation of the perpetrator.