The past 12 months have been characterised in the legal world by a surge of new attention centering on the issue of sexual harassment, both in and out of the workplace, exposing it as a problem far wider spread than society initially believed it to be. The recent exposure of the rampant harassment culture in Hollywood has been responsible for bringing sexual harassment and assault to the forefront, leading to employers, organisations, groups and communities to review their current approaches to investigating such claims and taking necessary action. Here, the specialist team at LegalExpert.co.uk examine the changing perspectives on sexual harassment and assault, what this means for the legal industry and what steps are being taken to combat it.
Recent statistics have given some indication of just how common a problem sexual harassment is. It is not clear whether this apparent surge in sexual harassment claims is down to the actual rate of incident increasing, or just the number of people coming forward about their experiences, but they paint a troubling picture.
Statistics show that 57 per cent of women and 59 per cent of transgender people have been victims of sexual harassment, while 44 per cent of men report being subject to the same treatment. This means that the majority of the population has been affected by sexual harassment, and this information is only now coming to light.
Studies have also examined the lasting impact experienced by victims of sexual harassment, revealing some alarming facts. 44 per cent of people who reported being sexually harassed said they went on to suffer from depression as a result, while 41 per cent experienced feeling of social anxiety and one-third said their experiences of sexual harassment had made them suicidal. This gives some insight into the long-term reality faced by victims of sexual harassment, and the seriousness with which this issue must be addressed.
A cultural movement of a magnitude rarely seen this decade set the ball rolling for the new wave of focus on sexual harassment. Tipped by the the exposure of allegations against movie moghul Harvey Weinstein by the New York Times late last year, the sexual harassment scandal has experienced a significant domino effect, and become a central focus in media and society. From the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements and Oprah Winfrey’s challenging speech at the Golden Globe Awards, this matter has gathered huge momentum, and seen many people coming forward to reveal themselves as victims of sexual harassment.
During her speech, Oprah Winfrey referred to Recy Taylor, a woman who had been raped and subsequently fought for justice during the time of Jim Crow. The way society was at that point meant that justice was never brought against the men who attached Recy Taylor and Oprah echoed the rising narrative that women had long feared speaking up due to the assumption that they would not be heard or believed. Oprah challenged this by saying four powerful words; ‘their time is up’ and it appears that this has resonated with many, leading to a transformation in the way this far-reaching issue is being advanced in 2018.
Figures published at the height of the #TimesUp movement suggest that as many as 81% of women have actually suffered from inappropriate behaviour by others. The issue of historical sexual abuse is also being brought out of the shadows. Official figures show that reports of historical sex abuse alleged to take place between the mid-1970s into the mid-1990s fell steadily over time, but these statistics are compiled from those victims who came forward, and the number of victims who have never revealed their abuse is unknown.
The issue of sexual harassment, and of many victims having suffered in silence for a long time, has struck a chord with society, and revolution is taking place. The exposure of accusations against high-profile figures has seen other people feel empowered to blow the whistle on their own aggressors, and to redefine the societal norms that have allowed sexual harassment to simmer below the surface for so long. One of the main focuses is towards employers reviewing the instance of sexual harassment in the workplace, and making improvements to company culture and policy to ensure that sexual harassment does not take place, and if it does, the victim has they support they deserve to ensure the matter is dealt with justly.
With awareness of sexual harassment at an all-time high, the public are experiencing a new wave of confidence in coming forward with allegations, safe in the knowledge that they will be listened to, supported and dealt with appropriately. It has already caused a huge surge in complaints of sexual harassment, and legal experts expect to see this continue. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reported a 21 per cent increase in calls in the space of a week following the breakout of the Hollywood scandal, while the final quarter of 2017 saw a 31.5 per cent increase in reports of sexual harassment compared to the same period in 2016.
Legal firms, particularly those specialising in sexual crimes, should be fully prepared to see an increase in the number of sexual harassment cases coming their way, if it hasn’t already happened.
Issues of sexual harassment, both recent and historical, are likely to become a defining characteristic of the modern legal field, and legal experts should be prepared to deal with an influx of new enquiries, as more victims become aware of how to claim compensation for sexual abuse, assault or harrassment. In spite of the terrible nature of such crimes, the increase in victims coming forward is a positive indicator of society becoming more supportive of those affected by sexual harassment, and it is the responsibility of the legal profession to sustain this momentum, and help victims to feel that they made the right decision, for themselves and for others, by reporting their abuse. The longevity and success of the societal movement towards stamping out sexual harassment relies heavily on the right approach being taken by legal professionals at this crucial time.