WASHINGTON — Sexual harassment was a taboo subject in 1991, when a young woman spoke out about her employer’s unwanted sexual advances during a Senate hearing for a U.S. Supreme Court nominee and opened a public dialogue on sexual harassment.
It was a "he said, she said" story. Law professor Anita Hill testified before a Senate committee of 14 men that her former employer and Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, had made sexual advances toward her when she worked for him. Americans by the millions watched an eloquent and poised young woman talk about a personal and painful experience.
Nearly 23 years later, the documentary, Anita, by Oscar-winning filmmaker Freida Mock revisits those dramatic moments and puts the nation's progress on gender equality into context, especially for the younger generations.
“The issues of sexual harassment are very much around us in terms of what they will face going in, if not the workplace, into the military and maybe graduate school,” said Mock, adding that one in five women is sexually assaulted on college campuses yearly.
However, she says progress has been made since 1991.
“Now, the language of sexual harassment is very much in our lexicon,” Mock said.
After Hill’s testimony, women started talking, shared their experiences and understanding of workplace harassment came out in the open which, Mock says, made a huge difference.
“The year after Clarence Thomas was sworn in, there was a huge uptick in the claims of sexual harassment that were filed with the Equal Opportunity Commission,” said Caren Goldberg, an American University Human Resources professor.
Goldberg, who also serves as an expert witness in sexual harassment court cases, says many cases still go unreported or unresolved.
“The media sort of portrays very large settlements as though they are the norm and in fact they are not,” she said. “Your typical sexual harassment settlement is of shockingly low financial value and when one considers the emotional and psychological toll that it takes on a victim to follow through with a lawsuit, often times the costs outweigh the benefits.”
Mock says sexual harassment is prevalent blue collar workers. She says there are 17 million women who are low level skilled workers, often ethnic, who don’t speak English and are often subjected to sexual harassment.
But Caren Goldberg says sexual harassment is pervasive.
“White collar [professional], blue collar [working class], less well educated, highly educated, it’s pretty much across the board,” she said.
Goldberg says a bad economy and the small financial returns from the average sexual harassment settlement discourage people from taking legal action and risking their jobs.
In the military especially, fear of risking one's career and a reluctance to question authority create a code of silence surrounding cases of sexual harassment and assault.
Kirby Dick’s documentary, The Invisible War, pulls open the curtain on the rise in reported rape cases in the military. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter spoke about it in an interview with VOA.
“In the year 2012, which is the last one we knew, they had 26,000 cases of sexual abuse in the military," he said, "and only about 300 were ever brought to justice."
For filmmaker Mock, Anita serves as a reminder of how far society has come.
"We have a lot more knowledge today and understanding of what sexual harassment is," she said. "And people of goodwill who say, 'This is not right.'"