By Nicole O’Connell
Sexual harassment and assault in the workplace is nothing new, but many people are just realizing how widespread and numerous these disturbing acts are. The “#MeToo” campaign began within the film industry but has now spread to other industries and proliferated on social media as people realize how encompassing this culture is; these issues are not limited to far-off Hollywood, but are occurring everywhere. Victims are constantly coming forward with their accounts, increasing awareness of these troubling issues and creating hope for change.
I spoke with Dr. Aimée Delaney, a Worcester State professor of Criminal Justice who has been involved in law enforcement for over twenty years, about the way these issues have affected her field.
How would you describe the culture of sexual harassment and sexual assault within law enforcement?
Well, if we’re talking about my experience, we’re spanning back at least twenty years. So, our definitions of what we would call sexual harassment has evolved over time. When I first started, what would be considered sexual harassment now existed back then, but back then it wasn’t [considered to be sexual harassment]. It was part of working in a male-dominated field. You kind of just went along to be one of the guys. Over time, it has evolved.
When sexual harassment first came out, and I was working in the field and I wasn’t a college professor, we looked at it in terms of, and when I say “we” I mean everyone in the workplace, not just myself, as blatant signs of sexualization in the workplace. For example, pornographic-style pictures to explicit comments, such as quid pro quo. That has evolved over time to include more subtleties, such as jokes. People make jokes in the workplace that are probably really funny with your friends or your family but not in the workplace.
[Attitudes towards that kind of behavior] have evolved over time, [and now it is considered to be part of] a hostile work environment, which includes acts of bullying. For example, threats, intimidation, using your position of power as leverage to get people to do what you want as opposed to what their job is. I think that the whole definition of sexual harassment is still evolving. For example, Massachusetts is trying to pass a workplace bullying law, currently, to say there are certain behaviors in the workplace that are unacceptable. You are not supposed to be making fun of people.
Whereas, sexual assault is really a different phenomenon. That’s when you are touching someone without their permission. Assault or battery in the state of Massachusetts becomes sexual when you sexualize it. I can give you an example: I’ve experienced sexual harassment. Everything from images to explicit comments. I’ve never been asked for quid pro quo, that I remember, in terms of if you do this sexual act, I’ll give you this in return, but I have had comments made to me about the way I look, particularly my breasts.
And there was one instance, when I first started working in the field, in what I consider my first professional job in law enforcement, when I was sexually assaulted. And that’s because my breasts were touched without my permission in the workplace under the guise of a supervisor saying, “I need to do this to make sure your uniform fits properly.” When in fact he did not need to do that, it was not appropriate. He certainly did not have my permission. I’m sure back then human resources would have labelled that sexual harassment. I consider that sexual assault.
During your Criminal Justice education, did you learn about this culture of sexual harassment and assault within law enforcement?
No. [I took a course on] sexual assault, but more in terms of forced penetration or molestation. It didn’t talk about workplace violence or sexual harassment. There was no orientation. I went to a state university. This was not discussed at all. I don’t remember it being discussed in most of my jobs. In fact, I don’t even remember taking a training on sexual harassment or hostile work environment in my first law enforcement job. It wasn’t until years later when I was in the state of New Hampshire working at the Attorney General’s office as an investigator that it was introduced and I had to take a training [course]. And now we do it every single year; it’s required of a state employee in Massachusetts.
Do you think that law enforcement will experience a movement similar to what is happening in other fields, with victims coming forward?
I think that there are so many people who come forward privately. I’m not sure we’re at a stage yet where people are completely comfortable in their occupations in general [for] coming forward. For example, [regarding] the “MeToo” campaign on social media, saying or writing “MeToo” if you’ve experienced sexual harassment and/or sexual assault: I saw a lot of people writing “MeToo,” but that doesn’t mean they’re willing to come forward and report it because of the repercussions.
For example, what I wrote on Facebook wasn’t just “MeToo.” I also wrote that by my writing this, and colleagues who are on my Facebook seeing it, I could experience fallout. Every time I talk about being sexually harassed in the workplace, even when I refer to [something that happened] twenty years ago, or ten years ago, or whenever it was, there is fallout. In other words, I get told “that didn’t really happen” or “you misunderstood it,” or I get ostracized. People don’t want to talk to me because they’re afraid I’ll report them. Or people take sides.
I think in law enforcement, because it is so male dominated, there is not just the masculinities of the job but also the secrecy and the “us against them” mentality that we need to band together, we need to stick together, we can’t let any outsiders penetrate it. As soon as you say that somebody else in blue did something they weren’t supposed to do, you’re considered a rat. In other words, a tattletale. When in fact, all you’re trying to do is assert your right to have a safe and healthy work environment. So, I’m not sure they’ll be a lot of people in law enforcement coming forward until the supervisors and the people at the top recognize that this either is an issue or has been an issue and this is how we address it.
I know that a lot of places require [sexual harassment training], at least the state of Massachusetts, and when I worked for the state of New Hampshire they required it. One time per year, you have to do a sexual harassment training. And just bringing that awareness to people can cease the behavior. People can say, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this” and stop doing it. So, rather than having people necessarily come forward and experience that re-victimization of going through reports and the system and basically not being believed, if people cease their behavior, then maybe that’s another route to move forward to that safe and healthy workplace.
Do you think that citizens who have been sexually harassed or assaulted by law enforcement will come forward?
I think if it’s a citizen, yes. If law enforcement uses their position in that way, it’s called abuse of power, to take advantage of a citizen. I do believe citizens will come forward. Particularly now, with not just body-cams on police and dash-cams in their cruisers, but cell-phones [as well]. I think it’s more among coworkers, that part of sexual harassment, that I don’t see coming forward as quickly as perhaps it would be nice.
When you look at, for example, Harvey Weinstein, and all the victimization that’s occurred over his reign over his company. For years and years jokes were made about it on Saturday Night Live. People knew exactly what he was doing. From the intimidation to the sexual harassment to the alleged sexual assaults. Everybody knew it was happening. People reported it for years too. Famous actresses and actors. However, nobody did anything until now. And that makes me question, what is going on in the culture now that people would want to expose this, and I think that’s where other professions will come forward over time. But again, a lot of people who are victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault [go through] a re-victimization and a shaming that occurs that you just don’t want to deal with. So I’m not sure it is going to come forward as much as it should, but there are other ways to combat it.
Is there anything else about this topic that you think people should know?
Yeah. This goes back to the “MeToo” campaign. I’ve always been a target for people because I am outspoken and I don’t sugarcoat anything. And part of the reason for that is, if we destigmatize people who experience sexual harassment and sexual assault, or any other type of hostile work environment, if we bring attention to the issue, then it gets attention and it gets addressed.
And what I mean by addressed is educating people. If I don’t know that something’s broken, how can I fix it? So I think it’s really important to have people [speak out], even when you get scapegoated and ostracized and otherwise mistreated for it. There needs to be somebody to speak out, to say this is not appropriate behavior. This is not acceptable behavior, and what are we going to do about it? Not in a way that victimizes the perpetrators either, but in a way that we can all learn from this lesson.
And we need to move forward. If you’re hired into a job, people want you there. So, why not make it a welcoming community for everyone? And if you’re having issues with your behavior, that needs to be addressed by superiors to the point where, if you can’t change your behavior, then perhaps you need to be terminated. And those are options, but I don’t think they’re options that administrative positions use that often for whatever reason. People live in fear more than they live with doing the right thing and having ethical behavior. Ethics is not always an easy path to take because, looking at what’s right and what’s wrong, some things aren’t blatantly obvious.
As far as comments, it’s not sexual harassment unless it’s prolific. If I make an inappropriate comment and people are uncomfortable, someone needs to tell me so that I don’t do it again. If nobody tells me, how can I fix it? But if I’m doing it over and over again and I’ve been told to stop, that’s where it’s a problem and it needs to be addressed.
So I’m really hoping that, with all the social media, all the news coverage on these issues, that it does bring attention to inappropriate behavior and treating people differently based on certain statuses, whether they be sex, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, or whatever. If we can all work with each other in a more welcoming community, perhaps these issues will cease to exist over time.