Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi recently told reporters that women don’t come forward about sexual harassment because they’re intimidated or scared. She said, “Don’t be scared. If Rose McGowan can start this in Hollywood with someone as powerful as Harvey Weinstein, it can go throughout our country.”
Like many others, Bondi focused on the most visible outcome – a predator getting punished – without acknowledgement of the long-term implications on the accuser. As McGowan told TIME Magazine, “It’s intense. For the last ten months...I was also being sued or harassed. People don’t understand what it’s like to be terrorized.”
To tell women, “Don’t be scared” when their physical safety and economic security may be in jeopardy is not just unrealistic, it’s dangerous.
An unanticipated side effect of the national fervor surrounding sexual harassment is this increased pressure on women to share their experiences. A lack of acknowledgement about the potential repercussions for women who do come forward can compound the indignity of the harassment itself with the social pressure to be vocal.
I’ve spoken with people who have filed sexual harassment complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and talked to the media about their stories. I’ve also spoken to those who’ve decided not to share their experiences and requested anonymity.
The women I spoke with each endured major repercussions in the aftermath of coming forward. The following three consequences were among the most abiding.
Experiencing sexual harassment can derail a career. Coming forward can make it worse.
Weeks before Harvey Weinstein stories and the #metoo campaign dominated the news cycle, Mother Jones published an exposé on the hostile environment University of Rochester Professor T. Florian Jaeger created for graduate students and others at the university.
His accusers describe how Jaeger would regularly make inappropriate and humiliating sexual comments, pressure students to meet with him alone and socialize with him, and engage in sexual relationships with students.
Laurel Issen was a graduate student at the University of Rochester starting in 2006. While she graduated in 2013, she left campus and finished her dissertation remotely because, as she writes in an open letter to the university, “The overall culture in the department was toxic and damaging to my mental health, and I did not feel like I could finish my dissertation if I stayed.”
When she initially went on record, it was as a witness for her friends and colleagues who had experienced more severe abuse from Jaeger. It was only once she started talking with attorneys and the other women who came forward that Issen recognized the magnitude of the experience on her own career.
She says, “When I actually read the testimony that the lawyer wrote up for me, I started sobbing.” Seeing the pattern of abusive behavior she’d witnessed and experienced written down into an official record helped her recognize how much the experience affected her professional trajectory – the toxic environment ultimately caused her to leave academia completely.
Issen initially came forward anonymously as part of an EEOC complaint, a fact which University of Rochester President Joel Seligman used to allege that she might not exist. Issen was especially infuriated by this because she had been listed as a potential witness in multiple complaints to the university but was not interviewed in these investigations. In identifying herself by name now, Issen wants to say, “I’ve always existed. You just haven’t been listening.”
Having left academia, she feels called to continue to talk to journalists and write opinion articles. “Most women who face workplace sexual harassment and discrimination never find those conditions where the personal risk is low enough, and the chances of being heard are strong enough,” she says. “Since I've found myself in that rare position, I feel a calling to help raise awareness about these issues.”
A current University of Rochester assistant professor, Celeste Kidd had her career upended after facing years of harassment from Jaeger and was retaliated against as one of the more outspoken complainants in the case against the University of Rochester. For her work as a “Silence Breaker”, TIME Magazine honored her as a 2017 Person of the Year.
Kidd spent her first year of graduate school at the university working in Jaeger’s lab, and because she’d felt pressured into it, she was also renting a room from him at the time.
After enduring a year of inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment at both work and home, Kidd debated whether or not to make a formal complaint against Jaeger. She considered the impact on her career and became concerned about a pattern she had noticed: when a second year graduate student says that their professor sexually harassed them, the narrative became, “This student was having trouble and is trying to get back at me because they weren’t doing well.”
Across many industries, harassers and the institutions trying to protect them imply that the accuser wasn’t successful in the field and is therefore resentful and lashing out. While often a smokescreen, even in instances when this is true, it may be the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Toxic work environments don’t exactly lend themselves to optimal productivity.
Kidd says “I functionally lost most of my first year of graduate school because I spent so much of my mental energy trying to accommodate my harasser’s whims,” rather than focusing on grad school curriculum.
After that first mentally and emotionally devastating year, Kidd left Jaeger’s lab and changed her research focus to avoid him. Ultimately, she built a thriving career in brain and cognitive science, receiving a Google Faculty Research Award in Human-Computer Interaction in 2016.
Kidd expresses gratitude to the women whose careers were thwarted after coming forward, describing them as “almost human sacrifices to the cause.” Kidd says she made a very conscious decision not to come forward at the time because their stories made her think she couldn’t have a career in science if she did.
She ultimately waited six years, until she had an established career and felt she would be more insulated from retribution.
Fear of retaliation is legitimate and can be destabilizing.
Just because a harasser doesn’t have access to Weinstein-level black ops doesn’t mean there aren’t potentially major risks to an accusers’ personal and professional well-being.
Kidd faced retaliation not only from her harasser, but also from her university for reporting: administrators used her name in an official report that should have been anonymous, searched her emails, refused to interview witnesses like Issen who could corroborate her statements, and tried to prevent her from talking about her experiences. When the complaint was made public, with 9 women's testimony including Issen's, the president of the University of Rochester compared their accounts to a fabricated story published in Rolling Stone.
A woman I spoke with in another industry described being generally fearful about coming forward with her experience but said she didn’t know what to expect.
“When you’ve been rich and powerful for a long time [like the men she accused], losing that makes you really irrational, and you can do crazy things,” she says, “It was not beneath them to intimidate women who had the potential to speak out.” She anticipated victim blaming and slut shaming and ultimately left town for several months after first making the accusation.
Another woman describes her former boss as a predator who was notorious for inappropriate behavior. She told me that she and her colleagues always said the harassment would come back to haunt him – they were just surprised the allegations came out and were believed “so soon” (in 2017). Her boss had spent decades successfully wielding his ample power to intimidate, silence and retaliate against anyone who threatened it.
For his employees and the women he harassed, it felt like he was impervious to repercussions. While the cultural zeitgeist is changing, it’s worth noting there were countless women whose careers he ruined or who he silenced prior to this year – precisely those who Kidd describes as “human sacrifices to the cause”. Additionally, for the women who recently shared their experiences publicly and were believed, coming forward may still have come at tremendous personal expense and risk of retaliation.
While none of the women I interviewed shared that they had personally experienced physical threats, some knew colleagues who had. The fear and strain of the experience was still palpable.
During a phone interview I conducted with a woman who had made public accusations, her doorbell rang. It was early evening, and I could hear genuine fear in her voice. She described being “freaked out” as she stayed on the phone with me to check who it was. Prior to making these accusations, a UPS delivery at dusk probably wouldn’t have triggered such anxiety. Many months after leaving the company, her fear of retaliation still lingers.
Reporting sexual harassment can cause emotional exhaustion that exacerbates the trauma of harassment.
Even without fear of career damage, personal attack or retaliation, coming forward often forces survivors to relive and defend their experiences as people second guess every decision they made and every feeling they express.
Lindsey Reynolds can relate. Like Kidd, Reynolds was among the “Silence Breakers” who Time magazine honored as the 2017 Person of the Year.
Reynolds spent six months as social media manager at the Besh Restaurant Group (BRG), the company celebrity chef John Besh created to run his many restaurants. After months of working in what she characterizes as a toxic environment, Reynolds quit via email, attributing her departure to a culture of “casual sexism” and the “pervasive objectification of females by the senior-ranking males in the company.”
Within a few weeks of sending the letter, a NOLA.com | Times Picayune journalist reached out to her for an exposé on BRG, which prompted eight months of reliving the very experiences Reynolds wanted badly to put behind her. The resulting article includes her accounts of sexual harassment along with those of 24 other women. The allegations ultimately drove Besh to step down from the helm of BRG.
Reynolds describes the ways her concerns about coming forward were compounded by Besh’s celebrity status. “When you’re dealing with a public figure, it’s even scarier. I’m nobody. I’m from a middle class family in Austin, Texas. It’s my word against a beloved public figure.” She wondered, “Why would I bring that humiliation onto myself? Why would I put myself or my career at risk to go up against him and his business?”
Reynolds, who is 32, felt called to take action thinking about her 22-year-old self. In watching her younger colleagues, she recognized how easily her own situation could have escalated to more severe sexual harassment had she been at an earlier point in her career.
Like most of the women I spoke with, Reynolds references the tenuous relationship between power, sexuality, and consent. Can a 22-year-old authentically give consent to a sexual and romantic relationship with a boss who is 20 years her senior and has power over her career? And how does she navigate her job and the relationship once it’s begun?
Reynolds was so troubled by the environment at BGR that she says, “I wanted to do more than just send a brazen resignation email. I wanted to clearly state that what they’d done was illegal and unethical. [An EEOC complaint] was the best option.”
Between the legal activities, conversations with former co-workers, and media requests for interviews, coming forward has been exhausting for Reynolds.
Reynolds says it’s hard to live in New Orleans. With billboards for Besh restaurants and a staff of over 1,000, the experience is omnipresent. “It’s a big company, I’m always bound to see someone I knew or who is connected.” Further complicating her relationship with the city, she still feels paranoid about retaliation.
When I spoke with her, Reynolds was preparing to fly to New York for her interview and photoshoot for Time’s Person of the Year. Her exhaustion was palpable. As she repeats the story ad nauseam, she says it forces her to relive her time with BGR, something she has long wanted to put behind her.
Reynolds says it’s a surprise the experience remains so present, “I didn’t think I’d be talking about it almost a year later...Part of me can’t wait until I never say his name again.”
People across the country are weighing the pros and cons of coming forward with their experiences of sexual harassment, evaluating the potential risks to their personal and professional well-being against an uncertain outcome.
Admittedly, it has been mostly white, upper or middle-class women coming forward, which isn't a totally sound metric for the various risks involved. As the founder of the ‘me too movement’, Tarana Burke explains it, “the stakes are higher” for women of color who are considering coming forward. I would echo that sentiment for people who identify as LGBTQ.
Each of the above factors is often exacerbated by bias and cultural norms surrounding race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Women of color and LGBTQ people may be more likely to be harassed, less likely to come forward, and less likely to be believed if they do.
For anyone speaking up, there’s inherent risk. Even in our current climate, sharing an experience may have no effect on a harasser but could very well impact the accuser’s career or economic stability. While Issen and Kidd experienced long-term career effects, for lower-income women, coming forward risks immediate financial instability.
Potential retaliation exacerbates the damage. Whether the retaliation actually occurs or there’s a legitimate fear, the experience can make even a UPS delivery at dusk destabilizing.
Coming forward forces survivors to relive their experience and expend emotional energy navigating the fallout. The intensity of that burden surprised many of those who spoke with me.
As the conversation continues, let’s stop pretending that the changing landscape makes the process an easy one.
A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.