By Mike Appleton (Guest Blogger)
The sexual harassment controversy currently surrounding the Herman Cain campaign has produced the expected responses. The candidate has vigorously denied all of the accusations and his defenders have hurled a few of their own, alternately blaming both Republican rivals and Democrats for the scandal and questioning the motives and veracity of the alleged victims. The accounts of the women who have come forward have been truly disturbing, but what is almost as disturbing are the public statements of Mr. Cain’s newly retained attorney, Lin Wood.
Appearing at a press conference with Mr. Cain in Phoenix this past week, Mr. Wood, a nationally known lawyer with particular expertise in libel law, stated “I’m not here to scare anyone off. However, they should think twice, anyway.” Mr. Wood characterized the harassment claims as “false” and criticized the fact that Sharon Bialek “chose to come forward for whatever reason after 14 years, when recollections have failed and witnesses cannot be located.” Mr. Wood added that should the women proceed with a joint press conference, “I’ll be watching carefully.”
Supporters of Mr. Cain no doubt will argue that Mr. Wood’s statements were perfectly reasonable examples of proactive advocacy. I suggest that they were much more than that.
In 2010, 11,717 charges of sexual harassment against employers were filed with the EEOC. That number represents only 11.7% of the 99,922 claims filed last year. But it is significant because we know that most cases of sexual harassment are never reported. Indeed, various studies have concluded that only 6% to 12% of those women who have been victims report it to their superiors, and an even smaller percentage pursue formal claims. The reason, of course, is fear. An accusation of sexual harassment can result in the loss of one’s job or career prospects. It can submit the accuser to embarrassment and humiliation. If the accused is a powerful or popular figure, the victim might not be believed and the harassment may go unpunished.
Experience teaches us that victims of sexual harassment are frequently treated like victims of rape; there are always those who will conclude that a victim brought it on herself, that she was at fault for enticing, or sending mixed signals to, the accused, that she “asked for it.” In the case of Mr. Cain, it has been suggested that the alleged victims are seeking publicity or money, that they are simply attempting to destroy Mr. Cain’s candidacy or that they have mental or emotional issues. One female reporter on a cable news network even derided Ms. Bialek’s makeup. There are many reasons to explain why someone has maintained her silence for 14 years.
Context means everything, and Mr. Wood’s comments can only be understood from the perspective of women who have tentatively determined to reveal information under circumstances which they know can bring harm to themselves and their loved ones. When Mr. Wood cautioned them to “think twice” before speaking out, they knew what he meant. Think twice about your career. Think twice about the consequences to your family. Think twice about taking on someone with millions of supporters and millions of dollars and a lawyer who has already told the world that you are a liar. Think twice about how much you are willing to sacrifice for what you believe to be the truth.
As a lawyer who has tried many cases, I understand that the line between legitimate advocacy and intimidation is not always brightly drawn. In this instance, however, my view is that Mr. Wood has crossed it.
Sources: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 8, 2011; “Sex Discrimination and Sexual Harassment,” http://www.catalyst.org (July, 2011); “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace,” National Women’s Law Center (July 31, 2000).