On documentation

I thought it would be important to remind these young women how valuable and precious they are. I wanted them to understand that the measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls. And I told them, I told them that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and I told them that they should disregard anyone who demeans or devalues them, and that they should make their voices heard in the world.” -Former FLOTUS, Michelle Obama

Document, or it doesn’t exist.” -[Almost] literally everyone in any field in which you have a dispute

NOTE: This blog details discussions about legal steps in the state of Ohio one can take when sexually harassed. This is not legal advice. Please consult with an attorney for specific counsel.

In July, Rachel and I met with our attorney.

You read that correctly: our attorney. Because, even as victims pursuing justice and hoping to prevent future sexual-harassment offenses to other unsuspecting women, the burden is on us to protect ourselves.

We had lots of questions at our first meeting. Below is what we know so far.

Can we name the sexual harasser publicly, like now, to put his leadership and funders (and other people who may have to interact with him) on notice? Sure, but that could be construed as ‘public shaming,’ and thus, defamation, since he is a quasi-public figure.

Okayyyy, so, if we shouldn’t out him and his offenses, what is our next-best option to accomplish our outcome of disgrace for the harasser? The Boards he works and volunteers for have responsibilities independent of their staff, too. Share the evidence with them, and put them on notice that we are ready to take further action. Detail the actions we want the harasser’s Boards to take, which can include asking for an independent investigation. We can use our names or submit the information anonymously (or a combination thereof). The claims may be stronger by naming the victims, but there could be increased risk to the victims by doing so.

What do we need to have in place to protect ourselves from being sued? The harasser and/or his Board can sue us whether they conduct an investigation or not. So, it’s important to have our facts documented. (THIS IS CRITICAL. Do NOT skip doing this in your own situation, if you can help it. Keep reading for how best to document.)

Can we use the harasser’s name on our own private social-media pages to collect additional stories of sexual harassment by the harasser? How can we (safely) collect and use others’ stories? What is our liability when using others’ stories with their permission? Well, this all gets a bit sticky. Yes, we can collect others’ stories. But we need to be careful in how we collect them, and how and where we use them. We can’t just do a public call for stories, per se. If appropriate, refrain from sharing the incidents online ahead of giving the harasser’s Boards a chance to respond. If any part of any story is misconstrued or misrepresented, and if the harasser and/or his Boards decide to sue the victims, we could be named in the suit.

What kind of angle can we take and still get to the outcome (disgrace for the harasser) without hurting the people that his organizations serve? Articulate that harassment stems from power, and that the people being served by the organizations are vulnerable. The Boards have a responsibility to the people they serve and represent. Their employees, volunteers, funders, all deserve better, and the harasser should not be above accountability.

Can we share his incidents of sexual harassment with the funders of his organizations? Yes, but it’s in our best interest to give the harasser’s Boards the opportunity to take action first. If they do not respond or agree to our demands, we can decide what to do—and with whom to share our information—thereafter.

Let’s say we want to pursue criminal charges. If the harasser has rubbed himself on someone, is that battery, assault, both, or nothing? This is a way oversimplified response, but in the state of Ohio, if an individual rubs him/her/themselves on someone in a way that can be offensive, unwanted, harmful, and/or without consent, that may be considered battery and assault.

What language can we use publicly about the predatory nature of the harasser? Can we actually say he’s a “predator” or acts “predatorily”? We can use language like “in my opinion…” and “I believe…” For example, we can state that, “in our opinion, the harasser acts like a predator,” and we should avoid outright saying, “this jerk is a predator.” Other phrases we can use include, “I felt preyed upon,” “I didn’t feel safe,” and “I felt threatened.” Nuances matter. (But we could still be sued regardless, so there’s that.)

The BEST Way to Protect Yourself if You’ve Been Sexually Harassed

So, the irony in all of this is that sexual harassers can be as flagrant as they want and still sue their victims if publicly called out, particularly if the harassers have any social, economic, and/or leadership status. And even though workplaces often have anti-retaliation policies designed to protect individuals who allege sexual harassment, we know that harassers in positions of power still find ways to retaliate. (See the recent news about former-Governor Andrew Cuomo and how his office unlawfully retaliated against one of his accusers, Lindsey Boylan.) Again, sexual harassment is not about sex. It is about power over another person, and a harasser thrives on keeping that power.

It can all be so exhausting. And defeating. Having to advocate so hard for yourself after something uninvited happened to you is an enormous burden. Ending up worse financially, emotionally, and mentally does not feel like justice.

We are writing about our experiences through this process to try to make it easier in any way we can for the next person. That said, we know that not all women—particularly women of color, transwomen, and immigrant women—are heard, believed, and afforded access to safety and justice. To that end, while our hope is to demystify how to get justice after being sexually harassed, Rachel and I acknowledge that our white, middle-class, heterosexual, college-educated, cis-female identities lend us greater credibility and privilege. While this is not a one-size-fits-all approach, we hope to share what worked well for us, as well as the mistakes we made that you may be able to avoid. [Stay tuned for a later blog in which we talk with women of color about sexual harassment in the workplace.]

So, what, then, is the BEST way to protect yourself if you’ve been sexually harassed? Start by writing it down.

When I was sexually harassed by the subject of our On Drowning Rats series, I went home that night and wrote down the details of our conversations, outlining who said what and when and where. The next day, I pieced together all meeting dates, electronic communications, phone conversations, and witnesses. Even before my boss asked for documentation, I had it ready. We handled the human-resources aspect with this documentation and filed my notes and timeline. My documentation was so tight that the harasser couldn’t lie about his actions—and he didn’t. (I have documentation of that as well.)

If you’ve been sexually harassed, the best way to protect yourself is to protect your story. Once you’re safe, write it down. Even if you haven’t processed it fully yet, write it down. Document all the facts as you know them as soon as you can after the situation occurs. Include the names and titles of the individuals involved, the dates, the times, and locations, as well as who was around and who could be a witness. Without judgment, write down what actually occurred (was it a conversation? a gesture? a lewd remark toward you or someone else? an unwanted or inappropriate touch? an image, text, audio, video, or digital file shown to you without your full consent? something else?). Did it happen during work hours (including lunch or break) or before or after work hours? Did it occur on company property or at an offsite meeting? Was it a message you can save as evidence with your documentation? Include quotes if you can remember them and the context of the conversation. Be specific.

Then, after you write down all of the facts of what occurred, document how it made you feel. This can not only help you name the disgust you feel—sometimes putting words to your feelings will actually allow yourself to begin healing—but can also give context to the facts of the incident that you’ve documented.

What you do with that information can depend on the policy of the organization you work or volunteer for. We won’t attempt to cover the myriad scenarios and outcomes here. Instead, trust us when we say that you should maintain copies of your documentation in a way that’s accessible to you and not others unless you share it with them. We often think we will always have access to our work files, emails, or messages, but play it safe and back up your documentation in another location and/or medium. Always keep copies for yourself in your own personal home files.

Do not wait to document, in whatever way you can. Even if that means setting aside the pain you are (or know you will) feel. You might need someone to write it down while you talk it through. Record an audio note of what happened if you can’t write it down. Text it to yourself if that’s the most discrete way to do it in the moment. Document it. Get it all down. If you remember a detail later, write it down as soon as you can.

You will be burdened several times over if you are sexually harassed. However, you ARE valuable. You DO deserve dignity and respect. You CAN make your voice heard.

How You Can Follow and Support Our Work

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If you’re not in a position to support us financially, you can play a role in advancing this work by forwarding this to a friend and sharing on social media. You can also request to join the private On Drowning Rats Facebook group and engage in additional discussion, share resources, and come up with solutions for accountability.

Thank you for reading!

Cami Roth Szirotnyak is a writer and intersectional feminist, and is the owner of MillenniAlign, a life-coaching business for millennials. She publishes postmodern fiction and is working on an antiracism project under the name candy broth. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram at @millennialign and @candybroth.