How to Stop the Predators Who Aren’t Famous

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Watching high-powered sex offenders fall like dominoes recently has involved plenty of schadenfreude for women in many fields. Those of us in the media and the arts have been glad to watch the downfall of previously untouchable editors, producers and comedians who everyone knew were creeps but few people could confront. As Harvey Weinstein can attest, in America today the right kind of bad publicity can undo even the rich and powerful.

But what about the women who are sexually harassed by men who aren’t even a little famous? It’s unlikely many newspapers care about a disgusting night-shift manager at the local Denny’s.

The fact is that sexual harassment is more about power than sex; any industry with extreme power differentials will be afflicted by it. “Raising awareness” is crucial, but not enough.

The service industry, where more than half of workers are women, is especially plagued by sexual harassment. Tipped work is notorious: If you have to please the customer to get paid, you are constantly having to decidebetween defending yourself and paying rent. The Restaurant Opportunities Center, an advocacy group seeking fair wages and better treatment for workers, reports that a majority of restaurant employees are sexually harassed weekly.

Domestic workers are another especially vulnerable group. They are often immigrant women of color, sometimes without legal immigration status, sometimes living in their employers’ homes. This combination makes them uniquely subject to intimate harassment and intimidation. A majority of female farmworkers, who often toil in isolation in the field, have experienced sexual harassment or assault.

 

For these women, shaming their bosses on Twitter or going to a newspaper is, unfortunately, rarely an option — if the predator doesn’t have a big public profile, few will notice the complaint except, perhaps, the guy with the power to fire the person complaining. That’s why women in these fields often take another route: collective action.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a worker-run human rights organization based in Florida, for example, has incorporated sexual harassment rules and penalties into its Fair Food Program, the labor agreement reached after an enormous struggle with fast food companies. It has worked. The coalition says it has gotten 23 supervisors disciplined for harassment and nine fired. “The bosses and even the growers in the agricultural industry are not public figures, and so public shaming does nothing to change their behavior,” Julia Perkins, a spokeswoman for the Immokalee Workers, stated.

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