11-20-17 - Decatur, GA - Lisa Anderson, 40, of Atlanta, Georgia, poses for a portrait outside of her home in Decatur, Georgia, on Monday, Nov. 20, 2017. When Lisa Anderson underwent a successful operation to remove a brain tumor after she had been told she was going to die for two years, she finally felt she had her life back. Then, she was raped. She left University of California, Irvine, where she was working toward a Ph.D, saying, “I couldn’t be on campus with my rapist.” A lawsuit, a car wreck, and law degree later, Anderson started Atlanta Women for Equality in 2012. A year later, the organization became an official 501(c)(3) non-profit. This year, Atlanta Women for Equality filed its first big case, and is still being funded entirely by private donations. After her rape, Anderson said that she used to be averse to lawsuits, lawyers and the like, but learned that sometimes “the only way to make people change and follow the law is to kick them in the coffers.” Since 2006 when she enrolled in law school at the University of Minnesota to 2013 when she passed the Georgia Bar Exam, Anderson never forgot what happened to her at UC Irvine, and she never wavered from her goal: “I wanna sue the crap out of people who do this.” (CASEY SYKES, CASEY.SYKES@AJC.COM)
Photo: Casey Sykes
Photo: Casey Sykes

Sex scandals prompt new response: Consequences

The avalanche of sexual harassment stories are not just creating headlines. It’s causing change.

One after another, powerful men - Hollywood producers, high-profile reporters, elected officials - are toppling in this uproar of national shaming.

Previously untouchable men are being held accountable in very public and humiliating ways. And that’s encouraging more women to step forward, said Casie Yoder, spokeswoman for the the national advocacy group 9to5.

“For the first time, there have been some real consequences,” Yoder said.

One question stands out as we wrap our heads around this moment: Why now?

Several factors contribute to this cultural flashpoint, advocates say. A rash of high-profile horror stories has coupled with the rise of social media advocacy. Women are making it clear that they won’t put up with such misconduct - the hypermasculine intimidation, the sexual power plays, the unwanted touching.

“They’re not taking any crap,” said Patricia Griffith, an employment attorney with the Atlanta firm Ford & Harrison. “They’re more willing to take up for themselves.”

Ripple effects are showing up locally. Law firms are starting to see more cases. Some companies are reviewing policies.

A DeKalb County review recently determined that Commissioner Greg Adams had violated the county’s sexual harassment policy. A female district director said he sent her late-night texts, requested pictures of her wearing a bikini and referred to himself as her “big daddy.” Adams, a pastor who’s been married for 32 years, denied the accusation.

The Atlanta law firm Arnall Golden Gregory recently held a panel discussion on sexual harassment attended by about 150 Atlanta executives, business owners, corporate lawyers and human resources staff.

One topic at the event: Before all this, companies were able to resolve complaints behind closed doors. Now they must realize one case can become a public relations nightmare, should the story appear in the news or on social media.

“This becomes part of your crisis-management planning,” said Henry Perlowski, an employment attorney at the firm.

Perlowski said the practice is seeing a “significant uptick” of cases in the past month. “I think the current dynamic is changing things.”

Some believe we are witnessing a pivotal moment in our history, that a very bad but longstanding practice seems to be crumbling before our eyes.

Time will tell. The issue of sexual harassment has flared in the past - remember Anita Hill’s challenge to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation, some 26 years ago? She dragged the issue into the limelight. But over time, this creepy behavior has a way of slinking back into the shadows.

A moment or a movement

So along comes Harvey Weinstein, a high-powered Hollywood producer taken to task by some 80 accusers, many of whom were prominent actresses. The media hasn’t let up since. Each new story seems to light the fuse on another.

Who will be next?

Even before Weinstein, signs were emerging that the kettle was coming to a boil. There were accusations against the likes of Bill Cosby and Fox TV’s Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly.

Cosby, accused by some 50 women, faced criminal charges. His trial ended in a mistrial when jurors could not come to a verdict, but his career crumbled. A new trial is set for April.

Weinstein, Ailes and O’Reilly were sacked.

The Atlanta impact

Still, it’s too early to tell whether the impact will grow into lasting and meaningful change.

It’s one thing for a wealthy actress to speak out; it’s different for Harriett in the payroll department who risks losing her job, advocates say.

“I haven’t seen a whole lot of women asking for assistance,” said Erica Clemmons, director of the Georgia chapter of 9to5. “That’s what I’m hoping to see.”

For now, women - and men - can can join in this new spirit of activism by simply writing two words.

Me Too.

The social media post #MeToo, trending wildly, provides people a way to be vocal without being so visible. It’s an easy entry point. People can simply pick up their smart phone, go to Twitter and type in #MeToo. They don’t even have to post any details. It’s simply understood: they’ve faced sexual harassment and they’re joining in the protest against it.

“Social media has made it easier to become involved and be heard,” said Kenneth Winkler, an employment attorney with the Atlanta firm Berman Fink Van Horn.

Students at Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse and Spelman colleges have started their own social media campaign aimed at stopping sexual assault and harassment. The campaign, called #WeKnowWhatYouDid, has resulted in hundreds of Twitter posts.

Meanwhile, a group of Athens bartenders, cooks and servers have created a group called 86 Hate aimed at stopping the sexual harassment in their field.

Even as the momentum builds, a backlash has emerged with some people saying the MeToo movement is conflating trivial behavior with serious sexual assault.

“The battle by hashtag conflates genuine sex crimes with mere childish behavior — blending the Harvey Weinsteins and Kevin Spaceys with the Al Frankens and George H.W. Bushes,” wrote New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser. She added, “I don’t think confusing childish, even lewd, behavior with clear, intimate violations helps anyone.”

The most recent government figures don’t reflect much change. The number of sexual harassment complaints filed to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has hovered at about 7,000 annually from 2010 to 2016, the most recent figures. The Georgia figures tell much the same story, with about 400 a year, according to the EEOC.

Don’t expect any new Georgia laws anytime soon. Georgia has no state law making sexual harassment a crime, leaving the courts to defer to federal law. Several state legislators say they don’t expect any new legislation in the Legislative session that begins in January.

The Trump effect

If there is an elephant in the room here, it is President Donald Trump, advocates say.

Many women expressed outrage over Trump’s remarks on an Access Hollywood tape that emerged during the presidential campaign, in which he brags about touching women’s private parts without permission.

“The example that President Trump set out - that you can be disparaging of women in a variety of ways, and somehow not be held accountable for that - raised the level of frustration for women,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur.

She added, “Women thought that if the president of the United States is not accountable, how can I make the men in my life accountable?”

Not all women feel that Trump is fueling that fire. Griffith, the Atlanta employment attorney, said she thinks women may well be encouraged by the President’s history of speaking bluntly on issues, and are doing so on this issue.

One woman’s story

Clearly, we are seeing the communal power of women sharing their stories. For many it has created a sense of shared purpose and sisterhood.

That’s a very different feeling than Lisa Anderson experienced 14 years ago, when she reported a sexual assault to the California college she was attending. For her it was a lonely, alienating and gut-wrenching period of her life.

“They tried to sweep it under the rug,” said Anderson, who was born and raised in Atlanta. Ultimately, the school suspended her academic advisor for two quarters. When he returned, “That meant I would be on campus with my rapist.”

Frustrated by the school’s response, Anderson said she filed suit against the school and eventually won a settlement.

Then she changed her life. She earned a law degree, intent on helping women who suffer due to sexual assault and harassment. She moved to Decatur seven years ago, and started up a nonprofit legal practice in 2012 called Atlanta Women for Equality.

Anderson senses urgency around the issue now, but fears it will not last.

But the battle will continue, she said.

“We will still move forward,” she said. “We will never stop fighting.”

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