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Speakers Discuss Abuse of Power

By Jeremy Hylton
Editor in Chief

A student activist and a lawyer discussed the power relations that cause harassment and make perpetrators of harassment hard to punish at a fund-raiser for the the Ad Hoc Committee Against Harassment's legal defense fund on Wednesday afternoon.

Tommie A. Henderson '95 spoke first at the event, which began shortly after 5 p.m. in Room 54-100. Henderson helped to organize the Black Students' Union protest outside Phi Beta Epsilon during Residence and Orientation Week. The second speaker, Eric MacLeish Jr., is a lawyer and noted defender of harassment victims' rights.

Henderson focused on the methods and goals of the protest at PBE. The BSU organized the protest in response to an incident last spring, when racial epithets were shouted at four black students as they walked by PBE.

The BSU was not pleased with the administration's response to the incident, and "one of the biggest things was that PBE was not responding at all to this situation," Henderson said.

Because the BSU had little power to force a response from PBE, it held the protest during Residence and Orientation Week to threaten PBE's rush, Henderson said. "PBE needed these freshmen, therefore they needed good PR during this time frame. We needed PBE to talk about this issue," he said.

The protest served a two-fold purpose: It encouraged PBE to enter into a dialogue with the community and it made the freshmen who did pledge PBE very aware of the issue of racism, Henderson said.

Henderson illustrated his talk with two metaphors. First, he said he believed not only in the Golden Rule but in the Bronze Rule: if someone makes you feel bad, make them feel that way too. He emphasized that the victim does not need to repay the perpetrator, but rather that the victim should make the perpetrator understand the hurt he feels.

Second, he said, "A man holding a gun to your head is more likely to get shot than you are." He used the metaphor to explain that victims of harassment should not let the hurt and shame they feel be turned against them, but rather that they should make the public aware of the wrong the harasser committed.

Macleish discusses victims' rights

Macleish has represented many victims of sexual abuse and sexual harassment, including the victims of Rev. James Porter. Macleish talked primarily about the limitations of the legal system for handling harassment.

MacLeish began with a reference to Henderson's talk. "When Tommie did what he did, I don't think he did it because he thought he was going to change people's minds over there. He wanted to destroy the illusion that they have all the power," Macleish said.

Sexual abuse and harassment, Macleish said, are abuses of power. "When you are sexually harassed or sexually abused, it is not because the perpetrator is horny, but because they are people who will abuse power," he said.

"There will always be people in our society who abuse power," Macleish continued. "The horror of it is ... dealing with the institutions that harbor and protect these individuals." He characterized MIT as an example of an institution that protected perpetrators of sexual harassment.

One of the biggest impediments to handling harassment cases is the current legal system, Macleish explained. "The law does not reflect the reality and the horror of sexual abuse and sexual harassment because the law is made primarily by middle-aged white men who come from institutions" that have little interest in curbing harassment, he said.

Macleish cited cases where the statute of limitations on sexual abuse and pedophilia have prevented prosecution of repeat offenders. He said that in many occasions, state agencies expressed no interest in pursuing cases where victims who were sexually abused as children came forward to testify against their abusers -- even when those abusers were in daily contact with other children.

Six-month time limit

Macleish also said the six-month time limit within which harassment victims have to file a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination was problematic.

Victims of harassment are often traumatized by the harasser and may not be ready to come forward to testify before the time limit is past, Macleish explained.

If a victim does file a complaint, there are a host of laws prohibiting sexual harassment, but the grounds for proving the case are slim, Macleish said.

There are two types of sexual harassment, he said. The first is quid pro quo harassment, in which a supervisor tries to coerce an employee into dating or sexual relations, with the promise of work-related benefits. When the employee rebuffs the advances, the employee is fired.

In these situations, the victim has a clear right to sue both the supervisor and the employer, Macleish said. "You don't even have to show that the employer knew about the harassment going on. You do have to prove you were sexually harassed and ... that your termination was required because you did not submit to these advances," he said.

The second kind of harassment was hostile environment harassment. Macleish characterized this case as when the victim need not show tangible economic harms, but only that a pervasive environment of harassment existed.

Harassment must be pervasive

The pervasive test is cumbersome, though, Macleish said. He cited one case where the victim did not suffer serious psychological harm, and for that reason the court ruled in favor of the harasser.

The pervasive test as Macleish described it is a catch 22. To be sure of winning a hostile environment case, he said, the victim must be completely destroyed psychologically -- destroyed to the point that the victim would hardly be capable of bringing a case in the first place.

Macleish also said the tendency "to go along with the boys" can cause a victim to fail the hostile environment test. "Some courts have said you would lose legal rights unless you oppose [harassment] from the beginning," he said.

In one case, a court ruled that sexually explicit posters of women hung in factories could not be considered to create a hostile environment because they were so common in American factories that women should expect them.

Macleish described some measures that institutions could take to be more responsive to the victims of harassment. "The people who are listening to these complaints have to have some power. They must be able to move or fire the harasser. They need to be trained to listen empathetically," he said.

"I don't know the details of MIT's harassment policy, but from everything I've heard, it's sorely lacking," Macleish concluded.