When Annie Ziga was 17, she was working the night shift at Dunkin Donuts, alone. When she heard a knock on the back door, she saw a co-worker, carrying flowers and a bag of McDonald’s. She let him in, and he led her to the back room, where there were no cameras. He gave her the flowers and began to force-feed her the food.
Confused by the man’s actions, she tried to walk away, but he grabbed her from behind and began forcefully touching her down her shirt and around her pelvic area. He then began kissing her neck excessively until she was able to break free from his grasp and get away.
After she filed for sexual harassment, Ziga’s case was held in a mixed crowd of parking tickets and other misdemeanors. Eventually, the man was issued a restraining order and small fine. He didn’t spend a single day behind bars.
The way this incident was dealt with from a law enforcement perspective is alarming—but what’s also disconcerting is the response Ziga received from her friends and family. Why didn’t she fight back? they asked. Why didn’t she call the police right away?
When someone is robbed, we seldom ask what the victim could have done to prevent it. We don’t blame them for having too much money or for not having multiple locks on their doors or bars on their windows.
Why then, do we often make insulting assumptions of the victim when the crime is sexual harassment? It’s time for us to recognize how often victims of these crimes are treated unfairly and to step up and demand that society take a second look at how sexual harassment crimes are perceived.
And here’s how we can do it.
This seems basic, but, unfortunately, we’re seriously lacking in this department. All too often, when a sexual harassment crime occurs, women are subject to the same “what was she wearing?” and “why didn’t she stop it earlier?” questioning that Ziga was.
Why? “People look for a reason [for a crime] and the victims are already victims, so they’re easy to blame,” says Sarah Couch, a therapist for children and teens in Missouri. “Some people blame the victim because then they might feel as if they have more power and control.”
Although most of us have at least some empathy for victims of sexual crimes, we tend to feel that we would have handled the situation differently. When we hear about the woman whose date raped her, we tell ourselves, “I would never go out with such a jerk.” When Ziga told people that she asked a friend to join her until the end her shift instead of immediately calling the police, she was asked why she didn’t kick him or leave right away.
“I feel like people judged me right away because of the way I handled it,” she said. “They felt I handled it immaturely. But as it was happening, I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked and I didn’t know what to do. I was scared.”
This type of talk and questioning leaves victims feeling like they’ve done something wrong, and that they’re to be blamed for the crime committed against them. We have to remember that everything is easier said than done, and that being in someone else’s shoes is often much easier than it appears. Instead of questioning the victims’ actions, we should be providing them with support, resources, and a community.
Don’t Make Excuses
It’s equally important that we stop making excuses for perpetrators of sexual crimes. Just because a woman wears clothing that could be considered revealing or says something that could be construed as flirting, that doesn’t give anyone the right to inappropriately touch, harass, or otherwise cross the line with her.
Yes, we should be aware of how our actions are perceived by others, particularly at work, but the point is that sexual harassment crimes are indeed crimes and they should be treated as such—no matter what. As Couch puts it, “The perpetrator is the one who is completely responsible for what he or she said and did.” If a robber breaks into an unlocked house—it’s still a crime. If someone kidnaps a young, unaccompanied child, it’s still kidnapping. We don’t make excuses for robbers and kidnappers, so why should we make excuses for people who commit sexual assault?
It wasn’t Ziga’s fault that a co-worker physically constrained and molested her. And we as a society should not be telling her that it was.
Unfortunately, Ziga’s case is not a unique one. Sexual harassment crimes are committed on a daily basis, and they will continue to happen until we decide, as a people, that this must end.
So, as women (and men), we need to stand together and let the world know that we support victims of sexual harassment. We need to call these crimes what they are: not a result of victims provoking perpetrators, but a result of criminals crossing the line.
Society has made great strides in recognizing the evils of sexual harassment and I’m glad we now have laws like Title VII that enable us to punish perpetrators of this crime. I just ask that we take it a step further and demand that sexual harassment is not only recognized by the law, but also by the public.
We need to stand together and tell the world that it must stop condemning victims of these horrible crimes. I, for one, have had enough. And I hope you have, too.