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The history of sexual harassment explains why many women wait so long to come forward

Carnegie Hall 125th Season Opening Night Gala
Roger Ailes
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Victims of sexual harassment or assault tend to face a lot of skepticism when they come forward — especially in high-profile cases against famous or powerful men.

After former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox CEO Roger Ailes, Ailes denied the allegations and claimed that Carlson was just trying to get back at him for not renewing her contract. Some found Ailes’s retort at least somewhat credible: “The fact that this [lawsuit] comes after Carlson was no longer employed and at a point in her career where she has very limited job options and very little to lose, makes me a little bit suspicious,” John Ziegler wrote at Mediaite.

Timing is a common sticking point for people who are skeptical of victims. They ask, why did she take so long to report, and why now? What might she be trying to gain? This is especially true for allegations that are decades old — like several of the latest harassment allegations against Ailes that date back to the mid-1960s, or some of Bill Cosby’s alleged victims.

There are plenty of valid reasons that survivors might wait a long time to come forward, or never come forward at all: shame, trauma, fear of being shunned socially or retaliated against professionally. But when it comes to sexual harassment in particular, the better question is, what took society so long to admit this was a real workplace problem?

Treating women like sex objects at work has only been frowned upon for a few decades, if that

Sexual harassment itself is not new; unwanted and unwelcome sexual advances are probably as old as sex itself. But it’s only been about 40 years since “sexual harassment” began to be considered as a real workplace problem deserving of serious legal attention.

The term itself was coined in 1975 by a group of women at Cornell University, in support of a former colleague who sued for unemployment insurance after she quit her job over inappropriate touching. Feminist theorists at the time reasoned that constant sexual harassment held women back in the workplace, and that it both expressed and perpetuated gender inequality.

Federal law has outlawed sex discrimination in employment under Title VII since 1964. But until the late 1970s, both in the courts and in public opinion, sexual harassment was considered an “interpersonal problem” to be worked out privately and not a legal one, said Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center.

“People knew it happened; it was just thought of as part of the normal course of events that you had to deal with as a working woman,” Martin said. “People thought, well, if you're being punished at work because you're not sleeping with the boss, that's not sex discrimination; that's discrimination based on failure to provide sexual favors, and there’s no rule against that.”

Federal appellate courts finally decided that there should be a rule against that in the late 1970s, Martin said, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidelines in 1980 declaring that sexual harassment was a form of unlawful sex discrimination.

The Supreme Court recognized this in 1986, and also recognized that unlawful sexual harassment can be either a quid pro quo situation (like proposing sex in exchange for a promotion) or a severe, pervasive disruption to the work environment — whether it's constant flirting or hostile gendered insults. It took even longer, until 1998, for the Court to acknowledge that it also counts as gender-based discrimination if the harassment comes from someone of the same sex.

It also wasn't until 1993 — two years after Anita Hill went through the public wringer over her sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas and drew national attention to the issue — that the Court ruled sexual harassment doesn't have to “seriously affect an employee’s psychological well-being” in order to be unlawful. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor put it, “Title VII comes into play before the harassing conduct leads to a nervous breakdown.”

So for a working woman in the 1960s, or even the 1980s, there were few legal protections and little social awareness that legal action was an option.

This would be doubly true if, for instance, a woman were propositioned by Roger Ailes during a job interview or when she wasn't even his employee. Several women have alleged that Ailes did just that.

"You know if you want to play with the big boys, you have to lay with the big boys,” Ailes allegedly told Kellie Boyle, who said Ailes used his influence to keep her from getting a job with the Republican National Committee in 1989 after she declined to accept his sexual proposition.

Former model Marsha Callahan said Ailes made her lift up her skirt and strike suggestive poses during an interview for The Mike Douglas Show in the late 1960s, and that he abruptly ended the interview after she balked at his demands to sleep with him if she wanted the job.

It’s hard to imagine what legal action these women could have taken against Ailes at the time, or how difficult it would have been for them personally if they did.

This was especially true in earlier decades like the ’60s, Martin said. “We were in a very different place as a country. We were even more likely to say about a woman who is complaining of sexual harassment or assault, ‘What did you do to make that happen?’”

And despite the advances of women’s equality through feminist activism since then, society still regularly blames victims of sexual misconduct for their own attacks today. The vast majority of women who report sexual harassment still don’t report it, due in large part to this kind of stigma and lack of support.

So it shouldn't surprise us if a professional woman like Carlson waits, as Ziegler put it, until she has “nothing to lose” before risking the likely exposure, ridicule, and retaliation of a sexual harassment lawsuit.