The Risks Of Speaking Out ​About Sexual Harassment

Dec 30, 2017 1:29:27 PM / by Barbara Bonar, Esq.


The recent cascade of sexual harassment allegations against powerful predators across our culture makes us believe that a sea change has transpired. After all, when Time Magazine celebrates the women who spoke out by naming them “Person of the Year” ("The Silence Breakers"), there’s something big going on.

Yet, as a sexual harassment attorney (and myself a sexual abuse survivor), I am much more cautious as to the magnitude of what is occurring. I’d be delighted to think that many more victims would now feel free to tell their stories, but that is not the reality. The risks of speaking out about sexual harassment and abuse - including the fear of being called a liar, a slut, an exaggerator, a willing participant, or even the aggressor - will continue to keep many victims silent.

We are nowhere near being able to draw a line in the sand on what constitutes harassment, much less to demand that an abuser be fired, forced to resign, or otherwise taken down. Sexual harassment is about power and, even given the recent magnitude of allegations, it is clear that those who have great power just do not easily let it go.

As most victims are well aware, the more powerful the abuser, the greater the chance he (or she) will fight back.

There are egregious, influential, and powerful predators who refuse to yield at all. Instead, they double-down on their denials and more importantly, put tremendous energy into attacking the credibility of their accusers. In some situations of long-standing power such as the Church, the Senate, the Presidency, and employers, putting even a chink in that armor normally requires a vast number of credible accusers over a long period of time. But as we all know, it starts with only one. 

The most foreseeable risk of speaking out about sexual harassment for victims is being publicly shamed as liars. Many other tangible threats also deter victims. These include facing a full public character assassination, and even losing a job, career, or family in the process. 

My personal experience of sexual abuse occurred when I was at the top of my professional legal career. After much soul searching, I spoke out, feeling that my personal path to survival depended on it. Admittedly, I was not prepared for the overwhelming and relentless backlash from my tormentor and his well-connected power team at the top of political circles.

Over the next several years my abuser and his powerful cronies (men and women) attempted to publicly shame me in the media. My unwillingness to back down was a tremendous threat to my original tormentor’s power, and he kept the pressure on in an attempt to destroy me professionally.

In the end, some who attempted to smear my reputation were themselves tarnished and even publicly disgraced. I survived and thrived. I resurrected my reputation, kept practicing law, and moreover, went on to successfully represent numerous victims of sexual harassment, which I still do today.

Despite the pain, the frustration, and the risks of speaking out about sexual harassment, if I had it to do over I would again speak out and never back down. Speaking out is not only empowering, but can be the first step on the road to healing. Not only was this true for myself, but I’ve watched it happen for many other victims, even when they only agree to tell their story confidentially to their attorney.

Our justice system is clearly still what offers the greatest protections for victims who choose to speak out about sexual harassment, particularly when there is a legal claim to pursue. Due process is the great leveler of the playing field. Facts can be properly gathered, oaths administered, and witnesses heard. The victim has a real opportunity to bring her truth to power, despite the risks. And victims are realizing that not every legal allegation must be publicly litigated, but that there are options. Our firm resolves many claims in private mediation, arbitration, and confidential settlements.

If you think you or someone you know may be a victim, our job as sexual harassment attorneys is to sensitively listen to your story of abuse or sexual harassment. Our goal is to believe you and our experience is to protect you throughout the legal process. We would be honored to confidentially hear your story.

By Barbara Bonar, Esq.

Link here to read more about Barbara.

Barbara Bonar, Esq.

Written by Barbara Bonar, Esq.

Barbara Bonar has more than 30 years' tenure as a licensed attorney and nationally recognized in all issues regarding employee/employer relations, including whistleblower claims, workplace standards, executive contracts, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, conflict resolution, wage and hour laws, employee benefits, and personnel policies & procedures.