In a powerful Washington Post editorial last week, actress Barbara Bowman accused Bill Cosby of raping her during the mid-1980s. Over the ensuing days, similar allegations against Cosby from numerous other women have been widely reported. I don’t know if some, all, or none of these disturbing allegations are true. But as a sexual harassment attorney who has handled cases involving workplace sexual assault and rape, I see the allegations as offering a vital lesson for employees in Cleveland workplaces.
For several years, Barbara Bowman has given interviews in which she claimed that as a young actress during the 1980s, comedy icon Bill Cosby lured her close under the guise of mentorship, and then over a period of time drugged and repeatedly sexually assaulted her. Her allegations went without much media attention until recently, when her story resurfaced. In her recent Washington Post editorial, Bowman discusses the difficulty she had in coming to grips with what happened. She explains that at first she “had trouble admitting it to myself, let alone to others.” As is common for victims of sexual assault, Bowman describes being in denial for some time, saying “I tried to convince myself I had imagined it. I even tried to rationalize it.” She goes on to say that when she did work up the courage to tell her agent and a lawyer, she was crushed by their dismissive responses.
Bowman is not the first woman to accuse Cosby of sexual assault. In 2005, a Pennsylvania woman sued him, claiming he drugged and sexually assaulted her the year before. After she filed the case, a staggering thirteen other women came forward, claiming he had done the same thing to them. The case settled in 2006.
As I said, I have no idea whether any of these allegations are true. However, I see an obvious parallel between them and the sexual harassment cases Bolek Besser Glesius has handled in Cleveland, Akron, and throughout Northeast Ohio over the years.
In my experience, these cases very frequently involve a harasser who has sexually harassed more than one person. The plaintiff is frequently not the first, although she (it is usually a female victim, but not always) may not know it. To the contrary, it is common in sexual harassment cases to find that the harasser has moved from one victim to the next over time. Sometimes the behavior towards different victims is basically the same. But sometimes the conduct escalates. What might start as inappropriate sexual comments or advances might turn into groping and, in the worst cases, rape—that is, unless someone stops the harasser in time.
So the lesson for Cleveland employees from the Cosby story is simply this: if you are being sexually harassed, report it. You might not be the first and only victim. And if you don’t report it, you probably won’t be the last. Employers have an obligation to protect their employees from sexual harassment, and both Ohio and federal law provide significant remedies to victims. In many cases, however, whether the employer knew or should have known about the sexual harassment is the determining factor whether the employer can be held liable.
There are lots of reasons why victims of harassment don’t come forward. As we saw in Bowman’s editorial, denial is one of them. Guilt, shame, and fear that nobody will believe them are common reasons as well. In the employment context, fear of losing one’s job for reporting sexual harassment is very common. While Ohio and federal employment discrimination laws provide significant remedies to employees who are retaliated against for reporting sexual harassment, many victims are either unaware of that protection, or are too afraid to risk it. In fact, harassers will sometimes choose a victim whom they believe will be too afraid to report it for fear of losing her job.
According to Bowman, she did report what happened to her. The people she says she reported it to, her agent and a lawyer, failed her terribly by not taking action. They also failed each and every one of the alleged victims who came afterwards. Perhaps those women could have been spared had someone done something with Bowman’s allegations at the time.
Although the inaction of those who received Bowman’s report might lead some to believe coming forward serves no purpose, her story actually reinforces the opposite conclusion: sexual harassers don’t stop unless someone stops them. In the workplace setting, even if a sexual harassment victim quits and finds another job rather than reporting it, what about the next victim? The point is, there does not have to be a next victim.
It takes tremendous courage to report workplace sexual harassment. At Bolek Besser Glesius we have been privileged to stand with numerous employees who had that courage, and it has been an honor to help them get the justice they deserve. Yet nearly every time we represent a victim of workplace sexual harassment or assault, I can’t help but think that the client should never have needed our help in the first place. Someone should have stopped the harasser before he got to her.
If you are being sexually harassed at work, or are aware of someone else being harassed, take action before it is too late. Contact a Cleveland sexual harassment attorney for help.