A wake-up call on sexual harassment

Many years ago, in my early days working in lawyer assistance, I received a call from a young lawyer, about two years out. She was in extreme distress, having been fired from her job at a well-respected firm.

Many years ago, in my early days working in lawyer assistance, I received a call from a young lawyer, about two years out. She was in extreme distress, having been fired from her job at a well-respected firm. She was feeling depressed and acutely suicidal, feeling that she was a failure and “not cut out to be a lawyer.” We arranged to meet at a hospital emergency department to secure urgent assistance for her. As we sat in the emergency room waiting for her to be interviewed by a psychiatrist, we talked and her story began to come into clearer focus. This vulnerable, young lawyer had been sexually harassed by two of the partners of the firm and when she was not compliant, she was deemed not a corporate fit and was unceremoniously dismissed. She didn’t feel aggrieved or angry. She felt helpless and incompetent and unfit for law practice. She ostensibly thought that sexual harassment must have been part of being in law practice and so, if she couldn’t take it, she didn’t have what it takes. The essence of what I felt compelled to tell her at the time was that she wasn’t unfit for law practice. She was unfit to deal with sexual harassment.


You’d have to be living under a rock in the past month to have missed the avalanche of sexual harassment, abuse and assault revelations coming to light from every corner of society. We’ve seen such allegations surface before and they seemed sensational in their time — think Bill Cosby or Clarence Thomas — only to fade once again into the background, replaced by other news stories. Sexual harassment was notable, but, for most, especially men, it was viewed as rare and mostly innocuous. Nothing fundamental changed. More than 20 years ago, a U.S. president caught in an affair with a 22-year-old intern was chalked up as a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” He left office quite popular. More recently, a U.S. presidential candidate was heard on videotape admitting to sexual assault with those revelations ultimately having been brushed off as mere “locker room talk.” After all, boys will be boys. He’s the president now.

This time, it appears to be different and, as a mental health practitioner, I have no hesitation in declaring that it’s about time. For the first time that I can remember, women (as well as men) are coming forth courageously and in significant numbers. For the first time that I can remember, they’re being believed, and the powerful men who abused them are being ostracized and condemned. It’s about time. For the first time, they’re not being reflexively called hyperbolic or hysterical, vile epithets historically designed to diminish and dismiss women.

The #metoo movement on the internet is empowering women to tell their stories of sexual violation and the numbers are staggering and difficult to conceive. The sheer magnitude of the movement is shedding unmistakable light on a problem women have always known about but most men had little insight into, whether in actuality or through wilful blindness. We had the luxury to miss it because it didn’t affect us directly and it was hard to imagine that the problem was so pervasive. We’re now waking up to the fact that it very much is and it’s on us to be part of the solution.

Sexual harassment involves comments about appearance, sexist jokes, comments of a sexual nature including demands for sex, as well as sexual touching, all of which are unwelcome and not consensual. Sexual assault is a physical assault of a sexual nature that is ultimately about violence and power, not sex. These behaviours are perpetrated primarily by men toward women, but it can also occur to men as well. It is also particularly insidious when exercised by a person with power and authority over the victim.  

The adverse health effects on victims is staggering. Sexual harassment has been observed to cause depression, Post­Traumatic Stress Disorder, hypertension, sleep disturbance and, as I mentioned, suicidal ideation and completion. 

In Canada, only two lawyers have had their licences to practice revoked for sexual harassment. One incident occurred in Alberta in 2000 and one happened recently in Ontario, where a lawyer had his licence revoked for inappropriate sexual behaviour with a former client and a legal assistant.

The reckoning has come at long last. We men need to get real about consent and sexual predation and the impact it has upon women primarily. Most of us never really got how systemic and epidemic it is in their lives. The impact is relentless and profoundly harmful to mental and physical health. To those men who behave in this manner — stop it. To those who see it occur but don’t speak up — say something. And to that overwhelming number of women in law who experience this pervasive assault, don’t be alone with it. Some will fight back and services such as the Ontario Discrimination and Harassment Counsel can be a good place to start for information. Some understandably won’t feel safe speaking up, but they still need help. Lawyer assistance programs in each province are there to support you, as are rape crisis lines, other women and going forward, good men.

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