Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
FBI investigations into sexual assaults on airplanes are becoming more frequent by the year. A recent CNN report puts the figures at a 66% increase from 2014 to 2017 alone. And a recent survey of flight attendants found that a whopping one in five have received, while working, a report of a passenger-on-passenger sexual assault. And yet, law enforcement was contacted in less than half of these incidents.
Should we be surprised?
Dismayed, perhaps. Disgusted, yes. But not surprised. Revelations of sexual harassment and assault have poured out of a packed Pandora’s Box since the first story broke about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. If it seems as if misconduct plagues every industry, that’s because it does. Sexual misconduct has been a drastically underreported crime for many years. And to the shock of many, it’s becoming clear that it is far more widespread than previously acknowledged.
But the age of ignorance on the topic is nearing its end as incidents of harassment become easier to talk about – and harder to ignore. As the high number of airline incidents makes clear, it’s not just that victims are only now coming forward. Many of the women who say they were violated on planes also say they made flight attendants aware at the time, but were either dismissed or left feeling as if there was nothing anyone could or would do about it.
One woman, seated on a United Airlines flight beside a drunk male passenger who repeatedly sexually assaulted her by grabbing her crotch, said she was only taken seriously by flight staff once she refused to return to her seat beside him. She was eventually reseated – but directly behind the harasser. She added that he persisted, even after her seat had been moved.
Imagine being stuck in such close quarters with someone who insisted on violating you, and not being able to do anything about it – or have anyone to turn to for help. This is, in fact, how so many women facing misconduct in many environments have felt, too – like no one is listening and like there is no way out.
Part of the reason sexual harassment has made major headlines is because, until recently, it was easier to be confused about what, exactly, constituted sexual harassment. Many companies left the rules deliberately vague, or difficult to interpret, according to research conducted by the Harvard Business Review. As a result, there were few, or inconsistent, consequences if individuals were reported to Human Resources.
Now think about it: Certainly, a passenger who is threatening another passenger should be moved, removed or restrained. That’s just common sense. Surely, if the crotch-grabber were throwing punches, we would not be debating whether he should be restrained. And when the flight landed, we would be sure he was prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
But because so much of the burden of proof has historically fallen to the victim – as it has in many of the cases of midair assault – we are only just starting to examine what constitutes an offense, and what others are meant to do about it. Gaps in company policies are now becoming painfully clear. One flight attendant and union president told CNN that in her 22 years working, she’d never taken part in a conversation about how to handle sexual harassment or assault.
And while this may be anecdotal, it highlights a potential fixable hole in the system. Clear policies need to be put in place regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, and employees – including flight attendants – might be trained to respond to such incidents quickly and efficiently.
The good news is that many industries, the airline industry among them, are starting to establish policies that are long overdue. At NBC, new guidelines were reportedly established in the wake of the Matt Lauer scandal. And the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will soon issue new sexual harassment guidelines as well.
It may seem as if we’ve been talking a lot about sexual harassment lately, but it’s a conversation that’s both long overdue and has only just begun.