Lihuan Wang, an intern at Phoenix Satellite Television U.S. in New York, discovered she could not follow through with a lawsuit under New York human rights laws after being sexually harassed, merely because she was an unpaid worker.
Wang claimed the station’s Washington, D.C. bureau chief Zhengzhu Liu sexually harassed her after luring her into a hotel room with the pretenses of discussing work. Instead, he threw his arms around her, attempted to kiss her and “squeezed her buttocks with his left hand.”
New York Judge Kevin Castel ruled that Wang did not have the right to assert these claims because she was not a paid employee of the company.
Currently around the country, there is a growing number of unpaid interns seeking restitution from high profile companies. This isn’t including the many interns who may not speak out or file charges for sexual harassment in the workplace. According to the College Employment Research Institute, three quarters of 10 million students enrolled in America’s four-year colleges will work as interns at least once before graduation. Interning is popular among students because it leads to possible work opportunities, and many interns may be reluctant to report an employee due to the risk of losing these opportunities.
Oregon and Washington, D.C. are the only two areas of the country that have broadened their harassment laws to include interns, paid or unpaid. Oregon’s law was just passed in June to extend protections to all interns who are facing harassment in their workplace.
Georgia Republican senator Saxby Chambliss is worsening situations like this with his remarks about sexual assault rates in the military. In a congressional hearing in June regarding the concerns over a rise in sexual assault cases, Chambliss said, “the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur.”
Chambliss is ignoring the fact that sexual assault is an act of violence and instead asserts the problem has to do merely with hormone levels. In doing so, Chambliss belittles a serious issue. A Pentagon report released in May said around 26,000 military personnel may have been sexually assaulted in 2012, as stated in anonymous surveys. In addition to stirring a negative response from other senators for his comments, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee Debbie Wasserman Schultz asked Chambliss to formally apologize.
Claims like those made by Chambliss are detrimental because they contribute to what is known today as “rape culture,” where sexual harassment and assault claims lead to blaming the victim for multiple reasons such as wearing skimpy clothing or behaving in a suggestive or sexual manner. Making claims around the assumption that the attacker in a sexual assault case has raging hormones, or otherwise could not control themselves, also contributes to rape culture.
In the 21st century, stating that violent attacks are a result of being unable to control our animalistic whims is insulting to a society that thrives on education, and it simplifies violence to the point of saying people should not have to be accountable for their actions.
The consistency of sexual harassment claims among unpaid interns and the rise of sexual assault in the military proves the problems among these workplaces are not being fixed. At City on a Hill Press, we believe laws protecting harassment victims of all genders and sexualities should be more stringent and inclusive. The lack of strict laws among the U.S. is leaving people in different workplaces, and particularly those who are working for no pay, to be victimized with little chance of being able to protect themselves.
Oregon and Washington, D.C. are on the right track by allowing their unpaid interns to be protected under sexual harassment laws, and other states should begin working to follow this example.
There is no place for sexual harassment in any kind of workplace, and a safe, professional environment cannot be created until all kinds of employees feel like they are given the opportunity to make a claim under U.S. laws against harassment.