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The Rise of Virtual Sexual Harassment

Written by John Winer

November 10, 2020

As the pandemic continues to spread across our country, many Americans have adapted to a remote work arraignment that involves interacting with co-workers and clients through online platforms. But working from home doesn’t mean an end to workplace sexual harassment. According to a Bloomberg report, since the beginning of quarantine in March, COVID-19 forced companies to shift to a remote workplace, but with it came a new set of challenges, including seeing a rise in complaints of virtual sexual harassment.

In a recent high-profile example, The New Yorker recently fired analyst and author Jeffrey Toobin after 27 years following an incident where he exposed his genitals to staffers during a video conference. He claimed he believed he was off-camera, and insisted it was an accident, but whether it was deliberate or not, the incident put him on the long list of men who have harassed coworkers through virtual means.

According to Vice, staff writers at The New Yorker were on a video call prepping for election night coverage. During a pause in the call for breakout discussions, Jeffrey Toobin “unintentionally” exposed his genitals to his co-workers on a Zoom call. Toobin apologized to his coworkers and family after the incident, telling Vice he had made an “embarrassingly stupid mistake”, believing he was off-camera and that no one on the Zoom call would be able to see him. Following Toobin’s suspension, Twitter users went online to share their experiences with workplace harassment using the #MeToobin hashtag. Many argued that although he exposed himself during a virtual meeting, it still happened on the clock and should still be considered workplace sexual harassment as if he did so in the workplace. “Masturbating at work is neither normal nor acceptable—it’s sexual harassment.” As a result of the investigation into the matter, The New Yorker confirmed that Jeffrey Toobin was no longer affiliated with the company. 

A study done by the Pew Research Center revealed that almost 41% of adults have been subjected to some form of digital harassment, including extreme forms of virtual sexual harassment. Virtual harassment can include sharing sexually explicit photos without consent, the use of inappropriate emojis and messages, and using sexual or gender-based derogatory terms to describe the victim online. Workplace virtual harassment can include online stalking, insisting on using video calls after hours, and not maintaining dress code during work-related video conferences.

According to Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, sexual harassment is a form of illegal gender discrimination, and online sexual harassment is just as much a crime as in-person sexual harassment is. Online sexual harassment doesn’t necessarily have to involve any face-to-face interactions between the perpetrator and the target. Harassing behaviors can appear online on different social media sites and through messaging systems such as text messages and email. Both forms of sexual harassment can be significantly harmful to the victim, and those who are subjected to this form of harassment can suffer from emotional distress.

But why do people engage in virtual sexual harassment? For the abuser, virtual communication provides anonymity that can lead people to act in ways they would not do so and get away with in person. Another factor could be the stressful conditions from the pandemic that have led some working relationships to break down. Because of the sudden onset of COVID-19, many employers have not prepared for a teleworking workforce and, as a result, many have not established teleworking policies or agreements that would help to guide employees in this new remote workplace environment.

Whether in-person or in the remote workplace, employers can be held liable for sexual harassment that occurs in the workplace by its employees. By now, those employers who implemented a remote workplace should have developed effective policies that are responsive to the changing work environment. Employees should then be trained on the new policies and be given different options for reporting sexual harassment.

Employers should make it clear to employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated over Zoom or any other virtual platform, and they should establish a specific complaint process for employees who have been sexually harassed over remote work tools, and act when an employee alleges virtual or remote sexual harassment. During this time of a pandemic, employers are still responsible for ensuring the health and safety of all workers, and this includes ensuring a work environment free from sexual harassment.

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