Our reaction on #metoo

As an agency specialising in undesirable behaviour, including sexual harassment, we feel called upon to say something about #metoo, as with many others. “We realise that our contribution will not be very visible within the massive complex of opinions, emotions, accusations and media expressions. But we believe that with perhaps a somewhat smaller voice, we might be able to contribute something meaningful.

We are not actually surprised about the content of all the stories. We have been handling cases for 15 years that are somewhat related to the alleged sexual misconduct in the context of unequal power relations. That is our daily work and we have seen, many times before, that which we have seen in recent weeks. What surprises us is the sudden massiveness, whether or not driven by (social) media.

That attention is undoubtedly temporary. And just as undoubtedly, in the next 15 years, people will most likely fall victim to this form of sexual harassment again, but without all the attention that is now being paid to it. And other people will just as easily be wrongly charged, although experience shows that this happens less often than people would think.

But, at the moment, ‘the chaos is complete’ and in this type of atmosphere people can easily make mistakes. We see that in many cases there is negligence, apparently because people feel the need to just do something. If carefulness loses out to thoughtless action, people can easily get seriously hurt. Victims and (alleged) perpetrators. Sometimes unfortunately also, in this pandemonium, unintentionally due to their own doing. Because things like this are far too sensitive to fight in the media. Moreover, this media attention can lead to victims, who have not yet dared speak up, to lose their courage. And that would be very unfortunate. They deserve acknowledgement, protection and help.

Currently, lawyers are stumbling over one another with the statement that victims should just make a report. On the one hand, this is not so incomprehensible, because in their experience their clients do not always exactly get a fair trial due to all the media attention. On the other hand, these lawyers know that sexual intimidation, except in cases of sexual assault or rape, does not belong in criminal law. Sexual harassment is a container concept, which includes all kinds of more or less serious acts. To understand this properly, it is important to recognise that, in cases of sexual harassment, there is almost always an unequal balance of power. One party can make or break the other, in whatever way, and to a greater or lesser extent. From that position of power, people can do strange things, varying from suggestively looking at another person’s body, via, for example, from the position of power more or less forcing the other person to masturbate (or to watch), to rape. Only in the latter case can criminal law be invoked, whereby there is still the fear that the context of power inequality within which the crime took place will be ignored. In the case of ‘masturbation under pressure’, it is possible to substantiate the presence of a criminal offense with some reasoning, but that is not always very clear. In all other cases, criminal law is simply not always reliable, while it can provide very impressive and radical proceedings. Humiliating things that can stay with a person for a very long time.

So there is a vacuum. The criminal law way often offers no relief, because just try going to the police with a story that you have publicly masturbated at the request of someone else because otherwise your career would be destroyed. The police and the judiciary cannot be blamed for having little or nothing to base things on with such a story, as long as the persons concerned are of age. And it should be clear that the media cannot offer a solution to these issues either. The media is about disclosure and reporting, and not always careful handling. That is how it should be, but the victims have then not yet been helped. The alleged perpetrators either.

What works?

In the first place: confidants, to whom victims and (alleged) perpetrators can go to for protection and support, emotionally and procedurally, in an intense, highly emotional period. In situations where the abuse appears to be extensive, the creation of a hotline can also be considered. Whatever the case may be: by offering those concerned, in confidentiality and security, a place where they receive utmost personal attention, it can be prevented that matters are, inevitably, made public.

The reproach that this can easily lead to a cover-up, which covers up the behaviour of perpetrators, is understandable. See examples of this in the world of sport. Yet that fear is unfounded. Because of course it is important that something is done with the reports, and well-trained confidants will always motivate the persons making the reports to do so. But then carefully, so that the whole world doesn’t need to know what has been experienced, on a sexual basis, and whether it was even performed -unwittingly – themselves.

Secondly: careful research commissioned by the organisation where the victim and perpetrator are employed. This is a formal, labour law investigation in which the merits of the reports are assessed by applying a fair hearing. Good committees of inquiry are able ignore any ‘noise’ and will carefully try to find out exactly what is going on. They work with truth-finding in order to do justice for all involved, without bothering about all the hassle and publicity around it. Behind the scenes and unflappable. Faster than justice is possible, and through a procedure that is much less unpleasant for the victim and alleged perpetrator.

For us this is nothing new under the sun. We have been treating sexual harassment reports like this for years. A team has always been available for this, consisting of lawyers, psychologists and other experts — not just in recent weeks, but always.

Our office has been bombarded with calls in recent weeks, which is why we have decided to offer peace of mind more than anything. This wasn’t really a big step for us, because this, part of our working method, had already been established for a long time. Please feel free to contact us.

Freek Walther

Co-owner De Vertrouwenspersoon

Member of the Complaints Committee on Undesirable Behaviour of the Local Government (VNG)

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