BY PETER DORFMAN
Sexual harassment has surged into the public consciousness this past year as numerous prominent journalists, politicians, Hollywood actors and producers, and corporate magnates have faced assault allegations.
While the public asks how it could have been so wrong about the character of so many public figures, perplexed columnists and commentators have repeatedly turned to Jennifer Drobac, a professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, to explain the complexities of the situation. That’s because Drobac literally wrote the book on the subject: Sexual Harassment Law: History, Cases, and Theory (Carolina Academic Press, 2005).
“People are beginning to understand how pervasive harassment is,” Drobac says. “The #MeToo social media campaign this past fall really helped.”
Drobac, 58, found her specialty after opening a law practice in California in 1992. “The first case I was referred was a sexual harassment case, just months after the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas hearings,” she recalls. “My case was covered by The Wall Street Journal, because the defendant was the founder and CEO of a high-profile software company that was about to go public. That case launched my career.”
An IU law professor since 2001, Drobac teaches a course on sexual harassment law. She published her second book, Sexual Exploitation of Teenagers: Adolescent Development, Discrimination, and Consent Law (University of Chicago Press), in 2016. “I believe that’s the reason I’ve been receiving a lot of media calls about Roy Moore,” she suggests, referring to the Alabama Republican senate candidate who lost in December. Moore was accused by several women of sexual improprieties, ranging from unwanted sexual advances to sexual assault, when they were in their teens and Moore was in his 30s.
Drobac recently helped an Associated Press reporter sort out the relevance of sexual harassment when the plaintiff and defendant are peers—colleagues of ostensibly equal status. “Of course it’s harassment,” Drobac says. “It’s more common and more serious when the harasser has higher status, but that’s not a necessary precondition.”
The attorney identifies three categories of harassers: the clueless, the careless, and the corrupt. “Joe Clueless might make a crass comment, but as soon as it’s pointed out, he feels remorseful. A careless harasser knows what he’s doing is wrong, but he doesn’t care until he gets caught,” Drobac explains. “Corrupt predators don’t care. Their egos are so big, they assume they can get away with anything—people like Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, former Sen. Bob Packwood, or the software CEO in my first case.”
Many women wrongly assume they have no case without physical evidence. “Civil law recognizes testimony as evidence,” Drobac says. “When several women come forward describing the same modus operandi, and they don’t know each other, that lends credibility to their testimony.”
In Indiana, an accuser can go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and file a federal complaint, or go to the Indiana Civil Rights Commission and file a complaint for a violation of the state Civil Rights Act. The next step would be a federal lawsuit under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act.
“Women are more likely to be believed today,” Drobac observes. “We are all changing because of these conversations.”