A recent high-profile incident in Greenwich in which a member of the influential Representative Town Meeting allegedly pinched a female town worker in the groin raises essential questions about truth, civility and the nature of sexual assault.
On Dec. 8, Christopher von Keyserling, 71, is alleged to have pinched a fellow town worker in her genitals following a short argument about “political correctness” and has been charged with fourth-degree sexual assault.
Amid the justified head-shaking over the now-viral account, there is some cause for — if not celebration — at least relief. Here’s a quick list:
1. Most media outlets are treating this incident with the seriousness that an alleged sexual assault deserves.
2. The woman who received the unwanted “attention” has fought back, joining the chorus of people who believe that such assaults — including those causing no lasting physical damage — must be called out and stopped.
3. It has taken the lid off the box of ignorance that conflates human decency with “political correctness.”
4. People in the town’s chain of reporting protocol did not dismiss her claims and acted responsibly.
5. There is a videotape that seems to indicate the attack occurred.
Now, the bad news: Without the video, the woman bringing the complaint would most likely have been on the losing end. The notion that women routinely lie about sexual assaults remains a deeply damaging myth, despite the fact that, according to the U.S. Justice Department, false reports of sexual assault are no greater in number than false reports of any crime or misdemeanor.
And yet time and again, the court of public opinion favors the person in power. And, where sexual assault is concerned, that usually (although not exclusively) means a man with power over a woman, and a higher-ranking official over someone on a lower professional rung. And as is so often the case, the victim of alleged sexual assault is often loath to come forward, as this Greenwich woman initially was, for fear of retribution.
The fear of not being believed, and being punished for making a complaint, is widespread, despite the fact that both state and federal law protect anyone making a sexual harassment complaint — or anyone cooperating in the investigation of such complaint — from retribution.
The 2011 Greenwich Employee Handbook states the town has a “zero tolerance” policy for workplace sexual harassment and that all town workers, including elected officials, are subject to this policy. Perhaps it’s time for folks to take a refresher course.
If they do, they’ll learn that sexual predation and harassment — for both the victimizer and the victim — are blind to distinctions of age, gender, race, educational level and social standing. As is becoming increasingly obvious, people of all stripes do it, and people of all stripes have it done to them.
We all need to take responsibility for understanding what sexual harassment and assault are, how to prevent them, how to report them and how to support victims of them. Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious problem and can lead to trauma, poor morale, loss of job, damaged reputations and huge legal settlements for the state, municipalities and companies. Until we accept the universality of this problem, no woman can feel truly safe in the workplace, in the streets or in the halls of government.
Christine Palm is communications director of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Commission on Women, Children and Seniors, and conducts sexual harassment awareness and prevention training for State agencies.