Why Sexually Harassed Interns Can't Fight Back
The National Enquirer claims to have recently obtained a tape in which Monica Lewinsky allegedly seduced Bill Clinton during their affair nearly 15 years ago, proves the public's obsession with the sexualization of female interns. This summer, Anthony Weiner campaign intern Olivia Nuzzi rose to fame after writing a tell-all article for the Daily News in which she revealed that Weiner referred to his female interns as "Monica." Female interns are consistently sexualized, and often fail to receive support for sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace. This creates a dangerous environment in which the public gets the message that it's okay to pay sexual attention to female interns.
Offices are traditionally hierarchical workplaces, and usually have a male in a lead position of power. A worker's status in the office typically intersects with his or her status in society. For example, able-bodied white men have the most power. This structure determines the workers' salaries and office dynamics. Because women typically earn less than men, and are less likely to be in positions of power, it is difficult for them to report workplace sexual harassment.
The unpaid female intern is at the greatest risk as she has minimal status in the office, and likely finds reporting sexual harassment difficult or uncomfortable as she could be perceived as someone who creates problems.
My home county Rockland of in upstate New York has brought forward people who challenged the role of women in our society. Betty Friedan lived there while she wrote The Feminine Mystique, and in 1994, the Rockland Psychiatric Center intern Bridget O'Connor filed a lawsuit after one of the doctors sexually harassed her.
Ultimately, O'Conner's claim was dismissed because she was unpaid and did not have the rights of a full-time employee. The suit highlighted the grey area of legal protections for interns, as they do not earn wages and therefore don't receive employee benefits.
Interns can report the behavior. However, there are no legal consequences for those who commit the act of concern. Also, interns may face consequences for speaking out. Sadly, since O'Connor's case, little has changed. D.C. Councilwoman Mary Chen has been advocating for intern rights, and recently Oregon passed a law expanding discrimination and sexual harassment protection to interns.
Internships have become a rite of passage for hopeful students looking to make contacts and gain experience in their future career paths. Interns are passionate enough to forfeit pay, so we shouldn't expect them to forfeit their right to safety as well.