Most businesses and institutions have some form of sexual harassment policy and most of them proclaim “zero tolerance.” But my two cents? I call foul.

Why? Because just because the policy exists doesn’t for a second mean that it’s worth the paper it’s written on. In order for any policy to be valid it has to be enforced and if it’s not then it might as well not exist. In my experience “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment usually means no tolerance only if someone actually comes forward and says something and only if there was actually groping involved. But what about that 23 year-old guy who thinks he’s being funny or cute by telling his 16 year-old co-worker to smile more or the supervisor who makes lewd comments because he’s trying to be cool? What about when an employee is asked out repeatedly by a co-worker even when they have clearly stated their disinterest time and time again? What about that student who’s been sexually assaulted by a classmate but is still forced to endure the unwanted attention in class because there isn’t any “evidence” of the assault or it happened off-campus? When any of these, or any number of other similar situations, are ignored it completely negates the policy. When the people with the power choose to ignore what happens in their workplace it opens the door for violators of sexual harassment policies to get away with far more than they ever should. And while no one can know everything that goes on I think that everyone has a responsibility to be aware of what is taking place around them. If you see that 16 year-old co-worker quietly slink away from the older man or if you know your friend has been harassed you have an obligation to say something. And furthermore, if you are in a position of power you have an obligation to take all allegations seriously.

The tendency to minimize sexual harassment and assault by tidying it away under the rug in order to maintain a pristine reputation is causing a systemic problem in our society. And “zero tolerance” policies that are not honoured are perpetuating it. The illusion of consequence isn’t enough. The illusion of consequence makes it possible for predators to get away with anything and it makes victims afraid to come forward. Knowing that you’ll be told to keep quiet makes it feel hopeless to even bother trying to seek justice for an attack. And victims not coming forward right away seems to cause a lot of resistance to believing their stories. You see the nasty cycle we’ve created here? There are a lot of things that need to happen in the world to get the epidemic of sexual assault under control but, I think, actually honouring the “zero tolerance” policies we claim to follow will go a long way to helping break the cycle.