Surprisingly, it wasn't a group of female workers who were compensated by the popular eatery: it was a group of male employees who claim they were sexually harassed by other men in the workplace. And, as new EEOC filings show, this situation is not unusual. Between 1992 and 2008, the percentage of sexual-harassment charges filed by men with the EEOC doubled from 8 percent to 16 percent. "While some people may think sexual harassment of male employees is a joke, the issue is real," says David Grinberg, spokesperson for the EEOC. "We are seeing more of it, and such conduct has serious legal consequences for employers."
There are instances when women sexually harass men, but the increase is due mainly to reports of men harassing other men, also called same-sex sexual harassment, Grinberg says. The EEOC tracks the number of men and women who file claims with the agency, but doesn't always keep track of the gender of the harasser. However, Grinberg confirms that the EEOC has recognized a growing trend in the number of men alleging same-sex sexual harassment.
"The classic image of sexual harassment is Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill; it's not two men or even two women," says Dr. Liza H. Gold, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University who serves as an expert in sexual-harassment suits. And yet the experience of men harassed by men may help to illustrate the realities of all such cases. When women are the victims, they may face assumptions that the abuse is the result of an affair gone wrong, hurt feelings, or mixed signals. In truth, sexual harassment of both genders has more to do with issues of control and abuses of power for the purpose of humiliation than with sexual attraction.
By exposing the men to taunts about their genitalia, sexually suggestive simulations, and lewd comments, the men perpetrating the harassment are seeking to embarrass and target the male victims—not sexually stimulate or "flirt" with them. "Sexual harassment is about using power in a way to hurt somebody," says Marcia McCormick, associate professor at Saint Louis University School of Law, who specializes in employment law and gender issues. In the Cheesecake Factory suit there were no allegations that supervisors were attracted to the other men—the sexual harassment was a form of intimidation, McCormick says.
Same-sex harassment has been recognized by the courts for only a little more than 20 years. In 1998 the U.S. Supreme Court held in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services that an individual can bring a claim for workplace harassment when the harasser and the harassed employee are the same sex. Joseph Oncale was working on an oil platform when he was sexually assaulted by three co-workers, one being a supervisor. What started as humiliating verbal attacks soon grew to physical violence, and on one occasion, Oncale was sodomized with a bar of soap. He quit soon after. Oncale may have been targeted because of his small stature—he was the shortest guy on the rig, and therefore an easy target—but those perpetrating sexual harassment can have a variety of motivations or triggers. "It's really hard to say what motivates someone to harass except a desire to humiliate the person being harassed," McCormick says.
Tough economic times have also been known to foster an environment of increased sexual harassment, says human-resources consultant Michele Paludi. Harassment escalates when those in power feel threatened, either by an influx of women workers or a challenge to the traditional gender expectations. It's possible that in an economic recession, more men feel powerless and fear for their job security, causing them to lash out at anyone perceived as a threat. "By creating a hostile work environment co-workers might miss deadlines or get negative performance reviews. The harasser might just be thinking, 'Better them than me,' " she says. The lack of financial resources could also mean that fewer supervisors or managers are trained to resolve sexual-harassment issues at work. "When there are hard times, there are certain programs in the workplace that are cut. We often see the training programs on sexual harassment are cut completely or not offered once a year like they should be," Paludi adds.
It's also possible that same-sex harassment is not on the rise, but that male victims feel more empowered about reporting abuse. "People feel they can stand up and say, 'Hey you've violated my civil rights,' " Gold says. "They feel freer to pursue what 20 years ago would be considered a gender boundary."