One would think that in 2021, in the era of #metoo, that in the U.S., we would recognize that victim blaming is wrong. Indeed, in most states, for rape cases, victim blaming is limited, as are many other priorly unacceptable ways that discourages this type victim abuse. But, for sexual harassment cases, victim blaming is backed into the legal pie.
Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson
Of course, there are examples prior to this law that show how U.S. law has always allowed victim blaming in sexual harassment cases. But, the case that makes it relevant in today’s legal landscape is the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson.
The case started in 1976 with a teenage bank teller trainee. She had very little experience, limited education and came from an impoverished family. Getting the job as a bank teller trainee was transformative. However, after only a few months on the job, her manager began demanding sex. She refused, and he threated to fire her, assault her and even kill her. This was the beginning of nearly three years of Hell for this young woman. During that time, the manager subjected the teller to fondling, sexually explicit acts and about 50 episodes of forced intercourse. She complied and never complained to avoid being fired until she got sick and was fired anyway.
The trial judge allowed the defendants (the manager, bank, etc.) to enter evidence of what she wore, including low-cut blouses, low-cut dress and extremely tight pants. They also allowed testimony about the teller speaking with other co-workers about her sexual fantasies and talked about sex a lot. The judge also heard testimony from witnesses about the abuse they witnessed and experienced themselves. Though, the judge found that the sexual harassment was voluntary and had nothing to do with her employment. He found she was not a victim of sexual harassment.
The U.S. Supreme Court
The court disagreed with the trial court. They found that unwelcomed sexual advances qualified as unlawful discrimination. Unfortunately, this meant that whether sexual advances were unlawful rested on whether they were unwelcome. This allowed the type of victim blaming that occurred at the trial level, and this is still the law in the U.S., including Palisades Park, New Jersey, and New York City.