On Sept. 11, 2020 the TV show “20/20” aired the episode “I am Vanessa.” The episode spends two hours highlighting the story of an army soldier, Vanessa Guillen, who was stationed at Fort Hood when she went missing on April 22, 2020. Her body was later found on June 30. Even before Guillen’s disappearance, her family noticed a change in her behavior shortly after her arrival at Fort Hood; they knew something was off. Her family recalled the change in her eating habits — she was consuming less and rapidly losing weight — they also noted she was not her usual self and seemed sad all the time.
Guillen’s mom recounted the time that Vanessa told her she was not enjoying her time on base later disclosing that she had been repeatedly sexually assaulted by a sergeant. Guillen explained that she had not reported the incident in fear of retribution or retaliation at work.
In the army you have to report up the chain of command and despite evidence of the assault, the unit commander is the one who ultimately decides if any action will be taken. There are a number of reasons why this incident could not have made it up the chain of command even if reported. For starters, if the assailant had been friends with others who are a part of the chain of command then there is most likely a slim chance that the report would even make it up to the unit commander. Or, something that happens far too often, the victim statements are ignored. So, nothing is done and the unit commander never hears about the report.
Guillen’s disappearance gained national attention after the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen went viral with the initial goal to help spread awareness of her disappearance. After her body was discovered there was a shift — the emphasis was now on the circumstances that lead to her murder.
Soon after, other survivors started coming out with their own stories of workplace sexual harassment. This not only showed the world how often this happens, but also that many members of the military report these incidents with no follow up nor an investigation. The military has exceptionally high levels of workplace sexual harassment and is often used as a way to open conversation surrounding the issue. Given this example, it is also important to realize this isn’t exclusive to military branches, it happens across all workplaces.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature . . . when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”
If you are, or have been, in a situation where you feel uncomfortable in a sexual or physical manner by anyone in your workplace then it is important to recognize this as a form of workplace sexual harassment. These types of incidents are regularly overlooked because of its normalization in our society. Women in particular have to decide if they want to bring up a situation that happened or just forget it happened because they don’t want to be seen as being “dramatic.”
In an article from Health Careers, “22 Intriguing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Statistics,” a few of the statistics stood out to me: 21 percent of Americans have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, 81 percent of sexual harassment victims are women, there was a 13.6 percent increase in sexual harassment complaints between 2017 and 2018 and 28 percent of victims don’t report the harassment to human resources or management, usually out of fear that nothing will be accomplished in doing so.
In order for things to change people need to speak out, we need to create an environment where people are more comfortable reporting these incidents. All workplaces need to make it clear that they do not tolerate sexual harassment of any kind. There needs to be a system in place that makes it easy to not only report the assault, but also to make people feel as comfortable and safe as possible while recounting the experience.
Things are slowly changing and the way these situations are handled is improving. But there needs to be a push for this to happen quicker. Vanessa Guillen was a 20-year-old woman who wanted to serve her country, she had her entire life ahead of her but that was stolen from her. Instead of being here with her family she was assaulted and murdered. In order to make sure cases like Guillen’s do not continue to happen changes need to be made.