For many years, victims of workplace sexual harassment cases were assaulted twice – one when they were victimized at work, and a second time when they went to court and the harasser used evidence of their unrelated sexual conduct to impugn their character. Fortunately, this is no longer the case, as there are both state and federal evidentiary rules that prohibit a defendant from introducing evidence of a plaintiff’s unrelated sexual conduct in a case in which a plaintiff brings claims for sexual harassment.
Historically in sexual harassment cases, defendants and their attorneys used irrelevant evidence of the plaintiff’s private life to diminish their claims of sexual assault or sexual harassment. This tactic created an unbearable and degrading process for survivors, in which the intimate details of their private lives were picked apart by the jury. Many women choose not to pursue claims of harassment merely to avoid having their private life splayed open.
In 1978, Congress finally acted and passed Federal Evidence Rule 412, more commonly known as the Rape-Shield Statute. Congress’s purpose in enacting Rule 412 was to end the irrelevant use of a victim’s clothing or a victim’s past sexual relationships are strictly limited to ensure a fair trial and to stop the use of victim blaming. Sadly, it was not until 1994 — almost twenty years later – that Congress clarified and amended the rule to include civil action lawsuits, such as sexual harassment cases. California has also enacted similar protections, which are set forth in Section 1103 of the Evidence Code, which places restrictions on the type of evidence defendants may introduce in cases of sexual assault. These evidentiary rules were created to encourage victims to participate in the legal proceedings against alleged offenders and attempt to protect the privacy of victims at the same time.
As a result of these rules, women who have been subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace can pursue their claims without being questioned about their entire sexual history.