Not Getting A Paycheck Isn’t The Only Struggle Interns Face — Sexual Harassment Is, Too


For better or for worse, intern season will soon be upon us.

In a perfect world, internships are a source of valuable experience and allow you to build up your professional network in hopes of snagging your dream job. In a perfect world, interns are given substantive work, receive livable wages, and are treated with respect in the workplace. In this same perfect world, I’m married to Ryan Gosling and Neil Patrick Harris is my pool boy.

Unpaid internships have faced significant criticism in recent months due to the fact that they harm economic mobility for minority and poor students, exploit labor, and don’t actually help land a job after you finish the internship. As unpaid employees, you lack certain benefits: the obvious paycheck, healthcare, and protection from sexual harassment.

Yes, you read that correctly. If you’re interning anywhere in the country, excluding Washington, DC and Oregon, you have no legal protection from sexual harassment as an unpaid intern.

In hopes of landing a job after the end of the internship, interns are often unwilling or unable to report harassment out of fear of retribution from future employers. Since 1994, lawsuits filed by interns against employers have been dismissed, and interns who have filed unsuccessful lawsuits are either blackballed from that industry or are given cutesie titles such as “Miss Sexual Harassment.”

The impacts of sexual harassment in the workplace are well-documented and range from psychosomatic distress, loss of self-esteem, lower productivity, depression, weight loss or weight gain, and PTSD. Although far from perfect, our lawmakers have attempted to prevent work place sexual harassment for several decades through various pieces of federal legislation. Unfortunately, this legislation only covers paid employees and leaves underpaid and unpaid interns and fellows with no federal protection.

Internships have become a de-facto requirement for almost every entry-level job. Unfortunately, no data exists as to the number of cases of interns that face sexual harassment, though it is safe to assume that the number would be similar, if not higher, than the data that exists for paid employees.

Since the court ruling last October that determined that unpaid interns have as many legal rights as the papers they collate in the office, there has been no major discussion in the news media about needing to address this issue. While interns have been successfully suing their former employers for back wages in recent years, there seems to be no concerted or organized effort to provide workplace protections for interns. There are no trendy campaigns, no occupy movements, and seemingly no outcry from millennials demanding workplace protections for a class of citizens that we’re either a part of or recently removed from.

As a society, do we accept that sexual harassment comes part and parcel with unpaid internships? Do we believe that this abuse of authority is just another unfortunate aspect of an otherwise potentially monumental opportunity? These are honest questions that I have for all of you because it seems that, as a country, we really couldn’t care less about what happens behind closed doors to interns.

Although officials in New York City have proposed legislation this week to protect interns within their city, not much else progress has been made since last October throughout the country. New York City Councilman James Vacca proposed told his fellow council members this week, “The hole in this law is so big you could drive a Mack truck through it… I know that interns can be vulnerable, if not more vulnerable to harassment than any other employee.”

If you’re in a position where you feel that you’re sexually harassed while at an internship this summer speak up and reach out to these groups. While you may not be guaranteed protection under current law, yours may be the case that finally results in workplace protections for yourself and your fellow intern-nation.