CHICAGO – Victims of sexual harassment often remain in the shadows for one simple reason: fear.

Fear of accusations becoming public, of having their entire lives scrutinized. Fear they may be judged uncharitably by people who don’t know them.

Examples of those fears were made real as the political scandal engulfing Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain swirled through the media in recent weeks, reminding people who have experienced sexual harassment, along with their attorneys and advocates, how emotionally devastating it can be to step forward.

“It’s horrible,” said Laura Beth Nielsen, a researcher at the American Bar Foundation and an associate professor of sociology and law at Northwestern University. “I can’t tell you how many (accusers) have gone bankrupt, gotten divorced or start (having) drinking or drug-use problems. …”

Sexual harassment complaints often take years to end, result in small compensation payments and leave the reputations of the accuser and the accused scarred. Attorneys say many cases are settled early in the process for a few thousand dollars, and a 2004 bar foundation study found that once employment discrimination cases get to court, they were settled for an average of $30,000.

“Even if they win, they feel like they’ve lost,” Nielsen said. “Some say, ‘I’m glad I made the point that they couldn’t do that.’ But by and large, they feel pretty chewed up and spit out by the justice system.”

Twenty years after Anita Hill’s sexual harassment claim against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas brought the issue out in the open, multiple allegations of inappropriate workplace behavior by Cain have reignited a national discussion of the problem.

Cain has denied sexually harassing anyone. But since news broke that two sexual harassment claims against Cain were settled while he was president of the National Restaurant Association, at least two other women have made similar allegations.

A number of conservative pundits have painted Cain as the victim of a smear campaign, and the female accusers who have been identified have had their backgrounds and personal lives scoured by the Cain campaign and the media.

On Wednesday, one of the women who received a settlement from the restaurant association, Karen Kraushaar, told The New York Times: “Anyone should be able to report allegations of sexual harassment without fear that their lives and careers will be put on public display and laid open to public scrutiny.”

Though never caught in a publicity whirlwind the likes of which Cain’s accusers have seen, Cheryl Lockard said she experienced gut-wrenching sexual harassment in a small central Illinois town.

Lockard was the treasurer of First Baptist Church in Canton. She accused the pastor of harassing her starting in 2003 by, among other things, making sexual remarks, massaging her shoulders without her permission and informing her that the office dress code required her to wear halter tops and miniskirts. She also alleged that the church tried to cover up the situation, then terminated her job when she complained to board members.

Lockard’s case dragged on for six years before she ultimately got satisfaction when the state’s Human Rights Commission awarded her about $63,000 in September 2009. But the emotional toll was immense.

In such a small community, it was difficult to be anonymous. People called her a liar and accused her of destroying the church. They wrote letters to the editor of the local paper questioning her character and motives.

“It did hurt to read those letters,” Lockard said. “You wonder how people can say things like, ‘I know (the pastor) didn’t do this’ or, ‘This is a disgruntled employee.’ How can they make a statement and call it a fact, when they weren’t even there? But people just don’t want to believe this stuff goes on.”

An analysis of statistics from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shows that the number of sexual harassment complaints filed nationally has gone down by 26 percent since 1997. Last year, 11,717 cases were filed.

Experts believe there are two primary reasons for the drop. One is increased workplace education. Another is simply a desire by both sides to resolve the issue and avoid the toll that comes with litigation.

Denise Mastro said she endured 10 months of harassment before finally quitting her job in telephone sales at International Profit Associates, a Buffalo Grove consulting business known as IPA that agreed last year to pay $8 million to settle a class-action suit brought by the EEOC.

“It was like walking into hell,” said Mastro, 49, one of 81 women in the class when the parties settled.

The suit alleged that women were regularly propositioned, offered money for sex, groped, slapped, pinched and subjected to attempted rape. The company admitted last year in court filings that it had engaged in “an unlawful pattern or practice of tolerating sexual harassment” for nearly eight years.

Mastro said the experience left her traumatized.

“It was to the point where … as I approached the parking lot, my hands would visibly shake,” she said.

When a lawyer called to tell her the case had been settled for $8 million, she said, “I broke out in tears, because I didn’t think it was enough” to punish the company.

“I wanted to put them out of business,” she said.