The sexual harassment problem

Now that the floodgates have opened and many women are coming forth with allegations of sexual harassment by powerful men, the question remains who else will be named. So far, the people involved have been in high-profile industries like films, TV, Silicon Valley, and politics. I have noticed that current members of Congress have not been named and wonder if that is only a matter of time. But the power dynamics that led to such abuse exist in other contexts as well and any business that really values its employees should take a pro-active role in ensuring that such things do not happen.

The problem is that in everyday workplaces, women’s complaints may not get the kind of attention that these other cases have got and thus they may be still feel very vulnerable and scared to speak out. One woman suggests clues that people in work places can look for that might indicate that someone in their company is a harasser.

“If you are anxiously looking around your media organization wondering who the harassers are or were, start with the men in power who are bullies: who screamed at subordinates, berated them, seemed to take pleasure in humiliating them — often publicly. We all know them. We have all worked with them. There is clearly a correlation between that behavior and this. … I would love to send a message to the screamers that their behavior will no longer be tolerated.”

Her warnings are supported by the nature of the complaints that have been made. These (such as by director James Toback and Mark Halperin) were not subtle flirtatious acts seeking to see if the women had reciprocal feelings. They were gross and disgusting impositions of the kind that are made when the perpetrator not only does not give a damn about how the woman feels, but also feels completely secure that he will face no repercussions whatsoever. They were pure power plays from a perceived position of dominance. It is not that all bullies are harassers, of course, but the kind of person who acts in ways that show lack of concern for other people’s feelings and is willing to humiliate them is the kind of person who may take advantage of them sexually.

Jane Fonda suggests that the reason this long-standing problem is getting so much attention now is that the women involved are famous and white.

“It feels like something has shifted,” Fonda said on the broadcast. “It’s too bad that it’s probably because so many of the women that were assaulted by Harvey Weinstein are famous and white and everybody knows them. This has been going on a long time to black women and other women of color and it doesn’t get out quite the same.”

NPR had a segment yesterday where they recounted how badly Anita Hill, an African-American professor of law, was brutally treated by an all-male and white panel of the US senate when she made sexual harassment charges against Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings to the US Supreme Court

“His conversations were very vivid,” she told them. “He spoke about acts that he had seen, and pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals, and films showing group sex or rape scenes.”

In response, the senators grilled her. “Why in God’s name would you ever speak to a man like that the rest of your life?” asked Wyoming Republican Alan Simpson. “How could you allow this kind of reprehensible conduct to go on right in the headquarters without doing something about it?” thundered Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter. And of course this, from Alabama Democrat Howell Heflin: “Are you a scorned woman?”

Shame. Character assassinations. The episode took over Hill’s life; she was famously referred to as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” Years later the author of that line apologized, saying it wasn’t true. Crucially, there were three other women in Washington ready to testify, to corroborate Hill’s account. The senate panel never called them. Hill says, back then, sexual harassment wasn’t taken seriously. “You even had courts that said, ‘Well, these are personal matters and not any matter that the law has any business dealing with,'” Hill recalls.

The fact that three other women were also ready to testify to similar abuse by Thomas but that they were never called as witnesses by the chair of the committee, then senator Joe Biden, is something of which he should be eternally ashamed. That suppression would not happen today to anyone willing to speak out. Thanks to the price that Hill paid (she behaved throughout with great grace and dignity in the face of vicious treatment by men in power), women now have their complaints treated more seriously. It would be unthinkable for women accusers nowadays to be publicly humiliated the way that Hill was, except in the swamps of the internet.

There is now apparently a spreadsheet on the internet titled “Shitty Media Men” where people can post the details of harassment they experienced and the names of the people who did it. If there are multiple accusations against a person, that name is highlighted in red. The postings are anonymous but access to the spreadsheet is apparently public if you know the URL. The document was created to let women new to the profession be aware of the ‘open secrets’ about who was a harasser. Christina Cauterucci discusses the problematic aspects of such a public anonymous document.

As of Thursday afternoon, some of the men on the list are labeled as stalkers or persistent harassers. There are detailed accounts of violence and rape—men on the list have allegedly forced nonconsensual anal sex, choked a woman “until she lost consciousness,” and taken off condoms without consent. Some, though, are named for misdeeds as murky as “weird lunch ‘dates’” and “creepy AF in the DMs.” The spreadsheet is anonymous, so no one can see who wrote what. It begins with a disclaimer: “This document is only a collection of misconduct allegations and rumors. Take everything with a grain of salt. If you see something about a man you’re friends with, don’t freak out.”

In a way, telling women things they didn’t know about their friends was exactly the point of the document.

The “SHITTY MEDIA MEN” document is supposed to be both secret and anonymous, a kind of physical manifestation of the interpersonal warnings women sometimes offer as protection against men who’ve done wrong. In almost every recent high-profile case of sexual assault or harassment by a man in the public eye—Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Donald Trump—the first accusation is followed by another, then another, and sometimes dozens more. Some of these women had no idea whether their harasser had done the same thing to others; several of Weinstein’s accusers have written of feeling intense guilt after learning that he’d gone on to abuse other women while they remained silent. Harassment and abuse are easier to prove when there’s an established pattern, but shame, self-blame, and fear of retribution keep individual survivors isolated from one another. Telling other women about a mutual acquaintance’s bad behavior is one way to find other victims of the same man’s abuse before coming forward. It also allows the recipients of the information to take precautions when getting a drink alone with a colleague who’s said to have groped a friend.

Abusers thrive on their ability to silence their victims. As more women speak out and their voices heard and taken seriously, the less room these harassers have to maneuver.


  1. Smokey says

    I’m both grateful that I have a penis, and deeply embarrassed by the behaviour of my fellow penisovians. (There must be a better word for that. Penisheads?)

  2. jrkrideau says

    I think every once in a while someone gets it more or less right.

    I remember working for a large government organization many years ago when one of our staff, a fairly slightly-built young woman, was presenting a briefing book to one of our corporate managers (next best thing to God in our org) and he threw the book back at her. She arrived downstairs in some distress.

    As soon as her director had the details, he called the corporate manager and informed him that if there was a repeat of such behaviour the police would be called.

    To give the corporate manager his due, he was a miserable enough bastard he might well have hurled the book at a male. And the director would have made the same call.

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