Can we stop sexual harassment?
With each new revelation of sexual misconduct by a powerful man, I ask myself, “When will this end?” How is it that so many men have behaved piggishly — illegally — and the women they abused remained silent for fear that the humiliation they endured would only be worse if they came forward? How is it that powerful organizations, including those media companies we trust to uncover stories of such wrongdoing, turned a blind eye? And that question is the one that stops me dead in my tracks. Am I part of the problem, too?
For years, I’ve said that I’ve never faced sexual harassment. But it may be no accident that I’ve been spared such an ordeal. I grew up at a time when it was assumed that men were sexually aggressive and it was up to the woman to apply the brakes. My father was very protective of me; he once chased two teenage boys halfway across Denver because they whistled at me when he picked me up at the public swimming pool. I learned early not to make eye contact with strangers of the opposite sex, to dress modestly and to be reserved. It was no accident that after being chosen by my class to be prom princess, no boy asked me to the dance and I ended up going with a classmate whom the nuns assigned to take me.
I’ve always worked in male-dominated environments — on Capitol Hill in the early 1970s, in the White House in the mid-1980s, in the corporate world since the late 1990s and in the media for the past 30 years. Several of the high-profile men who’ve been accused of harassment are men I’ve worked for, alongside of or been interviewed by, some on multiple occasions. When their names became public, I wasn’t surprised. In each instance, my antennae were up when I was around them. These were not guys I’d allow myself to be alone with, certainly not in a social setting and especially not in their hotel room.
But of course, many of the women who’ve been attacked were confronted in the office. Matt Lauer is accused of summoning young women to his office and locking the door — in broad daylight, with staff nearby! The same was true of Roger Ailes. Their victims could not have avoided the situations that put them at risk.
I’ve been lucky, but maybe not so lucky as I’d like to think. My husband reminded me of two situations I had told him about years ago when powerful media figures made advances with the implicit promise of advancing my career. I’d brushed them off, never thinking of the behavior as harassment, but in both instances, I was never invited back on their shows. I was insulted at the very idea that I would need help from such cads — but in both instances, I was already a well-established figure who could afford to walk away. Most women aren’t in that position. They’re vulnerable, or they believe they are.
We may never be able entirely to stop powerful men from attempting to use their power to take what they want. Power and sex are a toxic combination. But we can support the women whose tremendous courage allowed them to come forward with these sordid tales. And those women who have some measure of power ourselves need to stand with them, even if we’ve avoided the worst ordeals ourselves.
We can also help by letting women know that they, too, have power — the power to set up barriers to protect themselves. Walk away when you feel uncomfortable. Say no to the first hint of improper behavior. Say it loud and clear and let the man know that what he is doing not only is unacceptable but may cost him his job. Don’t get into a car at night if you don’t know the man well. And never ever go to a man’s hotel room. These rules won’t protect you in every situation, but they will send a powerful signal. And remember that no job, no promotion is worth losing your dignity or risking your safety.