Sexual harassment is an explosive issue and recent allegations, denials, admissions and equivocations serve as a manual on what to do and not to do. They also are a mirror on how much or how little progress we have made on an issue that evokes raw emotions.
Rumors and charges of sexual misconduct by men in power positions aren’t new. The casting couch has been a longstanding image in Hollywood. But the flood gates of anger and frustration blew open with waves of revelations concerning big-time Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.
Despite Weinstein’s denials and his self-admission to a sex addiction clinic, he was booted out of his own company and expelled by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Weinstein’s company is considering a name change. His wife is seeking a divorce.
Allegations about Weinstein’s misconduct emboldened other women and men to reveal their long-suppressed horror stories about men who abused their power positions. The list, which is still growing, includes House of Cards star Kevin Spacey, NPR news chief Michael Oreskes, NBC political analyst Mark Halperin, celebrity photographer Terry Richardson, comedian Louis C.K. and even former President George H. W. Bush.
The response to Weinstein’s abuses also provoked sharper, swifter responses to subsequent allegations – Netflix divorced itself from Spacey, Oreskes and Halperin were fired and Richardson was banned from working for Condé Nast, publisher of glossy magazines. However, critics questioned why Weinstein friends and associates didn’t blow the whistle sooner on his behavior that stretches back years. NPR’s CEO also took heat for not acting sooner when earlier allegations were made.
Many of the alleged abusers denied any wrongdoing or said they couldn’t remember. Richardson said everything he did was consensual. Former President Bush cited his physical condition to explain his ass-touching during photo opps. Halperin and Oreskes apologized for their conduct and its impact on news team colleagues. Louis C.K. admitted his behavior was inappropriate and said he was withdrawing to reflect.
Amid the fallout from Weinstein, organizations with ties to alleged abusers quickly disassociated themselves and many issued statements about a zero tolerance for sexual misconduct. There have been calls to elevate more women into positions of power.
Then came The Washington Post bombshell last week about Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore’s alleged sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his thirties and serving as an assistant district attorney. Moore denies the allegations and claims they are a political hit job just weeks before a special election.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other leading GOP officials urged Moore to step aside “if the allegations are true.” McConnell went further this week, saying he believed the allegations and reiterated Moore should exit the race and not imperil Republican chances to hold onto the seat and their precarious Senate majority.
Fox News commentator Sean Hannity went in a different direction. He blew past Moore’s denials and said Moore’s relationship with a 14-year-old girl appeared “consensual,” even though Alabama law puts the age of consent at 16. Hannity’s defense of Moore prompted Keurig and other companies to pull advertising from Hannity’s show, which in turn led Hannity defenders “to throw their Keurigs out the window.”
Alabama voters quoted in news stories expressed the range of reactions. Some were upset to hear the allegations; others saw the allegations as fake news and dirty politics. One convicted and conflicted Moore supporter said he would rather vote for a pedophile than a Democrat.
There are a lot of things to learn from this still unfolding series of stories:
- Women and men who have been victims of sexual abuse or harassment should be respected for the courage it takes to tell – or in some cases retell – their stories. The sudden release of a spate of stories is a direct reflection of the hopelessness and fear many victims felt at the hands of men with power who they presumed, not incorrectly, would be protected. Questioning the timing of their revelations should be secondary to listening carefully to the content of their revelations.
- We shouldn’t be surprised that men in powerful positions (and a few women, too) have abused their positions to take advantage of people. Whether it involves pressuring women to have sex, forcing women to watch a man pleasuring himself or seducing minors shouldn’t matter. The gradations of abuse aren’t the issue and can’t be part of an explanation or excuse. Sexual abuse is, without any qualification, sexual abuse.
- Owning the abuse, as Louis C. K. did, is a good start, but not full redemption. The worst toll of sexual abuse befalls the victim, not the abuser. Abusers may have to pay a price and even in some cases go to jail, but victims have to live with the stain of abuse for a long time, often with life-changing consequences. Give your emotional empathy to the victims.
- While statements of zero tolerance are important and clearly timely, actions speak louder than words. Make sure your work environment hasn’t been turned toxic by sexual harassment or abuse. If you discover instances of it, take action. Don’t let it fester and, most important, don’t force victims to cower in the shadow of your inattention or inaction.
- There may be a statute of limitations on criminal charges for sexual assaults, but there is no final deadline for allegations. If you think sexual abuse can be pushed under the rug or will just go away, think again. When allegations are made, pay attention. It may be time for rug-cleaning.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.