Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, Al Franken. The list of people whose lives are being turned upside down due to sexual harassment and sexual assault claims continues to grow.
And it’s about time.
For many college students, whose campuses are currently adopting or refining affirmative consent policies regarding sexual assault, the fact that these powerful men have gotten away with such repugnant behavior for decades might seem comically absurd. However, there is a fairly sound and obvious reason.
Before getting to that reason, the (very) short definition of affirmative consent is that it is a higher standard of what it means to consent to sex. Instead of “no means no,” a standard that could allow silence to be interpreted as consent, affirmative consent requires a proactive “yes” from both partners. There are many nuances that need to be ironed out, including disciplinary action, which is true of most new policies. But that’s a topic unto itself because policies differ from campus to campus to accommodate the needs of different students. (The Metro State Student Senate passed an affirmative consent statement on Dec. 1. See story on page 2.)
Anyway, (drumroll), the obvious reason: They got away with it because our society has historically sanctioned, encouraged, rewarded, and practically celebrated sexual harassment. It is absolutely ingrained in nearly every aspect of life. The common excuses for their behavior— “it was a different time” and “everybody did it”—are probably true, even if the behavior is still unacceptable.
We might think of the overt sexism of “Mad Men” as a relic of the past. It is, but like racism, it simply went underground. Just as people supposedly stopped saying the n-word in the late 1960s, sexual harassment continued in hushed tones.
As a Gen Xer, I’ve been called a, let’s say “wimp” (yeah, they said wimp) for saying I would not take advantage of a woman who had too much to drink, both as an undergrad and in the workplace. On temp jobs, where you are being vetted almost solely on if you fit in because almost anyone could handle the workload, non-wimps could curry favor of the permanent staff by making disparaging comments about your girlfriend.
I don’t believe my experiences are unique.
Remember, we live in a country whose president is a man who proudly bragged about sexually assaulting women as a perk of being a rich guy.
“How I Met Your Mother,” a hit network TV show until 2014, featured a character named Barney, an unabashed womanizer, played by Neil Patrick Harris.
And “Two and a Half Men” somehow lasted until 2015 by portraying Charlie Sheen as a wealthy womanizer who lets his “loser” brother move in with him. Loser, in this case, means slightly more ethical regarding relationships and significantly less wealthy.
We also live in a country with restaurants called Hooters, a chain with more than 400 franchises that has a business model based on male customers sexually harassing servers wearing short shorts. (Also, as a comedian once noted, we don’t have a corresponding chain restaurant called Peters that features male servers wearing Speedos.)
Regardless of uniform, anyone who has ever had a typical restaurant knows that tolerating sexual harassment was a good way to get ahead. Teens on their first job quickly figure out that their bustier counterparts get hired for the more lucrative positions (server vs. busser) and use said influence with management to get more favorable shifts.
At my first formal job clearing tables and washing dishes for a place that serves breakfast 24/7, my managers (all men) never hesitated to remind me that I’d need them as a reference if I ever wanted another job—so I’d better do whatever they asked. For me, that meant reluctantly cleaning grease from a crawlspace. Do you think they might have exerted their awesome power to coerce female workers to do something they’d prefer not to?
For many, dealing with this type of bullying and coercion was their introduction to the world of work. Everyone who needed to keep their job just went along with it back then, but if enough people keep speaking up against inappropriate behavior it will establish a new normal, and workplace and campus bullies lose their power. They can’t fire everybody!
My two cents on Franken
After Leeann Tweeden came forward, I was among those who thought Franken should resign immediately, both to make a strong statement about sexual harassment and because it would make him a less effective senator. But now that he has (for those reasons), I wonder if he shouldn’t have waited for the charges to be investigated. A more careful look at the public statements by both parties has made me soften my stance a bit.
When I first saw Tweeden’s televised statement, it sounded like Franken specifically wrote a script so he could kiss a former Playboy model, which struck me as extremely creepy. However, the sketch was an old stock bit that had been used for years, which makes it a little less creepy.
Second, Franken was not Tweeden’s boss and not in position to make or break her career. As the headliner, he had some additional clout over the emcee (Tweeden), but a quick search indicates that by 2006 she was already making a name for herself with a minor but regular role on a network sitcom.
Finally, according to Tweeden’s account, after the kiss she told Franken to back off, and he apparently did. Had he continued to hound her, I imagine Tweeden would have said so. Years later, he apologized and she accepted it.
Of course, the groping allegations during photo ops that will undoubtedly continue to trickle in also constitute unacceptable behavior, but if this is Franken’s worst behavior (Who knows?) it is on the low end of the spectrum of bad compared to Spacey, Weinstein, and Lauer.
I hope Franken can use whatever platform he has as a former senator to bridge the generation gap on this issue. He could use his own experience to explain how things were and compare it to what the future should hold. He could advocate affirmative consent policies from a unique perspective. Or he could simply help college students learn how to run for elective office themselves.
The current flurry of sexual misconduct allegations could be a turning point for our culture. Of those accused, Franken is the only one who was carrying legislation to increase funding for victims of sexual assault. (Sen. Amy Klobuchar is now carrying the bill.)
If Franken proves to be ineffective as a voice for women’s rights, the next best thing he could do is use his experience as a parallel to battle the casual racism in the workplace. If my experience (which includes dozens upon dozens of jobs) is any indication, being labeled politically correct has been much more detrimental to your career prospects than being called a racist.
What Franken does moving forward will determine his legacy as either a catalyst for a better future, or a footnote of the past.