Some politicians and media are pitting sexual harassment vs. ‘real issues’


Sharon Bialek, a Chicago area woman, with her attorney Gloria Allred, right, addresses a news conference Nov. 7 at the Friars Club in New York. (Richard Drew/AP)
Melinda Henneberger
Reporter November 9, 2011

The crowd at Wednesday night’s Republican debate roundly booed the mention of the sexual harassment allegations against GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain — and cheered when moderator John Harwood quickly abandoned the issue, saying, “Let me switch back to the economy.”

It’s telling that even one of Cain’s four accusers, Sharon Bialek, fell back on language that suggests harassment is not a real issue but one that ought to be hurried past on our way to more important matters: Tell the truth, she implored her fellow Republican this week, “so that you and the country can move forward and focus on the real issues at hand.”

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011. View Archive

The way politicians and the media have been talking about the allegations against Cain in the past week suggest that sexual harassment is an exotic, rarely glimpsed phenomenon — difficult to distinguish, and not worth the effort: It’s “frustrating” to be hearing so much about harassment, Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney (R), said on “Face the Nation,” when “what the American voters really care about is the substance.”

This is a conversation we have mostly not been having in the two decades since Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of creeping her out at work. But if we have no practice talking about sexual harassment, it’s not because it so seldom happens.

I asked some of the writers for the women’s blog that The Post is soon launching to ask the first few women they happened to run into one morning this week — at the gym, on the street or in line for coffee — whether they’d ever been sexually harassed at work. Of 23 women in eight cities, 16 said yes and seven no. Those who said yes included a 76-year-old Iowan who told Suzi Parker she used to work for a doctor “who petted my behind” and a 50-year-old Californian fired from her first part-time high school job because she refused to kiss her “greasy-haired” boss at the local movie theater.

A publicist in Kansas City told Donna Trussell that when she was a young temp at a public utility company, “my boss used to lean very close over my shoulder when he was training me and, within the first week, asked me if I wanted to go for a weekend trip out of town to the horse races. I would come home from work very upset and was told by my mother not to make a big deal out of it. The only thing that made it better was that he was also doing it to two other women in the office that he supervised, and I could talk about it with them.”

When writer Mary Curtis asked a former corporate banker at her gym in Charlotte whether she had ever been sexually harassed at work, the woman answered, “Which time?”

Only one woman, a 24-year-old in Dallas, said she had lodged a formal complaint. She told Judith Ellis Howard that when she was interviewing for a job three years ago, the interviewer asked whether she had a boyfriend. When the woman, whose first name is Amber, said she was married, the interviewer said her husband was lucky and mused aloud about a specific sexual act between them.

“He went all the way with it, and then he was like, ‘That’s the difference between black women and white women.’ ” He said Amber’s husband “has the best of both worlds with me because I’m biracial.”

Amber accepted the job anyway, “because I obviously had to have a job. . . . He thought because I was young, it was a great opportunity and that I wouldn’t push the issue. I did. And there were older women who didn’t.”

Even those women who said they had never experienced harassment didn’t exactly come up blank on the issue. They included a young nanny I spoke to at the post office, where she was mailing her wedding invitations. One employer “did like to watch me sleep,” she said, but no, she’d never been harassed — unlike her sister, who works for the government and reported unwanted advances and “had it swept under the rug.”

Another woman in line in the post office, a 50-year-old gas station owner who ran a bar for years, told me that in her experience, women can easily prevent inappropriate behavior. “If you’re confident in yourself, you can handle it,’’ she said. Her less-tough sister, who works for a government agency, “kept getting grabbed” on the job “and I told [my sister] to kick him, and she did and that was the end of it. You can’t show fear.”

Several of the women who will be contributing to the blog also described on-the-job experiences ranging from an unwanted kiss at a holiday party to a long coerced affair to attempted rape. Another, District radio reporter Jamila Bey, remembers the Saturday morning early in her career when she asked the only other person in the newsroom that day to look over a script. When he called her over into his office to talk about the changes, she said, “I realized that his pants were down, and he was masturbating. I backed out and locked myself in the studio.”

Though Bey was not a student, the station was on a college campus and she lodged a complaint with campus police. “By Monday, when I went back to campus police, I was blamed for going into his office alone.” The man soon quit, she said, and he is now a successful television reporter who “has never had to account for anything about that day.”

Curtis, who interviewed women at her gym in Charlotte, said it bothers her, too, to hear commentators behave as though harassment is just too darned hard to define. “I might have been young and naive, away from home for the first time, but there was no mistaking the intentions of the professor who promised an A if I delivered my term paper to his apartment and stayed for dinner and drinks.”

Did she report it? “No, to my regret, I never did. Each time, I did the calculation and decided I was afraid of the price I might pay. But the anger that has shaken me as I occasionally recall details years later ended up costing me plenty.”

I’m not sure that men who sexually harass women ever see their actions as harassment. Did the three sharp-eyed Dallas bank executives it took to inform 19-year-old me, in a closed-door meeting that did not include my female supervisor, that I should be wearing real bras instead of camisoles under my business suits think of that as harassment?

Did the Belgian college professor whose work I translated into English as a grad student think he was in the wrong for taking my name out of the acknowledgments after I declined his invitation for a weekend in Burgundy?

In my 30s, did my editor who talked about cunnilingus every other time I was alone in his office see what he was doing as actionable? Or know that it was humiliating when he’d hand me those scraps of paper guessing my weight (with scary accuracy) as I was dieting?

“No,” “non” and “yeah, right,” is my guess. Just like the guy who precedes all racially iffy comments with, “I’m not a racist, but . . . ,” denial is part of the disease. And if this isn’t the right time to talk about it, then when?

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