HARTMAN: Truth Or Dare, Or, The Slippery Slope Of Sexual Harassment Claims

I do not recall ever committing sexual harassment.  I know with certainty that I’ve never committed sexual assault.  To anyone I’ve inadvertently offended, with either flirtatiousness or poor attempts at humor, I’m truly sorry.  I’m a better man now.

There.  I said it.  I said what they’ve all said:  I don’t remember it, I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.  And I mean it.  If you tell me I did it and I don’t remember, I’m still sorry.  Sincerely.

I do distinctly recall being on the receiving end of sexual assault and sexual harassment.  I rarely discuss either.

Last week, a fellow GOP activist commented that she didn’t understand why women who were allegedly victimized by Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore waited decades to come forward.  I shared with her that although I didn’t report the violent attack I experienced in 1990, I still remember the details vividly – the circumstances, what I was wearing, even my assailant’s name.  If others started coming forward to accuse him, I explained, I might, too, to give credibility to their complaints.  Having never been a victim herself, she said that perspective was enlightening.  I didn’t report it then because times were different, policing was different, and I didn’t think I’d be believed – my obvious injuries notwithstanding.

It’s hard to pinpoint when the latest snowball of complaints against entertainment and news celebrities began.  Roger Ailes?  Bill O’Reilly?  It was easy for some (not I) to dismiss those as liberal-biased nonsense contrived to bring down political foes.  But then things got complicated.

Hollywood started turning on its own, exposing the not-so-secret undercurrents of sexual abuse, harassment and intimidation that have long been prevalent in that industry.  Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, George Takei, and … who else?  I’ve lost track.  Now, the news media:  Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and … who else?  I’ve lost track.

I have worked in many different professions where sexual jokes and innuendo were commonplace – the service industry, law enforcement, news media.  People who work in close quarters and in intense environments get comfortable with each other, sometimes overly so.  They say things they may not say elsewhere – even (or especially) among their families or non-work, social peers.

Speaking is one thing.  Touching is something else altogether.

I had a female supervisor at one job who told me I had to go on dates with another woman in the office if I wanted to keep my job.  I had a male boss who regularly touched me inappropriately and asked prying questions.  I had a female coworker who would stop by my office regularly and say, in exactly these words, “Do you want to have sex?”

In none of those matters did I complain to anyone.  If I had, however, I’d have anticipated an investigation of some sort – not a summary judgment of the accused that resulted in termination.  Why did I not pursue those matters?  I wasn’t so bothered that I felt uncomfortable at work (except with the male touchy-feely guy, and I couldn’t have stopped him anyway).

I am a man in a masculinist, patriarchal society.  We can pretend we’re equal all we want – and we can try to be – but the truth is that if I had been fired for not assenting to those foul people’s gropings and demands, I could’ve rather easily found another job at equal or better pay; women are more constrained.  I was single, and had no one whose support depended on my continued employment; women are often less economically free.

Here’s the thing, though – or another thing, anyway:  As mere consumers of media, we aren’t privy to the details of these allegations, nor should we be.  They are personnel matters for companies and government agencies, and marketability matters for entertainment folks.  We don’t know – in many of these issues – how egregious the offenses were.  Some might be offended by, “You look very nice today,” “I love that dress,” or “Your husband is a lucky man.”  Some reserve their boundaries for behavior more conventionally defined as sexual harassment – ass-grabbing, crotch-groping, breast-fondling, or overt invitations to play Hide the Weenie.  And that’s the rub, unfortunate pun unintended.

When anyone on the receiving end of sexual assault or harassment is undercut and undermined by someone who was offended by something most of us would consider benign, it diminishes the credibility of all survivors.  We’ve almost reached critical mass, where we’re so immune to these allegations, accusations and terminations that we just move on to the next item in our news feed.  That’s not good for victims.  That’s not good for justice.  It’s not good for society.

That is not to say that victims of sexual harassment or assault shouldn’t come forward.  That is not to say that workplace impropriety is OK.  No one, female or male, should be made to feel uncomfortable at work because a supervisor or coworker or revenue-generating celebrity has grabby hands or a foul mouth.  Victims should feel safe to report these issues – to their own managers or to a company’s human resources office – without fear of retaliation.  What we can’t and shouldn’t do, and I fear where we’re heading, is believing every allegation without corroboration of any kind.

In the Roy Moore matter I agree with Mitt Romney, who said that “beyond reasonable doubt” is for courtrooms, not elections.  In the Matt Lauer brouhaha, we’re forced to believe a CEO, lawyers, and human resources officers we’ve never met or even seen – not to mention an anonymous accuser.  Are Moore and Lauer “guilty”?  I honestly don’t know, and it’s neither my place nor my responsibility to know.  And in Lauer’s case, this does not affect our lives, not at all.  (For the record, I thought Roy Moore was despicable long before these allegations arose, simply because of his contempt for the law he swore to uphold.)

On Wednesday, a faraway friend who is a former federal employee AND a former porn star (I know; don’t ask) posted on social media: “Who thinks it’s OK to give sex toys as gifts to coworkers?!?” referencing a new allegation about Lauer.  I commented back, perhaps none-too-subtly, “I think that depends on the profession.”  When he worked for a Cabinet secretary, that would certainly have been horribly inappropriate, as it was at NBC, if Lauer (or anyone) actually did it; in my friend’s later profession … well … having never worked in the adult film industry, I can only speculate, but I suspect it would’ve been fine, and no one would’ve felt it was sexual harassment.

Victims and survivors should be believed, but as President Reagan said regarding more global issues, “trust but verify.”  Victims should also choose their thresholds carefully, lest we all start walking on eggshells every second of every day.  Most things are relative.  Choose your battles, and make sure allegations of sexual harassment are both accurate and true.  I’m not overly sensitive to such things; I hope the people around me regularly aren’t, either.

I don’t touch anyone inappropriately.  I don’t touch anyone at all at work or in public, other than handshakes and hugs with close friends.  I don’t make bawdy jokes.  I suggest you do the same.  You’ll be well-served, and you’ll stay off the news.  You may even be able to run for Senate or anchor a major newscast one day.

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