Of Power, Predators And Innocent Mistakes: The Complex Problems Of Sexual Harassment | KERA News

Of Power, Predators And Innocent Mistakes: The Complex Problems Of Sexual Harassment

Nov 5, 2017
Originally published on November 7, 2017 11:42 pm

Women around the country have been speaking out in what seems like a deluge of sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations against men in positions of power.

The floodgates opened with a New York Times story about sexual harassment accusations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who has since been accused of raping multiple women and is now being investigated by multiple police agencies.

A national conversation has begun about sexual harassment. But there are times when some people disagree on what that phrase means.

In a recent example, NPR's former news boss Mike Oreskes was forced to resign this past week due to multiple accusations of sexual harassment.

NPR's David Folkenflik detailed the numerous allegations of Oreskes' inappropriate behavior. When "taken together, the allegations involving Oreskes paint an ominous picture of an executive willing to abuse his authority," Folkenflik writes.

But "[s]ome of the incidents, in isolation, might not appear consequential."

A former NPR editor who was pressured to meet Oreskes for dinner "found the experience bewildering as she tried to sort out whether what she had experienced was truly sexual harassment."

Last month, after former President George H.W. Bush was accused of groping multiple women, his spokesman responded that Bush "has patted women's rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner. Some have seen it as innocent; others clearly view it as inappropriate." (He "sexually assaulted me," one actress wrote.)

One person says she has been sexually assaulted while another calls the same incident "innocent."

NPR's newsroom uses Webster's New World College Dictionary, which defines "sexual harassment" as: "inappropriate, unwelcome, and, typically, persistent behavior, as by an employer or co-worker, that is sexual in nature, specif. when actionable under federal or state statutes."

NPR's Weekend Edition asked men around the country what behavior they thought crosses the line from something less serious to harassment.

"Any line where the other person is uncomfortable or feeling like they're being harassed or assaulted — that's the line for me," says 25-year-old Wade Hankin of Seattle.

He says he was raised by a feminist mom, surrounded by strong women he loved and respected and has thought deeply about issues of consent. But a friend told him he crossed a line himself.

Four years ago he was "blacked-out drunk" at a Halloween party, Hankin tells NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro on Weekend Edition. "I was slapping and grabbing my two friends' behinds. And neither of them liked it."

"I felt it was necessary to say something about it and say how sorry I am," he says. He wrote about the experience on social media. He agreed to let NPR use his full name; his recounting of something he's not proud of will come up on Google searches of his name.

"We only ever hear women's allegations. Women saying what has happened to them. If there is any word from a man, it's deny. It's suing. It's, 'I never did this,' " Hankin says is the reason why he responded in such a public way.

"It's never: 'This is what I have done. I am so sorry.' It's never taking responsibility for actions."

The court of public opinion

Writer Cathy Young, a contributing editor for the libertarian Reason magazine, thinks some of the outcry — she calls it "Weinsteining" — has gone too far.

"Obviously I think we can all get behind people like Harvey Weinstein, or you know, Mark Halperin, being exposed for apparent very, very serious misconduct toward subordinates and co-workers," she tells NPR.

But she thinks the punishment doesn't fit the crime for someone like Roy Price, who was forced out of his executive job at Amazon Studios. Young calls the offending incident "what was essentially one sort of instance of a drunken overture to somebody while they were at Comic-Con ... where everyone was intoxicated." (A producer says Price "repeatedly and insistently propositioned" her with explicit language.)

"It may not be admirable conduct, but at the same time, I really don't think that that sort of thing — where there was no hint of retaliation, no hint of him exploiting his status to coerce a sexual contact — should be treated the same as these people who are engaging in clearly criminal conduct," Young says.

"I don't think that we need to be concerned about taking it too far," responds Kaitlin Prest, host of The Heart podcast.

"Even something as seemingly minor as going into a meeting and having somebody who is in a position of power over you glance down at your breasts every few moments," she says. "Or asking if you want to go out to your boss's beach house and have a glass of wine. ...

"There's an entire spectrum of inappropriate behavior that happens. And especially when you take that into the workplace, those seemingly innocuous behaviors are — those are microaggressions. Those are the small things that chip away at someone's feeling of professional value in the workplace," Prest says. A woman could feel "the only reason why she's here is boss man likes to look at her breasts."

Power and consent on the job

Prest would rather have a "better safe than sorry" office environment. "I think we're so far away from understanding what consent means," she says.

It has to do with understanding power dynamics at work, where most of us have bosses.

"You want your boss to like you, so you feel like you have to say yes to everything," she says. "They ask you to go out for drinks after work — you say yes automatically because you want to have this person's favor."

Young concedes that "there are very real power differentials in the workplace." But she's "concerned about this mindset that we have to constantly police for microaggressions — which, a lot of that is defined very subjectively."

She thinks there's a danger of glances being misinterpreted, and of "seeing offenses where none exist."

"I don't think most people really have that much trouble understanding consent," Young says. "I think genuine miscommunications and genuine mixed signals really do happen."

Prest strongly disagrees with that assessment. "I don't think that we're overreacting," she says.

"This is the first time where you're hearing people who have perpetrated that type of harassment actually investigating their behavior." Prest says "the pendulum needs to swing a little bit farther into this extreme before we can get back to the middle."

But Prest says she and Young can agree on asking the same question.

"I do think the question of what accountability looks like is a huge question that we need to be asking right now, and a really, really important question that I don't think we have the answer to — at all."

NPR's Ravenna Koenig and Adelina Lancianese contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

And this is The Call-In.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're looking at sexual harassment and posing the question, what behavior crosses the line? This past week, more men in positions of power lost their jobs due to allegations of inappropriate behavior, including here at NPR. Mike Oreskes, who headed our newsroom, was asked to resign after a Washington Post expose. We wanted to hear from men this week about how they view this discussion. Wade Hankin is a 25-year-old from Seattle, Wash. He says he was raised by a feminist mom, surrounded by strong women he loved and respected and has thought deeply about issues of consent. And so he was shocked when a friend told him about a line he may have crossed. So when the #MeToo hashtag picked up steam, he posted on Facebook the words, I have.

WADE HANKIN: I was at a party about four years ago - Halloween party. I was blacked-out drunk - alcohol. And I was slapping and grabbing my two friends' behinds, and neither of them liked it. I was recently told this a couple of weeks ago by my friend who I was living with at the time. And I felt it was necessary to say something about it and say how sorry I am.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You didn't remember?

HANKIN: No, I don't. I still to this - right now don't remember doing it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things we're trying to explore is, what are the lines? What are the lines when we're talking about sexual harassment? On the one hand, obviously, you have the egregious, terrible alleged behavior of Harvey Weinstein. What line do you think needs to be drawn? What is appropriate or inappropriate behavior?

HANKIN: I think any line where the other person is uncomfortable or feeling like they're being harassed or assaulted - that's the line for me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You use social media, as you mentioned, to talk about this using the #IHave. The fact that you came out publicly to talk about this is really quite unusual. You're using your name in this interview. Can you talk about why you felt that was important?

HANKIN: I feel like putting a name to something really adds a lot of weight to the words, to the actions. And there are two sides to this whole scenario of sexual harassment and sexual assault. And we only ever hear women's allegations, women saying what has happened to them. And if there is any word from a man, it's deny. It's suing. It's - I never did this. It's - I'm not an abuser, this is not who I am. It's never - this is what I have done. I am so sorry. Like, it's never taking responsibility for actions.

And until it happens, there will be no change and there's no way we're ever going to get through this. The world will be a better place if people take responsibility for what they've done, say they're sorry, try to make amends and, like, become better people out of it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wade Hankin, thank you very much for sharing your story.

HANKIN: You're very welcome.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the hardest things about this discussion is how difficult it is to agree on any definition of what is inappropriate. We spoke with two women who have written and thought a lot about these gray areas. Kaitlin Prest is the host of The Heart, a podcast on Radiotopia that explores sex, love and relationships. Cathy Young is a contributing editor for Reason magazine and a columnist for Newsday. And she wrote an op-ed in The L.A. Times where she said she was concerned that in the current climate, people might lose their jobs of a what she calls, quote, "minor misconduct and ambiguous transgressions."

CATHY YOUNG: You know, obviously, I think we can all get behind people like Harvey Weinstein or, you know, Mark Halperin being exposed for apparent very, very serious misconduct toward subordinates and coworkers. But I think some of the other incidents that we've seen - and, you know, one incident that I mentioned for instance was Roy Price, the person at Amazon who had to step down over what was essentially one sort of instance of a drunken overture to somebody while they were at Comic-Con, which is this very unregulated, very kind of let-your-hair-down environment where everyone was intoxicated. And, you know, it may not be admirable conduct. But at the same time, I really don't think that that sort of thing, where there was no hint of retaliation, no hint of, you know, him exploiting his status to coerce sexual contact should be treated the same as these people who are engaging in clearly criminal conduct.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kaitlin, I want to bring you into the conversation. Does it - this is clearly a moment when women are having to address a very real problem.

Should we be concerned about taking it too far?

KAITLIN PREST: Yeah, no. I don't think that we should - I don't think that we need to be concerned about taking it too far. Even something as minor - seemingly minor as going into a meeting and having somebody who is in a position of power over you glance down at your breasts every few moments or asking if you want to go out to your boss's beach house and have a glass of wine. Or, you know...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the beach house and the glass of wine was obviously alleged to have happened between Michael Oreskes, the former vice president for news of NPR and a young woman. So, yes, please continue.

PREST: Yeah, you know, like, so these types of things - there's an entire spectrum of inappropriate behavior that happens. And especially when you take that into the workplace, those seemingly innocuous behaviors are - those are micro aggressions. Those are the small things that chip away at someone's feeling of professional value in the workplace. Those are the small things that contribute to a woman feeling like the only reason why she's here is because boss man likes to look at her breasts. That doesn't feel good as a professional in a workplace.

And I think that also, you know, something as simple as - I heard a story about somebody who - you know, it was like an innocent hug, a celebratory hug. And there is such a thing as a hug that was totally appropriate. But I think that we're so far away from understanding what consent means that, you know, I think that, actually, it's much better safe than sorry, especially when it comes to the workplace where there's an inherent power dynamic as soon as you walk through the door. And consent and the ability to give consent is very connected to power and who has more power and who has less and who will silence them self to secure the positive feeling from somebody.

You know, like, you want your boss to like you. So you're - you feel like you have to say yes to everything. They ask you to go out for drinks after work, you say yes automatically because you want this person to - you want to have this person's favor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Cathy, jump in. I mean, what...

YOUNG: Right,

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...What do you see? I mean, clearly, we're talking about work, and we have power differentials there.

YOUNG: So yeah. Well, obviously, there are very real power differentials in the workplace. And yeah, I think absolutely it is appropriate to say to people who are in a position of power, you know, think about the way that your actions affect your subordinates. I think that's absolutely appropriate. That said, I mean, I'm really, really concerned about this mindset that, you know, we have to constantly police for, you know, micro aggressions, which - you know, a lot of that is defined very subjectively. A lot of that is sort of in the eye of the beholder. When we mention something like, you know, looking down at a woman's breasts, I mean, this can be something where, you know - this is something that can be very easily misinterpreted - I mean, the direction of a person's eyes. And I...

PREST: Really?

YOUNG: ...Really think there is a danger in encouraging people to be sort of so hypersensitive to their comfort level that, you know, there may be a tendency to see sort of offensives where none exist. And, you know, in terms of the ability to understand consent - I mean, I may come - and I suspect that I come at this from a very different perspective generally than Caitlin does.

I mean, I don't think most people really have that much trouble understanding consent. And I think, you know, genuine miscommunications and genuine mixed signals really do happen.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kaitlin, you produced a whole miniseries for your podcast called No, where you talk about how to negotiate consent.

PREST: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cathy's saying consent...

PREST: That people get it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Is it hard to understand?

PREST: Yeah. I don't - I just wholeheartedly disagree. And I will agree with you, Cathy, and say that I do think the question of what accountability looks like is a huge question that we need to be asking right now and a really, really important question that I don't think we have the answer to at all. But I don't - I'm so happy to be in this moment right now. And I think that it's so important that people are investigating their behavior for the first time. Like, this is the first time where you're hearing people who have perpetrated that type of harassment actually investigating their behavior.

And I don't think there's anything wrong with people feeling some shame, looking within and, like, you know, making a list of all of the times that they have maybe crossed someone's line. I don't think that we're overreacting. I think that this is so important. And I think that in a way, yes I - there is something a little bit scary about how quickly people are being snuffed out at work. And there is some questions to be asked about having them be blacklisted professionally for the rest of their lives. Is it really - is that really warranted? But I also think that the pendulum needs to swing a little bit farther into this extreme before we can get back to the middle.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Kaitlin Prest, host of The Heart podcast and Cathy Young, contributing editor for Reason magazine.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: Next week on The Call-In, Republicans are hashing out details of their tax plan this week. The White House claimed that families making $100,000 a year would end up with $1,000 in tax savings. A thousand is a number that means very different things depending on where you live. We want to know, what would you do with that money? How easy is it for your family to live on $100,000 where you live? Call in at 202-216-9217. Be sure to include your full name, your contact info, where you're from, your income and we may use it on the air. That number again - 202-216-9217.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.