The Real Driver of Sexual Harassment

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Let’s not start at what is perhaps the most obvious place to discuss a national climate that enables sexual abuse and harassment, our pussy-grabbing braggart-in-chief. (Too on-the-nose, as they say.)

Let’s first think about the tech industry. Reports of the harassment of and prejudice against women are everywhere in tech and reported widely in industry media. No surprise, some would argue, because tech is not only male-dominated and male-led, it is an industry with very few women at any level of hierarchy.

True enough, I suppose.

Without a diverse critical mass, tech has a stereotypical “bro” mentality that fosters thinking of women as the “other”, not to be accepted as colleagues and leaders but to be demeaned, objectified, sexualized and feared. There are precious few women engineers in tech organizations, much less leaders of them.

Most appalling may be the reaction of these tech “bros” to criticism of their industry’s record of marginalization and harassment of women: insinuations of male tech genetic superiority, critiques of women’s contributions to tech (which are historic and substantial), and flat-out threats to those who speak up.

Eyeball social media and see what I mean; it’s sickening.

The case of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein has created increased awareness of sexual harassment in America’s workplaces, and we should be grateful for that contribution to our social health. Women in entertainment have been the unwilling subjects of male domination since the industry’s earliest days. And that subjugation has taken on near-legendary status: countless stories of leering producers and casting couches and coerced dressing room assignations.

That a powerful man in Hollywood preys upon the beautiful, young and powerless can be no surprise to anyone at this point. That particular cases, and particular predators, are widely known in the industry, and have been widely known in the industry for long periods of time and have not been called out for their behavior, much less stopped, is disappointing to say the very least.

As human beings, presumably, we wouldn’t want to think colleagues, investors and partners would allow sexually predatory behavior to continue unabated, just because a particular predator was good at getting awards and making money.

But there we are: enablers exist in Hollywood too.

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The most well-documented cases, of course, are likely those of the enablers of sexually abusive Roman Catholic priests. For many decades, the church not only looked the other way and enabled ongoing abuse but shielded the abusers from legitimate law enforcement, from their accusers, and their communities.

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It was only after numerous civil lawsuits and very high-profile journalistic investigations that the church admitted (some) instances of abuse (and the church’s efforts to hide them) publicly.  The conscious and purposeful cover-up reached to the very highest levels of the global church and continues to erode public confidence in the institution.

Worse, it is completely at odds with what the church claims it stands for.

Harassment and abuse also exists in scale, of course, at our schools, colleges and universities, abetted by the typically decentralized structure of academe (especially in higher education). And many educational institutions will not report instances of abuse when they actually occur, or are learned of, only when institutions are faced with public reports and lawsuits.

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All this I know too well from personal experience as a communications counsel to many institutions dealing with sexual harassment and abuse: many people know of the harassment and abuse and too few (if any) will move to stop, or even report it.

After the fact, that is to say after the harassment has already ruined psyches and careers and lives, people will share that “Everyone knew about Harvey,” or “I heard the rumors about Father Timothy,” or “Professor Herman was a well-known pervert,” or “Coach Johnson was always giving rides to his players.”

Let me say this directly and as straight-forwardly as I am able.

Sexual harassment and abuse cannot exist in any institution without the forbearance and enablement of a great many people. People knew that Harvey Weinstein was assaulting young women and DID NOTHING. People knew about that tech venture capitalist and DID NOTHING. People knew about the priests and the coaches and the professors and DID NOTHING.

Why?

Greed. Loyalty to the institution. Sexism. Fear. Personal discomfort. Other reasons.

Several years ago, I told a colleague about a coach who had raped a series of his players over the course of several years, with the knowledge of his school’s administration. My colleague, himself the dad of a little league baseball player told me with firm conviction that, were he presented with that kind of information about one of his kid’s coaches, he’d kill the guy (or at least take serious action of some kind).

And I said to him I hoped so, but based on my substantial experience, I supposed he would instead convince himself he’d obviously been mistaken (because the coach was too nice a guy) and do nothing.

Without our silence and cooperation (active or tacit), sexual harassment and abuse cannot exist in our institutions.

 

Onward State (GO!)

[Note: I’ve written about the Penn State sexual abuse case several times previously, first here, about Joe Paterno and later here, about the deeper institutional problems associated with sexual abuse.]

The report from the inquiry into the Penn State sexual abuse case has just been released. The New York Times’ coverage is here.

In my professional life as a communications consultant, I’ve dealt with numerous cases of sexual abuse; I have hard-earned insights about this heinous crime.

Here’s one: while individuals are and must be held responsible for their own actions, institutions, through selective attention (i.e., looking the other way), misplaced priorities (i.e., considering athletic success of paramount importance) and enabling (i.e., providing opportunity), create the conditions necessary for abuse to occur. Unless and until institutions are willing and able to address these conditions, abuse can continue.

This was certainly the case at Penn State (That’s what the inquiry’s report found.) and I’ve found it to be the case elsewhere.

So, Jerry Sandusky is in jail. Penn State and its football program will forever be linked with sexual abuse. Good but not enough, not nearly enough.

People like Sandusky can’t hurt kids without lots of help.

Not Off the Hook

Yesterday, a Pennsylvania jury convicted former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts.

Over the past 12 months, since the Jerry Sandusky case came to broad public awareness, I’ve written 3 pieces about him, Penn State and sexual abuse:

  1. The first discusses Joe Paterno and Penn State.
  2. The second takes a look inside the PR machines that get built around these cases.
  3. The third puts the case into the broader context of the year’s PR disasters.

While I am gratified that this particular child molester has been convicted and may never be free to molest again, I think we should all be very cautious about feelings of relief. A great many people knew about Sandusky’s behavior for a very long time before his arrest and did nothing. In my professional experience with sexual abuse, which is considerable, this is often the case, despite what would-be Rambos assert afterward.

Most people will still go into denial, look away, or become impotent bystanders when faced with evidence of sexual abuse.

We can take some measure of comfort from Sandusky’s conviction, but it’s all for naught if we remain bystanders when evidence of abuse presents itself in our own lives.

Just Don’t

More than a few times, I’ve been the guy at the other end of the phone at 3 in the morning.

In my professional life, I’ve helped people and institutions get through crises – allegations of price fixing, financial impropriety, illicit drug manufacture, sale and use, sexual abuse, homicide, accidental death, miscellaneous criminal behavior, armed conflicts, environmental issues, industrial accidents, failures of judgment, natural disasters…

You get the idea.

I have seen a great many people when they’re not at their best – when they’re scared, angry, anxious, worried, embarrassed, ashamed, or all of the above.

And more than a few wished they could have done something differently, made a different decision, not done something they did, taken back an inopportune or inappropriate comment, done something instead of nothing, been more courageous, been less sexist, been more engaged in something they’ve ignored, been at a different place or time. Truthfully, though, once a thing is done, it’s done. You can’t unfire a gun.

Of course, some people are simply upset because they were caught, but I’ve often enough seen the pain of real human regret, and that can change a person; it can make you think about the things you’ve done that may have hurt or caused damage to things you hold dear.

So, I encourage you to take advantage of my hard-earned wisdom. If you’re thinking of cutting corners – be they legal, ethical, financial, or otherwise – think again. Trust me, the extra money isn’t worth it. Neither is the sex, the political power, or the potential advantage you think you’re going to bring to yourself or your company. At some point, someone, somewhere will ask you to defend what you did – maybe even publicly – and you won’t be able to. Then you’ll call me at 3 in the morning really upset, and I won’t be able to either. And then you’ll be in some really deep shit.

Now, I’d normally charge a great deal of money for advice like that, but my morning walk with DeeDee at Fort Funston put me in a giving and charitable mood.

You’re welcome.

Sexual Abuse and 550 Souls

Some bit of personal disclosure to start:

First, in my professional life as a communicator, I have numerous times been retained to work with institutions and individuals accused of sexual abuse. I understand how difficult it is to communicate well about cases such as these.

Second, I come from a place of deep respect for the Roman Catholic Church, the Christian faith and the institutions of organized religions of all traditions. For several years, I worked for a Christian, though not Roman Catholic, church in a professional leadership capacity and was proud of the work and the institution. Further, I respect the priesthood; my uncle Anthony was an almost-universally beloved, pious and respected priest for over 55 years. I have seen firsthand the good works the church has done for the world’s poor and sick, people who would otherwise have been forgotten, neglected and left for dead. I am not a person who thinks organized religion to be an inherently corrupting or villainous influence on humankind, and I’m waging no war against religion, Christianity, or even Catholicism.

All that said, I am repulsed down to my bones by the latest reports from the bankruptcy settlement process in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, reported here by CBS News. People who were abused by Roman Catholic priests, as youth for the most part, are bargaining now with lawyers for the appropriate level of recompense for the damage done to them – not just by the priests themselves, of course, but by church leaders who systematically and consciously denied their accusations (though they knew them to have substance) and sheltered their abusers. And their claims are being treated, more or less, like those of other Archdiocesan creditors.

“The creditors committee, archdiocese and its insurance company will negotiate a dollar amount. After that, those who filed [abuse] claims will negotiate between themselves on how to divide the money.”

In other words, those 550-odd people who were callously mistreated by priests who put their own sexual desires above the spiritual needs of their parishioners, then were further and publicly abused by church leadership, have no greater standing in obtaining justice from the Milwaukee Archdiocese than, say, the phone company, or parish-luncheon caterers, or Kinko’s.

That is, in fact, how little this institution sometimes thinks of its people. If that makes you more than a little angry, write this man.

Paterno, Penn State and sexual abuse

[Self-disclosure: I have worked on several sexual abuse cases as a public relations and communications professional.]

Following his death after a long battle with lung cancer, many questions have been raised about the life and lasting legacy of long-time Penn State University football coach, Joe Paterno.

My friend, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s John Timpane, wrote today about social media and reactions to Joe Paterno’s death. Slate’s Torrie Bosch wondered if it was even appropriate to mourn the death of Joe Paterno.

Joe Paterno was a man, a human being. He had all the flaws, the mixture of positive and negative characteristics the term “human” suggests. Among coaches of big-time college football programs, he was known to care deeply about the welfare of his players, as people and students, in addition to athletes. This set him apart from the majority of his peers, who have obviously come to care more deeply about wins, losses and revenues than school, who tend to think of their programs as little more than college-sponsored pre-professional athletic camps. To many observers of college athletics, the Ivy-educated Paterno was always one of the “good guys.”

How does this image square with the coach’s indifference, or worse, about allegations of his former colleague’s sexual abuse of children?

In all my experience with sexual abuse, and it has been more than plenty, the human reaction I have seen, for the most part, is not active engagement but denial. People will tell themselves all manner of tortured narrative to avoid seeing evidence of abuse that stares them directly in the face. It’s only after the fact that people turn themselves into steel-eyed, bare-knuckled avengers – asserting their courage and forthrightness:

  • “I would have punched that guy’s lights out.”
  • “I would have taken a tire-iron to that guy.”
  • “I would have called the cops right then.”

Some form of that is what a great many people said when they heard about what Joe Paterno did (or didn’t do) when informed of allegations about his former assistant Jerry Sandusky.

These people may, indeed, have acted that way when faced with an allegation of sexual abuse aimed at an old friend and colleague, but it has not been my personal experience of people’s behavior in the actual moment. My direct experience tells me most people, if faced with the same situation, would have:

  • Told themselves they didn’t actually see or hear what they did
  • Told themselves someone had misinterpreted some innocent activity or other
  • Told themselves someone else must have told the appropriate authorities
  • Told themselves it wasn’t like their friend and former colleague to do that

Since that’s what my experience suggests to me, I’m inclined to accept as plausible both the Joe Paterno who didn’t push the allegations of his former assistant’s sexual abuse as vigorously as he should have, and the Joe Paterno who seemed to care for his charges like the benevolent grandfather his players and former players describe.

And, today, I believe it is right and proper to mourn that human being.