A Welcome Change In Response to Sexual Misconduct Allegations

The revelation of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassments, abuses and assaults has unleashed a flood of similar accusations.

Attitudes have changed. What used to be swept under the rug has become toxic for the perpetrators.

They include prominent Hollywood figures, politicians, and journalists. What they have in common is celebrity status. The offending behaviours cover the range from commonplace to kinky to bizarre.

An earlier series of disclosures may have set the stage for the current surge. Fox TV’s top-rated host Bill O’Reilly was let go after six complainants were paid $45 million to remain silent. That was six months after Chairman and CEO of Fox News Roger Ailes was brought down after 20 years of harassment and worse of women at Fox.

In politics, the unfortunately named Anthony Weiner had a persistent habit of sending women pictures of his equipment. He was forced out of politics in 2011 and sentenced on September 25, 2017 to 21 months in federal prison for sexting with a minor.

Starting in 2014, comedian Bill Cosby has been subject to numerous allegations of misconduct, dating back to the sixties. In Canada, we had the many stories of bad behaviour by former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi.

The pace picked up sharply after Weinstein. Other offending entertainment figures include actor Kevin Spacey, director James Toback, director and producer Brett Ratner, comedian Louis C.K., head of Amazon Studios Roy Price, and dozens of others.

They have been accompanied by major media players including Charlie Rose of CBS, Bloomberg, and National Public Radio (NPR); Matt Lauer of NBC; Mark Halperin of MSNBC; Brock Turner of NPR.

In most (if not all) cases, the employers were complicit in overlooking evidence and dismissing complaints. In Canada, the CBC conspicuously ignored the predations of Jian Ghomeshi.

Why did it take so long for some of the victims to raise their voices? Some of those who complained were bought off. Others were threatened with retaliation. It is no wonder that many have been reluctant to come forward.

Those who turned to the courts had even more discouraging outcomes. Many of the behaviours, while deeply offensive, probably do not constitute a crime.

NPR reports that cases filed by workers against their employers are often dismissed by judges. The standard for harassment under the law is high, and only an estimated 3 percent to 6 percent of the cases ever make it to trial.

Judgements on those now facing sexual harassment allegations in the court of public opinion have become more damning. Almost all the entertainment and media personalities have resigned or been dismissed.

Offending politicians include the senior Republican congressman from Texas, Joe Barton; Kentucky’s Republican House Speaker Jeff Hoover; the oldest Democrat in congress, John Conyers; Democratic senator Al Franken, and of course Roy Moore, the current Republican candidate for Senate in a special election to be held this month.

Barton, Hoover, Conyers, and Franken are resigning. Two others have been accused but so far have resisted urgings to depart.

Conspicuously different is Roy Moore, who denies any wrongdoing. Many Republican senators urged him to withdraw, though not the Alabama Republicans, nor President Trump, who of course has his own history of misconduct.

Democrats have no reason to be smug; they rallied around Bill Clinton in the nineties when he was credibly accused of improprieties. To their great discredit, Gloria Steinem and other prominent feminists took his side rather than that of the victims.

The current change in attitudes is welcome, but we should acknowledge that there are risks.

One is that comparatively innocuous events will be lumped in with those that are far more serious. Manitoba MP James Bezan made a dumb effort at a joke (“This isn’t my idea of a threesome,”) while standing beside Liberal MP Sherry Romanado and another MP.

Parliament’s chief human resources officer received a formal complaint in May. Bezan said he offered to enter mediation so he could apologize. The request was denied, so the office launched a review, during which Bezan said he offered a written apology.

The office concluded that the event “did not support a claim of sexual harassment” and recommended no disciplinary action. Bezan said he apologized again and completed sensitivity training offered by the House. That should be the end of it, but Romanado seems determined to drag it out.

Secondly, it must be recognized that the current spate of accusations followed by consequences hardly represent due process. Fortunately, the accusations in each case have been sufficiently numerous, or those accused sufficiently contrite, that there has been little doubt about culpability.

But with the passage of time, there could arise cases of jilted paramours using the current climate to exercise revenge. It is doubtful that the twitterverse will be judicious in its assessment.

Perhaps the greatest risk is that the policing of bad behaviours, currently being exercised on public personalities, will not permeate into broader society. What is wrong for Kevin Spacey or Charlie Rose or Donald Trump is equally wrong for the manager of your local pizza shop, or the vice-president of a bank.

Employers of all sizes must be held accountable for dealing with bad behaviour by their employees, especially leaders. The welcome change in attitudes must become permanent and pervasive.


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