Every time another role model is unveiled to be merely (and pathetically) mortal, the shock and dismay of betrayal repeats (Et tu, Brute?). Rather like the scandal that erupted some years past over the sexual abuse of children by clergy, we are appalled at the extent of a problem we had always assumed was, if not rare, at least manageable. But just because a topic is taboo doesn't mean it's not out of control.
Perhaps because the taboo of sexual misconduct in the workplace hasn't worn off, we've not had a lot of time to analyze and digest it as a society. It wasn't long ago that such behavior was still engaged in with complete impunity: Bill Cosby remained beloved even in the face of overwhelming evidence, and despite SIXTEEN women making formal complaints against Donald Trump, he ended up President. On the other hand, that oversight is precisely why so many people have decided they can't afford to not come forward anymore. This has to change.
As victims emerge from the woodwork and we start to see fallout from their accusations, society will have to decide which scenario is least costly:
--a successful and prominent middle-age professional is fired and publicly shamed due to past transgressions (real or imagined)
--a promising up-and-coming professional is driven out of their job and privately shamed because our culture is behind the times
The former scenario is shocking, depressing, and could truly derail that person's life, and potentially those of their family and close associates. The same, of course, can be said for scenario two. I see at least three substantial differences:
1=timing: Destroy someone's career at the end, and you cut off perhaps a decade of further income, prestige, and the joy of pursuing their passion. Destroy someone's career at the beginning, and you cut off many decades of those same things.
2=scope: Take down the accused, and you prevent the destruction of unknown additional lives (because most are repeat offenders). Take down the accuser, and they are simply replaced by the next victim.
3=impact: Make a clear statement about what is and what is not acceptable behavior, and future generations learn to do better. Send mixed messages or no message at all, and nothing changes.
I'm not keen on anyone being frivolously accused or fired or publicly shamed because an accidental or mistaken gesture or joke gets blown out of proportion. Unfortunately, these cases get tried in the press/social media without the benefit of full information, so undoubtedly some of the accused will prove to be victims. But the stories of my friends and colleagues indicate that there are in fact far too many people (mostly male) who try to leverage their positions of power to get off.
This is definitely an area where, if you've never experienced it, you tend to brush it aside. Unfortunately, far fewer men have experienced it than women, so there tends to be a gender gap in whether or not someone 'believes' the accuser, or what they think should be done about it. I doubt there is a woman in this country who has not had someone "accidentally" brush against her ass or chest or hasn't been propositioned inappropriately. Personally, I considered it inappropriate for my landlord to repeatedly invite me (and pointedly not my husband...) to his boathouse for the weekend.
But that kind of harassment, which is so pervasive many women write it off entirely, is not even what we're talking about. We're talking about an abuse of power; about people taking advantage of the fact that the victim will feel powerless to stop it and therefore unable to report it. The really awful part, however, is how often they are right--because the institutional barriers to justice are immense. Let me share an example from 1991.
Once upon a time, a wide-eyed country bumpkin was repeatedly hit upon by her supervisor and blamed herself for failing to prevent it or nip it in the bud. She was so ashamed that she avoided the man for years, ultimately choosing a different field of graduate studies just to avoid running into him in the hallway. (Hmm, how might her career have panned out had she gotten the more marketable degree she originally wanted?) A few years later, she met a woman who had also been a 'summer favorite' and together they felt strong enough to take their story of repeat offenses to the University. Where they were promptly told by a white male administrator behind a huge desk that unless they were willing to make permanently public, non-confidential charges at the very start of the process, they would not even take a statement, let alone consider an investigation. Consequently, the man continued to "mentor" a dozen 18-20 year old women at a remote location every summer for many years.
Developing better protocols for processing complaints is not the only work we have ahead. As we grapple with defining appropriate behavior in the workplace, we're going to have to address quite a few thorny issues. For instance, how can dating a teenager be considered child abuse when half of U.S. states have no minimum age for marriage and most of the rest set it between 13 and 17? (By current pop culture standards, my 33-yr-old grandfather would have been called a pedophile for taking a 16-year-old bride--seriously?!?) Or, in a world in which 15% of people meet their future spouse at work (and 15% have slept with the boss...), where do you draw the line between courtship and misconduct? It cannot be that it's courtship if I reciprocate, and misconduct if I don't.
Our society has deep, structural problems in this area with roots reaching back many centuries and yet tremendous strides have been made in the past century alone. Each time progress was made, it got ugly for a while (no pain, no gain). So I hope we're in for some rough times--another mini-sexual revolution in which the rules become clearer, institutions become less biased, and the taboo finally dies. Maybe in so doing we can benefit the next generation.
After all, between climate change and the national debt, we're gonna owe 'em!