The Machinery of Sexual Harassment

One thing that seems to unify the political right and left in the United States is sexual harassment. On the right, Roger Ailes, Donald Trump and Bill O’Reilly have grabbed headlines for the misdeeds. Bill O’Reilly has even brought the classic problem of evil into the matter by being mad at God over the allegations against him. On the left, Hollywood has been (unsurprisingly) seen high profile cases. Harvey Weinstein has ironically transformed Fox News into a champion against sexual harassment. Director James Toback has also been accused of harassment by almost 40 women (at current count). Even former Presidents have been accused. While Bill Clinton’s activities are now legendary, H.W. Bush has been accused of groping women.

While it is tempting to see such incidents as isolated cases of powerful men using their positions to exploit and abuse women, the reality is that there is an entire system of social, political, legal and economic machinery in place to enable and defend such evil. To illustrate, I will present various examples of these machines. But first I will note that my reference to machinery is metaphorical and that I am not denying that the individuals who harassed, assaulted and even raped women are somehow not fully responsible for their misdeeds. Rather, they made conscious use of their ecosystem to engage in their predation.

One key part of the machinery is, obviously, the vast disparities in power and wealth in American society. While the United States is supposed to be classless, this is an obvious lie—the United States is highly stratified and the less powerful can be easily exploited by the more powerful. This power disparity applies across the board—it is obviously not just those at the Weinstein and O’Reilly level that harass.

While such power disparities are inherent to our political and economic system, the laws are supposed to address them and mitigate the amount of abuse and exploitation the weaker must endure at the hands of the stronger. Unfortunately, the legal system has been crafted to provide considerable protection for harassers.

One example of this is the nondisclosure agreement. While the NDA does have some value to those who sign them, they have become well known for their role in allowing serial harassers to keep on harassing. For example, some of the women Weinstein allegedly victimized had signed NDAs that forbid them from speaking out about what had happened to them. Bill O’Reilly paid $32 million to settle a sexual harassment claim, something that would have remained a secret thanks to the NDA that was part of the settlement. Because of this, the way nondisclosure works in the case of harassment should be carefully reconsidered. Otherwise, the system allows harassers to simply buy secrecy for their misdeeds and to continue to operate under the protective shadow of money.  There is also the concern that employees are often compelled to sign such agreements as a condition of employment (which goes back to how the more powerful can easily coerce the less powerful) or need to sign them to get any sort of justice.

An obvious objection is to point out that the system does work: O’Reilly and Weinstein were ousted. While it is true that people do sometimes eventually face the consequences of their actions, it is rather important to remember that they were able to engage in harassment over an extended period and there are, presumably, many others out there who are getting away with it. It is surely small consolation to the victims that after a decade or three the harasser might get in trouble.

Another vital part of the machinery is the cooperation of those who are aware of the harassment and take no action against it. In the cases of Weinstein and O’Reilly, the stories indicate that their behavior was well-known, yet no one seems to have acted to stop them or protect their victims. In fact, harassers of their influence are actively protected—often at great expense. To be fair, the power disparity that enables people to victimize others enables them to silence potential critics and neutralize those who would oppose their misdeeds.

It can be objected that people have acted, that some women have gotten very lucrative settlements. Some even suggest that the women are the real villains, shaking down men for settlements. While such concerns should be addressed in proportion to the evidence, in most cases those getting the settlement are the real victims and the harassers are buying silence—so that they can keep on harassing (and making money for the company). As far as the effectiveness of the settlements; they probably have some deterrent value—presumably companies are not eager to cut checks to silence victims. However, there is a significant volume of incidents and, as such, it seems evident that the current system is not solving the problem of systematic harassment.

While it is easy to see people like O’Reilly and Weinstein as the problem; they are merely the visible part of the iceberg of harassment. Beneath them is a vast edifice that enabled them to engage in their predatory behavior for years. Simply ousting them merely leaves niches for new predators and real change requires modifying all the underlying enabling machinery and the ecosystem of the sexual predator.

 

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