How many women have to be harassed and hurt before one man is removed?
I have been searching for the magic number since 1994 and the sexual harassment allegations made against Oregon Senator Bob Packwood.
That search started in the back of my in-laws’ van. They were usually gone working as Baptist missionaries in a South American country, but they were back for a few weeks, screwing up my life. It seemed like any time I got in their car, Rush Limbaugh was on the radio. Of course, we went by the Southern radio rules: The oldest man in the car gets to choose what is on the radio. You didn’t ask for it to change and you didn’t talk over it. So I sat in submissive silence.
Limbaugh’s favorite subject in those days was Packwood. For about two years he had been under investigation for sexual harassment. The number of accusers started at 10, and rose quickly. In the end, 19 women would submit testimony detailing the harassment that they had suffered at his hands.
When Limbaugh started to rail about Packwood’s accusers, I expected that my in-laws would turn the radio off. After all, there were children in the car and they knew about my history as a survivor of sexual assault. Instead, they talked during the commercials about how awful it was that these women were destroying the career of a good man like Packwood.
My mind went back to the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill hearings. I heard pundits bemoaning the fact that there was no other witness. Her attackers said that if Hill was telling the truth, surely there would have been more victims. Surely he wouldn’t behave this way toward just one woman. Sadly, It was Thomas’s word against Hill’s. And in such cases, I understood that it would take more than the word of one woman to impeach a man.
That was when the question popped into my head: How many women does it take to impeach the word of one man? How many women have to be harassed and hurt before one man is removed?
I have never found an answer to that question. In part, that seems to be because some people will never believe a woman’s story of sexual harassment, abuse, or rape no matter how many people witnessed it. They will point out that the man has never been convicted of a crime and, therefore, should not have to experience any consequences, not even damage to his reputation.
Even after a man is removed from his position of authority, people are usually left with the vague sense that cases of sexual harassment are never truly settled. Take, for example, the recent ouster of Bill O’Reilly from Fox News. This is the press release sent out yesterday by parent company, 21st Century Fox:
“After a thorough and careful review of the allegations, the company and Bill O’Reilly have agreed that Bill O’Reilly will not be returning to the Fox News Channel.” There is nothing in here that states that O’Reilly has been fired or that the women’s statements have been found credible.
That carefully worded statement was followed by segments on Fox News in which O’Reilly was lauded and his “loyal” supporters were thanked. Fox commentator Dana Perino read from a memo from Rupert Murdoch that had been sent to all employees. Rather than acknowledge the harm done by O’Reilly, or reminding employees that sexual harassment would not be tolerated, O’Reilly was effusively praised.
Think about the message that sends to women at Fox News…and everywhere.
It turns out the magic number is somewhere north of 47 million. That is my back-of-the-envelope conservative estimate of what Fox News has paid in settlements or lost in ad revenue because they allowed sexual harassment to become their cultural norm. It will likely be much more by the time they finish settling with the women harmed and recovered their sponsors. And while I don’t think that it has convinced the male Fox executives of anything about respecting women, it has taught them that sexual harassment is expensive.
Women who file lawsuits against their harassers are heroes. We need to change the narrative around them, applauding them for their courage and thanking them for what they are doing for all women in the workforce.
We also need to change the narrative about men who sexually harass women. We need to put their offenses front and center. We need to make sure that companies know that it is not appropriate to praise a man who has an extensive history of sexual harassment.
Most of all, we need to model the behavior that we want to see—we need to believe women reflexively and support them faithfully.
Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.