Op-ed: Poisonous sexual harassment

In 1968, Phillip Morris decided the time had come to market cigarettes toward women, who had begun to make discernible social progress and finally moving away from the stifling ideal of the barefoot-and-pregnant child-raising homemaker role. They had started achieving a less restricted, independent role where they could choose to make their mark in the professional world. The cigarette manufacturer celebrated this new glimmering of freedom by creating a Virginia Slims brand that was promoted for women with the slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby!” The cynical message, of course, was that females were now liberated, so they could proudly inhale their own toxic fumes from their own “cancer sticks.”

 

Almost a half-century later, they have continued to inch forward. Their progress, however, has been littered with ongoing discrimination obstacles. Even in this day and age, we have pay disparities, gross unfairness when it comes to hiring and promotion, and that lingering poison of sexual assault and harassment. With that one, women definitely have not come a long way, not just over 50 years, but from when we lived together in caves.

We still have an opportunity to figure things out. By “we” I mean men, since the vast majority of offenses are from males directed at females — 80 to 90 percent, depending on the source compiling the statistics. That is just the reported incidents. Perhaps when we look back we will thank movie mogul Harvey Weinstein for raising our consciousness — a perverse gratitude, to say the least. The public charges of his sexual brutality over decades, allegedly assaulting women whose performing careers could be enhanced or destroyed by his powerful whim, have created an avalanche. It has buried not only him, but a growing list of other prominent show business men. It has metastasized to my craft, journalism. The names Mark Halperin and Michael Oreskes have been added to the roster of those who suddenly have toppled from the highest levels of prominence to the depths. Their media organizations dropped them like a stone once it became clear that accusations of their past gross behavior toward women had credibility.

Let me note here that my relations with both Halperin and Oreskes have always been cordial, but that doesn’t change the absolute truth that if their relations with female colleagues were marked with the kind of physical conduct that has been described, and if that is subsequently proven, they deserve, in my opinion, to be ostracized. It’s that black and white. Discipline should be harsh going forward for various gross and demonstrably unwelcome propositions that women endure on the job from the horn-dog men who saturate the workplace.

But now we get to that gray area, and the various shades of gray. I’ll pause for a moment while everyone yuks it up about “Shades of Grey.”

Are we done? Let’s proceed: Also surfacing are lots of reports about the unintentional but ignorant forms of harassment — frankly, stuff that I believe should not be considered harassment at all. Does an off-color remark of any kind qualify? Should we ban any sort of tactile behavior, such as touching someone on the arm in a purely nonsexual way? How do we define all that? That would be the shades of gray. Do we really want a place of employment that would make the Church Lady ecstatic? Are we to make the same mistake that academe has made, by overdoing protections against anything that might be considered politically incorrect. “Safe places” don’t work on campuses, and they are unrealistic in the adult workplace. We can become safer, however — and civilized and, might I add, productive. Obviously, we need to encourage prosecution — yes, criminal prosecution — of assault, and dismissal for those who act boorishly. Beyond that, we can candidly communicate with one another and agree on realistic guidelines. Only then will women — and men — really have come a long way.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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