Commentary Politics

Herman Cain and School Kids: New Research and New Allegations Show Us that Sexual Harassment Is Still a Problem

Martha Kempner

As the nation tries to decide what to make of allegations of sexual harassment against Republican Presidential hopeful Herman Cain, a new study was released showing that 48 percent of middle school and high school students experience sexual harassment in school.  Clearly, we still have a long way to go on this issue. 

At five o’clock this evening, Republican Presidential Hopeful Herman Cain held a press conference to directly address the allegations of sexual harassment that have been piling up against him in recent weeks. “I chose to address the accusations directly rather than in a series of continuous statements or spokespeople because that’s the kind of person Herman Cain is,” the candidate said as he began to address the press (frequently in the third person).  Of course, this isn’t the kind of person Herman Cain was two weeks ago when the claims of sexual harassment first surfaced in a story on Politico. 

At the end of October, the website reported that during Cain’s tenure as head of the National Restaurant Association, “at least two female employees complained to colleagues and senior association officials about inappropriate behavior by Cain.”  The article explained that the complaints had ended with the women receiving monetary settlements and leaving their jobs. According to Politico, in the days leading up to the story, the Cain team: “repeatedly declined to respond directly about whether he ever faced allegations of sexual harassment at the restaurant association.”  

As the weeks went on and the story gained momentum – with a third woman telling the Associated Press that she too had been harassed but had not filed a complaint – the Cain team seemed to settle on a series of talking points: the candidate didn’t have to respond to anonymous allegations; he only vaguely remembered something about the settlements but they had been handled by the association’s lawyers and he didn’t know the details, and the liberal media was clearly behind this story.  

While they stuck close to their talking points, some of the interviews that Cain gave seemed a little confused.  NPR described the candidate as giving “evolving accounts about his knowledge of the complaints and settlements.”  In one interview, he said that he was not aware of a settlement and then clarified, when the host seemed surprised that as the head of the organization he wouldn’t know anything about it, “I was aware of an agreement but not a settlement.” He went on to say that, “if they did settle, I hope it wasn’t for much because I did nothing wrong.”  In other interviews he suggested that the incidents in question (the same ones he couldn’t remember) were benign in nature and “that the women who complained about his behavior didn’t understand his brand of humor.”

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Then on Monday, a fourth woman came forward.  Not only did she have a name and a face, her story was about harassment of a different nature – she alleged that Cain had groped her and suggested she exchange sex for a job. Sharon Bialek, said in a televised press conference that she met with Cain in 1997 to ask for help getting a job.  After dinner and drinks, she claims that Cain “stuck his hand up her skirt and tried to pull her head toward his crotch.” 

“I said, ‘What are you doing?'” alleged Bialek… “You know I have a boyfriend. This isn’t what I came here for.”

According to Bialek, Cain answered, “You want a job, right?”

Many pundits agreed that this could potentially change everything because the woman herself was making the rounds of talk shows (along with her high-profile attorney, Gloria Allred, who seems to represent all women during their 15-minutes of sex-scandal-related fame) and the claims were harder to laugh off as misinterpreted jokes.  So, Cain called his press conference for this evening and went on Jimmy Kimmel Live last night where he promised he never sexually harassed anyone, claimed that there was no truth to Bialek’s story whatsoever, and quipped that he couldn’t imagine what he would have hired her for anyhow. 

As I waited to see if Herman Cain would say anything other than the 2011 version of “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” I decided to read a new study out this month on sexual harassment. It focuses not on powerful men behaving badly in the political spotlight but on awkward teenagers doing the same in the cafeteria.

In its new publication, Crossing the Line; Sexual Harassment at School, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) analyzes the results of its survey that found that 48 percent of all 7th through 12th grade students have experienced some form of sexual harassment. 

Sexual Harassment in the Halls
Though the term sexual harassment was originally coined in 1979 to refer to behaviors that occurred in the workplace, it is now understood that this can happen at school as well. “In the school setting,” the report explains, “sexual harassment includes unwanted sexual behavior that interferes with a student’s educational opportunities.”  According to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights:

Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, which can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Thus, sexual harassment prohibited by Title IX can include conduct such as touching of a sexual nature; making sexual comments, jokes, or gestures; writing graffiti or displaying or distributing sexually explicit drawings, pictures, or written materials; calling students sexually charged names; spreading sexual rumors; rating students on sexual activity or performance; or circulating, showing, or creating e-mails or Web sites of a sexual nature.

In one interview last week, Mr. Cain suggested that sexual harassment was “in the eye of the person who thinks maybe I crossed a line,” but in truth, today, there are very specific definitions of what constitutes harassment as well as specific protections against it.  When it comes to school, Title IX protects students from two types of sexual harassment. The first is “quid pro quo” which we all know translates into “this for that.”  This is what Bialek is accusing Cain of – in her case sex for a job.  When it happens in school it is usually an administrator or teacher who tries to coerce a student into sexual activity in exchange for a good grade or some other privilege, such as a spot on a team or a role in the school play. The vast majority of school-based harassment, however, falls into a category more similar to what Cain’s first three accusers reported. Called “hostile environment harassment,” it includes unwanted sexual conduct that “is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive” to “limit a student’s participation in an educational program or activity.” 

The survey, based on a nationally representative sample of 1,965 students, asked young people to share their experiences with both kinds of harassment either in person or on the internet. It defined sexual harassment for students as “as unwelcome sexual behavior,” enumerated possible experiences that students may have had, and reminded participants that “if everyone involved likes and agrees to the sexual behavior, it is not sexual harassment.” It found that 56 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys had experienced sexual harassment during the 2010‒11 school year.

When it comes to in person harassment, the survey found:

  • 33 percent of students had someone make unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures to or about them,
  • 18 percent of students were called gay or lesbian in a negative way,
  • 13 percent of students were shown sexy or sexual pictures that they didn’t want to see,
  • 8 percent of students were touched in an unwelcome sexual way,
  • 6 percent of students were physically intimidated in a sexual way,
  • 7 percent of students had someone flash or expose themselves to them, and
  • 2 percent of students were forced to do something sexual.

As for the internet:

  • 20 percent of students were sent unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or pictures or had someone post such things about or of them,
  • 17 percent of students had someone spread unwelcome sexual rumors about them, and
  • 12 percent of students were called lesbian or gay in a negative way.

Not surprisingly girls were more likely than boys to encounter most forms of sexual harassment.  For example, 46 percent of girls heard unwelcome sexual comments or jokes in person compared to 22 percent of boys, and 16 percent of girls were shown sexual pictures in person that they didn’t want to see compared to just 3 percent of boys.  (Interestingly, in the press conference, Mr. Cain made a point of how it was not always that women were sexually harassed by men, sometimes women sexually harassed men, and when he was an executive he didn’t tolerate that either.) 

The Impact on Students
Herman Cain’s accusers are now part of a national story whether they like it or not.  Woman Number 1 has been identified publicly as Karen Kraushaar, the communications director for the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration. Kraushaar has acknowledged through her lawyer that she did receive a monetary settlement and has said she does not wish to discuss the matter further:  “She and her husband see no value in revisiting this matter now, nor in discussing this matter further, publicly or privately. In fact, it would be extremely painful to do so.”  Of course, now that her name has been released, numerous articles have been written about her and we know, among other irrelevant things, that she’s an accomplished equestrian and that she has scoliosis (a curvature of the spine). 

Bialek, who chose to come forward to “force” the presidential contender to tell the truth, is faring poorly in the press. She’s been described as a “blonde bombshell” who has a history of bankruptcy and was once sued over an issue involving paternity issue.  (A combination of phrases which I can’t help but interpret as meaning “don’t believe her, she’s an irresponsible slut.”)  Rush Limbaugh, once again displaying his polish and tact, pointed out that her last named sounded a little like “Buy-a-Lick.” And in his press conference this evening Cain himself (who swears he has no recollection of her) referred to her as a “troubled woman” and insinuated that she was being used by his opponents. Whatever the end result of stepping forward is, this media circus is clearly going to be a life-changing event for her. 

While high school victims of harassment will likely not make the cover of People Magazine or earn nicknames from conservative talk show hosts, they too suffer negative consequences.  The survey found that:

  • 32 percent of students who indicated they had been harassed did not want to go to school,
  • 31 percent felt sick to their stomachs,
  • 30 percent found it hard to study,
  • 19 percent had trouble sleeping,
  • 12 percent stayed home from school,
  • 10 percent got into trouble at school,
  • 9 percent changed how they went to or from school,
  • 8 percent stopped doing a school activity or sport, and
  • 4 percent switched schools.

While students experienced many of these reactions only for a short time, some described their reaction as going on “for quite a while.”  

Coming Forward
Bialek’s decision not to say anything until now (she says she was embarrassed by the events that transpired) has many people doubting her story and questioning her motives.  While it remains possible that she is after money or fame, she is not alone in keeping incidents of sexual harassment to herself.  Almost half of all students who experienced sexual harassment (49 percent) ignored it even while it was happening, 24 percent told the person to stop, 24 percent tried to defend themselves, 15 percent tried to turn it into a joke, and 7 percent said they did nothing because they didn’t know what to do.  After the fact, only 9 percent of the high school students who were sexually harassed reported the incident to a teacher, guidance counselor, or other adult at school, while 27 percent mentioned it to their parents or family (including siblings), 23 percent talked to friends about it, and just 1 percent went to the police.  A full 50 percent did nothing.   

Interestingly, students were more likely to take action if they saw sexual harassment happening to someone else with 24 percent of girls and 17 percent of boys who witnessed harassment saying they tried to help.  Of these students, 60 percent told the harasser to stop, 54 percent asked the person being harassed if he/she was okay, 24 percent reported the incident to a teacher, administrator, or school employee, and 22 percent reported the incident to their family. 

Given the likelihood that incidents go unreported, one has to wonder whether more women are going to start to come forward to discuss Herman Cain’s behavior. We have two women who took the matter to their supervisors at the National Restaurant Association, a third who said she experienced unwanted sexual advances but didn’t file a claim, a fourth who is telling her story to the world through the talk show circuit, and a new allegation that surfaced just this evening. So, are there five more or fifty-five who have said nothing… yet?

Why Harassers Do It
Herman Cain has not only denied the specific allegations leveled against him, he said unequivocally that he “has never acted inappropriately with anyone period.” (A line he repeated more than once in his press conference by the way.)  It turns out most high school students believe the same thing about themselves.  You see, while 48 percent of students experienced harassment, only 16 percent admitted to doing the harassing.

When asked why they did, admitted harassers had this to say:

  • 40 percent said “it’s just part of school life/it’s no big deal,”
  • 39 percent thought it was funny,
  • 34 percent said they were being stupid,
  • 23 percent said they were getting back at the person for something done to them,
  • 7 percent said they were angry about something else in their life,
  • 6 percent said they thought the person liked it,
  • 4 percent said their friends pushed them into doing it, and
  • 3 percent said they wanted a date with the person.

Cain’s press conference did not contain any of these excuses/explanations.  In fact, he acknowledged many times that sexual harassment is very serious, he just refused to acknowledge that he had ever participated in any. 

A New Set of Talking Points
After an introduction by his lawyer who reminded us that sexual harassment is very serious, so serious in fact that it would never be settled with a financial payout of just tens of thousands of dollars, Cain himself took the stage with notes so he didn’t miss any points.  The points he made, he made repeatedly, and they didn’t seem all that different to what he’d said earlier. 

He categorically denied Bialek’s story saying that despite trying to, he did not remember either her name or her face; he continued to remind viewers that the other accusations were anonymous; he called the original allegations false and baseless and argued that the reported settlements were merely agreements about “personnel matters,” he blamed the liberal media (who is now stalking his family) and the Democrat machine; and he hinted that this was a conspiracy brought about to keep a business man out of the White House.   

Cain acknowledged that there will likely be other allegations of sexual harassment against him:  “not because I am aware of any but because the machine to keep a business man out of the white house is going to be relentless.”  He was, of course, right as new allegations have surfaced this evening.  Donna Donella reported that she hired  Cain to give a speech in 2002 when she was working for the United States Agency for International Development.  After the speech, Cain approached Donella and a colleague, asking: “Could you put me in touch with that lovely young lady who asked the question, so I can give her a more thorough answer over dinner?” Donella and her colleague were uncomfortable with the nature of his request:  “I couldn’t swear that he had some untoward intentions, but we all thought his tone was suspect and we didn’t feel comfortable putting him in touch with that woman.”   

Throughout the press conference, Cain referred to himself as “Herman Cain” and his accusers as “the lady.” Cain used his wife’s reaction to Bialek’s allegations (she apparently said “that doesn’t even sound like something you’d do”) as proof that he was the victim here.  I believe that putting his hand up another woman’s skirt and demanding sex for a job is not something his wife is accustomed to seeing him do but I have to say that this doesn’t do much in terms of convincing me that the allegations are false.  Plenty of wives don’t know how their husbands act when they’re not together.

My favorite part of the press conference, however, was when Cain answered a question from Fox news about whether he felt these allegations were part of a conspiracy.  The man who had spent the first half an hour of the press conference repeatedly reminding us that we had to look only at the facts and that there were no facts to show he had ever done anything wrong, had this to say:  “I cannot say that it is a conspiracy –we do not have definitive factual proof.  We can only look at some coincidences to suggest it that maybe someone is deliberately behind it.  So we have not been able to make any determination to point any fingers to place any blame on anybody at this point.  When we step back and look at the fact that there’s not factual evidence to back this up we can only infer that someone is trying to wreck my character.”

We Are Talking About Sexual Harassment Again

If the press conference was designed to put an end to the media’s fascination with this story, it didn’t.  And given the new allegations that have been added to the discussion this evening, the story is likely going to be in the news for quite a while as Herman Cain tries to hang on to his tenuous place as a front-runner for the nomination. 

The only good news I can see in all of this is that our country is once again talking about the uncomfortable topic of sexual harassment. Anyone who has ever seen an episode of Mad Men knows that once upon a time in this country what we now see as inappropriate sexual remarks and even advances were tolerated if not celebrated in the workplace. Advocates worked tirelessly to get this issue taken seriously but since the spotlight of Anita Hill’s testimony about Clarence Thomas faded, we have not talked a lot about it.  Some suggested that Herman Cain’s poll numbers did not suffer, at least initially, because we are all too jaded: “Twenty years after Anita Hill accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment at his confirmation hearings, searing the issue into the national consciousness and spawning an untold number of workplace seminars, the issue generates little shock value.”

In the age of Anthony Weiner texting pictures of his genitals, Elliot Spitzer sleeping with prostitutes, and Senator Larry Craig allegedly soliciting sex  in an airport men’s room, it’s understandable that it is hard to get worked up over a few inappropriate remarks spoken over a decade ago.

But the UUAW’s report tells us that we can’t be complacent because while we may be bored with talking about the topic, we certainly haven’t solved the problem of sexual harassment, and our kids are suffering for it.

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

‘I’m Not Slow’: Black Girls Tell Their Experiences of School ‘Pushout’ in New Book

Cynthia Greenlee

If Dr. Monique W. Morris makes anything plain in this book, it's this: Black girls shouldn’t have to rely on their own resilience to stay in school.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

For Black girls, the very schools charged with educating them reinforce and reproduce a dangerous, though often invisible, form of racial and gendered inequality, explains Dr. Monique W. Morris in her new book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.

Among the young girls the reader meets in Pushout, there’s “Mia” (not her real name, as Morris used pseudonyms for all girls interviewed). Mia talked about how a “juvie” teacher assumed that when she asked for other tasks in class, that the girl didn’t complete her work. But Mia told Morris that she had raced through the assignment. Said Mia: “Then I’m like, ‘Can I write or draw?’ Something? I mean, it’s a whole hour to go.’ She was like, ‘No, you can’t do anything. You’re always getting done before the whole class. You know what, get out.’ …. I’m like, ‘Because I do my work, I’m actually trying to do my work now, and now you want me to get out? Hella shit.’”

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What Mia wanted was positive recognition. Instead, she got written up.

Though Morris did not coin the term, the word “pushout” is an intentional reframing of the word “dropout.” It acknowledges that young people leaving school do so for a variety of reasons, many not of their own making. Poverty demands they work. Predatory “boyfriends” induct underage girls into selling sex with promises of love, clothes, and cash. Chaotic schools can make a motivated student dread going to class. LGBTQ teens who don’t conform to gender norms get bullied by peers and labeled “distracting” by adults.

The reasons abound, but each year, millions of U.S. students face expulsion or suspension. According to research from the Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection, seven million of the almost 50 million U.S. students faced in-school or out-of-school suspension in 2011-2012, the most recent year for which data is available. About 130,000 were expelled.

An education scholar and co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, Morris focuses on implicit bias—a term from experimental psychology for the unconscious ideas that influence how we think and interact. Implicit bias can affect when police officers shoot, how managers making hiring decisions, and as Morris demonstrates with devastating clarity, when educators suspend students.

Teachers and administrators often bring racialized and gendered assumptions about what it means to be a “good” girl to the classroom, Morris explains in her book. Notions of appropriate girlhood—nonsexualized though heterosexual, compliant, and quiet—are often the opposite of historical stereotypes that have cast Black girls as sexually precocious, uncooperative, and disrespectful. If a person believes the idea that every Black girl is a Jezebel-in-training or hates school, it’s hard for them to see beyond that.

And, in many cases, affected girls understand this.

Largely absent throughout much of Pushout are Black girls’ parents or guardians. Morris departs from the long tradition of punditry and social science that churns out study after study about what’s “wrong” with this mythical, monolithic, and immutable Black family. It’s a refreshing absence that will make some readers ask about parental involvement. That’s a fair question—but an easy and familiar default that inevitably veers into talk about personal responsibility without taking structural inequality into account.

Interviewing almost 40 pushed-out girls in urban areas, including Mia, Morris uses their own words to assert that Black girls are worth study, attention, and equity in education.

“Shai” from Chicago noted different responses to her and white peers that she calls “little Suzie”: “When little Suzie gets the question wrong, it’s like, ‘Aww, you got the question wrong.’ It’s funny.” In contrast, when Shai made an error, “it’s like, ‘Oh, she’s slow.’ … I get so angry, number one, because I already told them I’m bad at math. Number two, because I’m not slow.”

Girls can be tossed from schools for fighting or so-called “status offenses”—actions such as skipping school that are punishable only for a certain class (in this case, minors).

But pushout occurs all too often when Black girls are labeled unruly. They talk too loud and too often, according to a teacher. Maybe a girl is wearing the “wrong” clothes to school (which might have to do as much with fashion, size, gender identity, or access to the right clothes as a desire to thumb a nose at authority). An authority figure says they have an “attitude.”

On any given day, girls of all races push boundaries on their way to adulthood. But white girls’ behaviors, interviewees said, are seen as temporary actions, not inevitable or part of their identities.

In high school, I too was guilty of these bogus offenses: cursing, wearing my older sisters’ too-grown-for-me clothes, occasionally sassing teachers. On the first day of my senior year of high school, my history teacher stopped me at the door and said, “I know you’re used to getting A’s. But that won’t happen in my class.” In the subsequent yearlong tug of war, I blatantly ignored his lectures—uninspired regurgitations of the textbook—by reading dusty classroom encyclopedias. He’d ask, “Why don’t you listen?” My response: “Why don’t you make it interesting?”

I was a “good kid”: straight A’s and well-rounded, with professional parents and from a neighborhood where more kids were college-bound than not. If I failed, my parents and other teachers at my 99 percent Black high school would cry foul. They expected me to succeed, just as my teacher—who sometimes mused aloud about his dreams to work at a high-performing school—expected me to struggle under his sad, uncreative teaching.

As Morris points out through this book, talking back, simply asking genuine questions, or expecting a teacher to teach can set a girl on a short path to school separation. She could face suspension, expulsion, being moved to an alternative school for troubled youth, house arrest, and even detention or incarceration in juvenile hall (and sometimes adult corrections facilities).

Department of Education statistics from 2011 show that Black girls are six times more likely than white girls to be suspended, even higher than the disparity between Black boys and their white counterparts.

Pushout can have long-term consequences. As Morris points out, many girls struggle to return to school, and others land in the juvenile justice system due to an incident that began in a place of learning. Today, Black girls make up the fastest growing population in the juvenile justice system.

Concerns about Black girls and school discipline have not risen as quickly as the statistics, though groups such as the African American Policy Forum and many Black women scholar-activists are persistently sounding the alarm. Otherwise, it’s a quiet crisis silenced by Akeelah and the Bee logic that Black families don’t value education and are continually falling down on their most important job: raising well-adjusted, healthy children. Or it’s muffled by a comfortable patriarchy that, whenever attention focuses on Black children in education, centers on Black boys like the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

While Morris sounds the alarm that Black girls experience different racial and gender biases, she writes compellingly about the persistence of segregation after legal segregation supposedly ended. There are many segregations described in Pushout: the segregation of higher-performing students from those considered at risk in almost every school in the nation; the separation of “troubled” girls in juvenile facilities; and the concentration of Black and brown children in schools with few whites and few resources. Morris’ account raises the question of whether school demographics make a difference in this era of school resegregation. If teachers, administrators, and the broader society is disinterested in schools where students of color predominate, the picture doesn’t look much better for Black girls in majority-white schools.

I should note that Pushout largely focuses on urban girls in cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee, and San Francisco. What happens to girls in the rural South? Where there may be one high school in a county, alternative schools are rarely an option; if they are options, they may be in an adjacent county or farther, separating detained youth from their family and support network.

Despite this omission, Pushout pushes us to think about different kinds of personal, professional, and social responsibility. “Implicit bias” may sound like a more benign cousin to racism or “racism light” (and to be clear, implicit bias is not merely about race or gender, and it’s not confined to any one race or ethnicity).

If we accept that implicit bias lies at the root of pushout, how do we root out the bias at the levels of the self, the individual teacher, the school, and the educational and criminal justice systems? In a final addendum to the book, Morris points to two models: positive behavioral intervention systems (an approach that many educational institutions use to modify behavior and increase positive feedback) and restorative justice, which stresses communication and healing between the person who committed an offense and those affected. In the right circumstances, each approach can lead to change.

If Morris makes anything plain, it’s this: Black girls shouldn’t have to rely on their own resilience to stay in school. We need a sophisticated toolbox with multiple programs that doesn’t blame low-performing schools for their problems, that invests in Black girls specifically, and that takes aim at implicit bias.

But that’s easier said than done. We can spot the people wearing Klan hoods at Trump rallies, but implicit bias is a sneakier opponent that looks like and dresses like us.

Commentary Violence

Allegations of Workplace Sexual Harassment at FitzGibbon Media: We’ve Seen This Movie Too Many Times Before

Jodi Jacobson

When allegations of sexual assault or harassment are levied against a prominent man many people look the other way. And knowing that those who would otherwise hold an abuser accountable will indeed look the other way, victims are less likely to stand up for themselves in the first place, especially when their income and health-care benefits are on the line.

Last week, the widely respected progressive consulting firm FitzGibbon Media abruptly closed its doors after allegations surfaced of sexual harassment and abuse of numerous women by Trevor FitzGibbon, founder and owner of the firm.

The final straw came when, at a recent staff retreat in Austin, Texas, FitzGibbon allegedly propositioned Sierra Pedraja, who had applied for a job with the company. Pedraja reported the incident to other FitzGibbon Media staffers, prompting revelations by numerous employees and clients of creepy behavior, harassment, and assault allegedly perpetrated by FitzGibbon. (Full disclosure: Rewire was for a brief time a client of FitzGibbon Media, but did not work directly with Trevor.) FitzGibbon is accused of sexually harassing a number of women and sexually assaulting at least two others, all while running a firm with clients such as UltraViolet and NARAL Pro-Choice America, both of which work to advance women’s rights. The women on staff reportedly were too afraid for their jobs or too intimated by FitzGibbon’s professional reputation in the progressive community to speak up.

We now know that Trevor FitzGibbon’s reputation should have included “serial harasser.” It turns out he was also accused of sexually harassing some of his colleagues in a previous position at another well-known and otherwise well-regarded firm.

How can a guy known for this kind of reported abuse go from one place to another and not suffer consequences? And why are the victims of such harassment often so reluctant to report it?

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To a large degree, the answers to both questions are the same: When allegations of sexual assault or harassment are levied against a prominent man, many people look the other way. And knowing that those who would otherwise hold an abuser accountable will indeed look the other way, victims are less likely to stand up for themselves in the first place, especially when, among other things, their income and health-care benefits are on the line.

Too often, in my personal experience, victims of harassment or assault feel that they are largely invisible, and abusers are made to appear invincible. In many organizations, charismatic leaders hold the power and the purse strings, leaving staff vulnerable to abuse. And our society’s tendency to lionize specific individuals gives them an aura of being invincible, especially when they are a widely celebrated in a specific field or community. The degree of invisibility versus invincibility seems to me inversely related to the height of the pedestal on which certain leaders—or entertainers, athletes, politicians—are put. The more power the perpetrator has, the less likely the victim is to come forward. It’s at once obvious and can’t be overstated.

The first time I can remember someone touching me inappropriately was in religious school. I was 11 years old and the clergyman who ran our school was in his late 60s. He seemed nice and caring. But he also constantly rubbed my back, shoulders, and back of my bra. I hated it. But I was 11, somehow I felt ashamed, and I never thought of telling anyone. I came from what can only be called a dysfunctional family. I didn’t know what was normal and what was not. I just tried to stay out of the way and not be alone with him because he always got too close.

The second time was at summer camp, when the 70-something director, widely respected by parents, did much the same thing, regularly, to female campers. He’d come through the dining hall, circling the girls’ tables, touching us, rubbing our shoulders and our bra straps. We all hated it. But we were told by counselors to just to get over it. “Oh, that’s just Tex,” they’d say. “He doesn’t mean anything by it. He’s a great guy.” Translation: Don’t make waves.

The third time was at Yale University, to which I’d been accepted for grad school. During an orientation visit, I met with the professor who would have been my adviser. He suggested we grab some lunch and talk about the program, and at his direction we ended up at a small Italian restaurant nearby campus. At that point in my life, I understood immediately what was happening when he slid too close on the half-circle banquette and put his hand on my thigh under the table cloth. I moved away, putting as much distance between us as I could. I later learned he had a reputation for seeking out and having sex with students.

Rather than enrolling, that summer I gave up my space at Yale in favor of a job in D.C., yet found myself back in the same place, rhetorically speaking. I was one of two young women on the research staff at a prominent think tank. It was the kind of place filled with ambitious young professionals who were given the chance to write and publish on important topics. The head of the organization was considered a “genius.” Reporters ate out of his hands. Celebrities and important people visited our offices. And most of the staff wanted nothing more than to be favored by the boss.

But the inappropriate behavior started right away. He would call me into his office to discuss a project, close the door, and sit way too close on the couch, pressing his leg against mine. It made me grossly uncomfortable and really, all I wanted was to do my job. I tried to express my concern early on to a vice president of the organization, a woman, but it was quickly made clear to me that “my discomfort” was my problem and I should not rock the boat.

I learned from this that you weren’t supposed to complain when he remarked on your looks, or when you were repeatedly asked to work late or come into the office on the weekend only to find yourself alone with him. You didn’t say anything when you found him first standing in the doorway of your small office, then coming in and closing the door behind “just to discuss the findings in your paper.” You did what you could to keep it completely professional, and then said you had to use the restroom, or someone was waiting for you, or you really needed to get home for some reason, any reason, so you could get out of there. You didn’t react when people talked about all the women in the field with whom he’d had affairs. You were told you lacked a sense of humor when you couldn’t laugh it off. And when it finally became too much, you left.

I left knowing that no matter how renowned, smart, well-regarded, or successful a person is, he or she can still use the power of their position to abuse someone else, to make a staff person uncomfortable or worse, and then make it look as though the employee was the real problem. I also learned that the more widely heralded the abuser, the harder it is to expose the abuse because there is a sort of protective shield that surrounds such prominent people, created by the board members, funders, colleagues, or others invested in the reputation of that particular leader by virtue of their own proximity to or investment in genius or celebrity. The protective layer surrounding “invincible” people also invariably includes other leaders in the same community from whom you might later seek a job, but by then you’re already labeled a troublemaker.

From what little I know, the story of what reportedly happened at FitzGibbon Media tracks closely with my experiences: Women (and in this case at least it was women) working in a widely lauded firm on issues about which they care deeply suddenly found themselves put in uncomfortable and degrading positions of having to fend off the boss or another superior. And they knew or at least felt speaking up would get them nowhere but unemployed.

In this case, history suggests there’s a good reason for FitzGibbon employees to be skeptical of confronting him.

That’s because FitzGibbon had been “disciplined” for predatory behavior while at Fenton Communications, another well-known media firm that bills itself as “social change communications.”

As Amanda Terkel, Ryan Grim, and Sam Stein wrote at the Huffington Post:

During his prior employment at Fenton Communications, a major PR firm, a female colleague accused him of sexual harassment, Bill Werde, Fenton’s current CEO, confirmed to The Huffington Post on Thursday night.

“The firm immediately investigated the claims and brought in a nationally recognized workplace expert to conduct a day long training with all employees in the Washington office, focused on preventing and handling any incidences of sexual harassment,” Werde said in a statement. “Employees were also offered follow-up consultations with the expert.”

At the time of that complaint, FitzGibbon was a senior staffer, according to a source who worked with him. He was disciplined, the source said, but not fired. After the accusation and the firm’s investigation, other female employees came forward with similar harassment complaints. Fenton’s leadership closely monitored FitzGibbon’s behavior, Werde said. And for the remaining years of his tenure, which ended in 2008, Werde said that “no other complaints were brought to the company’s attention.”

An “expert” was brought in who apparently did not recommend removing the abuser from the place of his abuse? Fenton’s leadership “closely monitored” FitzGibbon’s behavior? Really?

Here is how that translates for me. Someone who was allegedly harassing and exhibiting at least abusive behavior toward several female employees was “disciplined” but retained his position in the firm, presumably including his pay, benefits, retirement accounts, vacation, and sick leave. He went on sabbatical and later returned to work, likely in close proximity to the women he’d harassed. Fenton’s Werde notes that “for the remaining years of his term, no complaints were brought to the company’s attention.” To which I feel like the appropriate response is “Duh.” Why would anyone bring anything to the attention of the same largely white male leadership that basically gave a pass to a guy who serially harassed several female employees because he was apparently too valuable to lose?

In situations where these conditions flourish, people facing abuse are not going to come forward, especially not when the abuser is apparently or ostensibly so irreplaceable that the health, well-being, and security of the people who support that work are secondary considerations if they are considered at all, or when the admission of abuse becomes an obstacle to the reputation of the firm.

The stark reality of what happens to staff in these situations is being played out today.

“Junior staffers are living paycheck to paycheck,” Ginny Simmons, former vice president, digital, at FitzGibbon Media told Rewire. “And the last one will be Dec 31. We didn’t get the bonuses that were owed to us and many were planning for. We got no severance. No advance notice.”

“Our healthcare ends Jan 31,” she continued. “One staffer is 6 months pregnant with twins. She is very worried about getting a new job at this point. We have two staffers who are recent cancer survivors who are about to lose their health insurance.”

“Nothing is OK about anything that has happened,” Simmons concluded. To help out, allies have set up a fund for the former employees as they attempt to find new work.

The progressive community is about social change. Too often, though, that change is envisioned as creating a world that does not apply to what happens in the domain of those in power. “The world,” however, does indeed include what happens on your watch and under your proverbial roof. The people who work with and for you are not any different—no less deserving of fair pay, equal rights, health-care benefits, family leave, or protection from harassment, abuse, and violence—than are the populations for which your clients pay you to advocate.

And yet, there are too many stories even in the progressive community of egregious behavior we would not accept elsewhere.

Sometimes it feels like nothing will ever change. I don’t have the answers to whether and how it will. I would like not to feel that things I experienced years ago are still happening to people today, at least not within the community that in principle ostensibly stands against violence and harassment of all kinds. And yet here we are.

Still, I am very cautiously optimistic. There is, right now, a lot of soul-searching going on in the progressive community and a great deal of discussion underway, some of it appropriately angry, hurt, and disappointed. Individuals and groups are grappling with what it takes first to stop abuse from happening, and to ensure that no victim of abuse is made invisible or feels they have nowhere to go.

These are as yet just conversations, so caution is warranted. But it is past time for all individuals, groups, and leaders in the progressive community to ask ourselves: What does it mean to be progressive? Are we as progressive inside as we strive to be outside? What is needed to ensure all employees entering new jobs find a welcoming environment; that all employees know their rights and have mechanisms to exercise them; and that every employee is “visible,” while no one is seen as “invincible?”

There are no easy answers to any of this. Instead, it will take hard work and constant vigilance from within and throughout our community to be the change we claim to want in the wider world. Six months from now Rewire will come back to you with a report on what has come out of this, because unless we all hold ourselves accountable, no one will be.