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Why one harassment allegation against powerful men like Roger Ailes often leads to many more

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Roger Ailes
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After former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit Wednesday against Fox CEO Roger Ailes, it didn’t take long for reports to surface of numerous other women making similar claims.

Carlson’s attorney, Nancy Erika Smith, told the Daily Beast Wednesday that right after the news of Carlson’s lawsuit broke, Smith’s law firm started hearing from other female Fox employees who say Ailes sexually harassed them.

"There are maybe around 10 women who’ve said, ‘I’ve been a victim, too,’" said Smith, who noted that she hadn’t had the chance to talk to any of them yet.

The Daily Beast also interviewed three women who say Ailes harassed them when they worked at Fox News, and who asked to speak anonymously due to fear of retaliation.

"One time he asked me if I was wearing underwear, and was he going to see anything ‘good,’" said one former employee. "It’s happened to me and lots of other women. … He’s a disgusting pig who’s been getting away with this shit for 20 years."

Another ex-employee told the Daily Beast: "When I met Ailes he wouldn’t stop staring at my legs, and at one point he asked if I was single. I was taken aback and said yes. And he was like, ‘Oh, OK, so you’re not gonna get pregnant any time soon.’ And then he asked my age." The third ex-employee said that Ailes made inappropriate, harassing comments during one-on-one meetings with her.

Also on Wednesday, two anonymous Fox employees told the Huffington Post that Ailes had sexually harassed them in similar ways to what Carlson describes. One female Fox News contributor said Ailes "asked me to turn around so he can see my ass," and another employee said Ailes told her she could only wear dresses on air. (Fox News has denied that such a rule exists, a spokesperson told Vox.) Carlson’s lawsuit said that at one point, Ailes asked her to "turn around so he could view her posterior."

One of those anonymous employees also described a disturbing story Ailes "often told" about his hiring process:

He always brags to people about how he doesn’t do polling or testing when he chooses his on-air talent. He told me that if he was thinking of hiring a woman, he’d ask himself if he would fuck her, and if he would, then he’d hire her to be on-camera. He then said if it was a man he’d think about whether he could sit down for a baseball game with him and not get annoyed of him. If he could, then he’d hire him.

This also isn’t the first time Ailes has been in the news for allegedly inappropriate sexual behavior.

A 2014 biography of Ailes by Gabriel Sherman, The Loudest Voice in the Room, tells the story of a female TV producer who interviewed with Ailes when he was the executive producer of a late-night NBC talk show in the 1980s. The producer said Ailes offered her higher pay if she would agree to let him have sex with her whenever he wanted. She declined that offer — and almost declined the job entirely, but ultimately took it after being promised that there would be no more sexual requests.

Ailes denied Carlson’s allegations in a statement Wednesday night, claiming that Carlson brought the suit as retaliation for being fired.

Asked about the newer allegations, a Fox News spokesperson told Vox in an email: "This is a new low even for Gretchen and her opportunistic publicity hound lawyer -- there’s absolutely no truth to this latest anonymous accusation."

Powerful men often get away with routine harassment or assault because their victims are afraid to speak out

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One of the ex-employees who spoke to the Daily Beast said there is a "conspiracy of silence" on this issue because Ailes’s victims are afraid to speak out.

"The problem is you don’t want to come forward because you don’t want to be personally and professionally destroyed," she said. "You don’t want to bring down Roger Ailes’s wrath on your head."

She added that Ailes is far from the only male executive who abuses his power and influence for sexual purposes. "Television is really a difficult, arbitrary, and competitive business, and you don’t want to give TV executives a reason to say no," she said.

Though the accusations against Ailes are still unproven, this is an incredibly common story: A powerful man abuses and harasses his employees or mentees, but those employees or mentees are too afraid to speak out because said powerful man could ruin their career.

"Sexual harassment has financial consequences for women," said Patricia Barnes, an attorney and an expert on workplace discrimination. Victims of harassment are often driven out of their jobs, Barnes said, and our legal system makes it "almost impossible" for women to get justice for this since court cases can take so long and cost so much.

If one person breaks her silence and comes forward, though, it can open the floodgates and embolden other victims to add their stories as testimony. That’s what appears to be happening here.

So it’s no wonder the Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove speculates on whether Ailes could become the next Bill Cosby — a powerhouse media figure who has allegedly abused women for years, yet managed to escape public punishment for it until he was well into his 70s, when one public allegation started leading to another, and another, and another.

But serial abuse perpetrated by prominent men doesn’t just happen in high-profile industries like media and entertainment. It can happen anywhere: politics, academics, science and technology fields, and low-wage industries alike.

The key ingredient is usually an imbalance of power that leaves victims helpless — either too afraid of adverse consequences to speak out in the first place or too low-status compared with their abusers to be taken seriously if they do speak out. And even for high-profile women like Carlson, it’s a struggle to be heard and believed when society would prefer not to.

"When you think about abuse, and sexual harassment as a form of abuse, it's about power," Barnes said. "People who have power can obviously misuse it. And if an employer or society doesn't do anything about it, those people can continue to abuse their power."

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