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What I’ve learned covering sexual misconduct this year

Three lessons from reporting on the #MeToo movement to bring into 2018.

A demonstrator at a #MeToo rally outside of Trump Tower in New York City on December 9
A demonstrator at a #MeToo rally outside of Trump Tower in New York City on December 9.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

As part of my job this year, I have heard, read, and written about hundreds of reports of sexual misconduct by powerful men. I have yet to be truly surprised.

Partly that’s because my work has required covering sexual harassment and sexual assault, in some way, for the past nine years. Partly it’s just because I’m a woman. Men do experience harassment and assault, as the recent public statements of survivors like Terry Crews have reminded us. But for women and many gender-nonconforming people, sexual harassment is a fact of life. From the cat-callers to the subway masturbators to the bosses sending inappropriate messages, it’s as familiar as breathing.

But just because I haven’t been surprised this year doesn’t mean I haven’t learned. What’s changed this year, as many have noticed, is that what was often discussed quietly among small circles is now being debated openly in national media. And what once was often met with a sympathetic shrug — as if to say, “That’s terrible, but it’ll never change” — is now prompting real conversation about consequences and solutions. A friend told me recently that she was still trying to adapt to a world in which sexual harassment is actually taken seriously. We all are.

Part of that adaptation, for me, has been learning from others about how to put sexual misconduct in its larger context — recognizing that harassment at work is a labor issue, and one that demands systemic, not just individual, remedies. And part of it has been thinking through how to move forward, how to turn a months-long reckoning into years-long change when many are already resisting. What follow are the ideas I’ve found most useful this year, the ones I’ll be carrying with me as I continue to cover this issue in 2018.

Workplace harassment is about work

The current conversation around sexual harassment has been cast as a “sex panic” in some quarters, as writer Masha Gessen and others worry that in trying to curb harassment, Americans will end up “policing sex.” But it’s not sex that has countless people coming forward with stories of being forced out of jobs or entire industries. For many people who have shared their experiences as part of the groundswell that is #MeToo, the issue is abuse of power at work.

Melissa Gira Grant puts it well at the New York Review of Books: “Sexual harassment is a form of discipline, and it has already led to so many women being cast out from their work and the attention that is rightfully theirs. When men use sex to push women into inferior, undervalued, and invisible roles, that isn’t sex; that’s punishment.”

It’s become common, as #MeToo matures, to ask what we should do about behaviors that fall short of violent sexual assault. For most women, Bret Stephens argued recently at the New York Times, “the unwanted sight of a man’s genitals” is far less traumatic than “the unspeakably violent experience of rape.”

Whether or not that’s the case, sheer emotional trauma is not the only way we should be measuring the impact of harassment. “Patting someone on the butt,” as Matt Damon recently put it, may or may not do lasting psychological harm. But if the patter is your boss, and the pat is one of the ways he treats you differently than your male colleagues, then it certainly affects your ability to do your job.

When an editor sent her sexualized AIM messages late at night, Grant writes, “my job was to respond, to be available, even if that meant being available to one-sided sex talk when what I wanted was the next round of edits on a story. A co-worker’s or boss’s actions, I know now, don’t have to feel like a profound violation to be harassment. They can feel more like a waste of time.”

In the months since the New York Times first published women’s reports about Harvey Weinstein, I’ve learned from people who have experienced deep trauma as a result of workplace sexual harassment and violence. I’ve also learned from people — sometimes the same people — who have had to change fields or careers to get away from powerful men whose harassment also functioned, practically speaking, as a form of discrimination.

I’m thinking of the woman who told the Washington Post about her experience with Michael Oreskes, then an editor at the New York Times: “The worst part of my whole encounter with Oreskes wasn’t the weird offers of room service lunch or the tongue kiss but the fact that he utterly destroyed my ambition,” she said.

I’m thinking of the female NPR employee who told me she was warned not to be alone with Oreskes. “Being able to go to the senior VP of news and talk about your career path is an amazing opportunity,” she said. “It probably wouldn’t happen at a lot of organizations, but it was an option at ours — unless you were a woman and you had heard through this whisper network that you should never be alone with him.”

And I’m thinking of Karissa Fenwick and Celeste Kidd, both of whom had to change their academic course of study because, they said, the men who were supposed to guide and teach them subjected them to sexual comments or unwanted advances.

When we think about sexual harassment, we can’t think only about how far it seems from rape, or how traumatic we think it ought to be. We have to think, also, of its effect on survivors’ work, on their access to a workplace free from sex discrimination — something to which, Grant notes, all workers are legally entitled.

Harassment doesn’t just cause emotional and psychological trauma, though it certainly can. It can also stall, stunt, or end careers, starting with something as seemingly small as a pat on the butt.

Harassment is a systemic problem. It requires systemic solutions.

As I’ve heard from survivors about how sexual harassment affected their careers, I’ve also heard about how their employers and co-workers helped them — or made things worse. One thing that’s become clear is that workplaces rife with inequality, where whole groups of employees are devalued or where power imbalances are huge, set the stage for sexual harassment.

We’ve seen this at work in media and entertainment, where a few powerful people, the vast majority of them men, control access to money and career advancement. “Weinstein was a gatekeeper who could give actresses a career that would sustain their lives and the livelihood of their families,” writer and actress Brit Marling wrote at the Atlantic. “Weinstein could also ensure that these women would never work again if they humiliated him. That’s not just artistic or emotional exile — that’s also economic exile.”

We’ve seen power imbalances at work in other industries, too, including those left out of much of the current #MeToo conversation. As Vox’s P.R. Lockhart has reported, for women of color in low-wage jobs, the barriers to reporting harassment are many, from financial vulnerability to the possibility that they won’t be seen as “ideal victims.”

“Harassers prey upon the fact that typically women working a low-wage job will be seen as very replaceable,” Emily Martin, vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, told Lockhart. “If you have no financial cushion, if you need every bit of your paycheck to make ends meet, you are even more vulnerable to the threat of retaliation, to the fear of losing your job.”

Where power imbalances exist, simply firing a harasser won’t solve the problem. That’s because when an underclass exists in a workplace — whether that workplace is a newsroom or a film set or a restaurant or a hotel — that underclass will always be vulnerable to exploitation, sexual and otherwise. When an employer signals that certain workers are disposable, predators know there will be few consequences for harming them.

Employers dealing with harassment need to look at who has been targeted and find ways to lift those employees up, rather than only pulling harassers down. Junior employees, for instance, will be less vulnerable to harassment if they have clear paths to career advancement that don’t require them to gain the personal favor of a handful of powerful men. Mentoring relationships will always be important in lots of workplaces, but people early in their careers shouldn’t have to accept uncomfortable dinners or inappropriate comments as the price of getting ahead. Across many industries, a sustained effort to offer career development to junior employees — especially people of color, women, and gender-nonconforming people of all races — will make those employees less vulnerable to predators looking to take advantage of their ambition.

Large-scale policy changes can also help. Raising the tipped minimum wage so servers and other tipped workers are entitled to the same as everyone else would lessen the vulnerability of restaurant workers, who often have to put up with harassment from diners if they want tips, as Alicia Renee Farris, the state director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan, pointed out to Vox in October. Portable panic buttons, like those now mandated in Seattle, let hotel workers call for help if they’re being harassed or assaulted by a guest. Even more crucially, closing gender and racial wage and wealth gaps would give marginalized people more flexibility to leave jobs where they are being harassed.

Overall, it’s been heartening to see many workplaces take sexual misconduct seriously by sanctioning the perpetrators. But the work of #MeToo won’t be nearly done until employers take a hard look at who’s being harassed, and start taking steps to help them.

To move forward, we have to focus on equality

For me and for many women, it’s been strange to hear what we long discussed among ourselves talked about in bars and at parties, on subways and on the national news. I remember riding home in a taxi in early November when a story about Louis C.K. came on the radio — even though I’d been covering them every day, it hadn’t quite hit me until then that reports of sexual misconduct by powerful men were at the very center of the national conversation. And when something so important is finally pushed from the margins to the center, the process is always going to be hard.

One of the biggest obstacles to a productive public discussion about misconduct and #MeToo, one of the arguments most likely to derail public and private conversations alike, has been the notion, promulgated by Stephens at the New York Times and others, that advocates of workplace safety are incapable of understanding the distinction between different forms of misconduct. We can all agree that what Harvey Weinstein is accused of is terrible, these arguments often begin. But what about smaller infractions — the stray comments, those butt pats Matt Damon was talking about? Surely these are lesser offenses. Surely we should treat them separately.

It is not accurate that those invested in preventing harassment and assault cannot tell the difference between the two, or distinguish between an inappropriate remark and a rape. But the biggest problem with this argument is that it focuses attention solely on the perpetrators of misconduct, on how we judge (or forgive) their actions, on what consequences they should face or what mercy they should receive.

Clearly, consequences are important. A predator who gets away with harassment one time is likely to try it again and again.

But conversations about sexual misconduct often get a lot easier when we focus not on what happens to powerful men, but on what should happen for women. Should women be able to go to work without having to fend off advances from their bosses? Should women be able to talk to their senators without worrying about having their butts grabbed? When women say that their career paths have been blocked, or that they’ve been forced to endure treatment their male colleagues would never have to put up with, should we listen? Should women, and everyone marginalized on the basis of gender, have the same freedom, opportunity, and safety as men do?

If the answer is yes, then we all have work to do, but that work is possible if we agree it’s worth doing.

At times this year, the news about sexual misconduct by powerful people has felt crushing, any optimism crumpled under the sheer weight of the problem. But if the past few months have shown a lot of Americans how bad things really are, they can also prompt us to think about how good things could be. Imagine a country in which putting up with sexual harassment wasn’t an unwritten part of the job description for more than half the population. Imagine how much women could flourish in such an environment. Imagine how much we could get done.

We don’t live in such a country now, and without a lot of work, we never will. But until this year, I, for one, had not even thought to imagine it.

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