Sexual harassment is not a joke, David Letterman
Between discussions of the questionable actions of Roman Polanski, John Ensign and Mark Sanford, I’m tired of talking about sex scandals. And I debated whether it was even worth it to spark a dialogue about the latest dispatch from the realm of professional wrong-doing: the revelation last week that David Letterman was extorted for $2 million by someone who threatened to reveal his many affairs with coworkers. Letterman delivered an on-air apology last Thursday night where he admitted to the blackmail as well as to the fact that he had sex with many women he worked with.
Let me preface this by saying that I don’t care how many women David Letterman has had sex with, or even if he cheated on his wife. He’s a talk show host, and his actions are subject to less public scrutiny than, for example, a celebrity who uses his power to drug and rape a 13-year-old girl, or a senator paying off his mistress’ husband, in possible violation of campaign finance laws. If his wife has a problem with his actions, that’s between them. And I hope that the blackmailer is prosecuted – extortion is a crime, and should be treated as such.
But what does disturb and upset me is the fact that Letterman is using this as pure joke fodder, rather than admitting the full implications of what he did. Sexual relationships with coworkers are far more complicated than Letterman’s jokes about extortion and “chilly weather” inside and outside the house. As Ellen Bravo over at the Women’s Media Center points out, the power to say “yes” to sex is balanced by the power to say “no.” And when the person doing the asking is not only your boss, but a celebrity, declining is much more difficult to do.
We’ve been doing a lot of talking about Roman Polanski, who openly drugged his victim, but what about the countless other situations where sexual harassment is not so clear-cut? Even if the relationships between Letterman and his coworkers were ostensibly consensual, there is an undeniable power imbalance. And what about the relationships between Letterman and the coworkers he wasn’t sleeping with? This wasn’t just one coworker, it was a pattern. The women were much younger. And there was much more at stake for them in the relationships than for Letterman. There are recommendations and job security and Letterman’s sheer celebrity to consider.
The point is that Letterman should not be getting away with this, and he should especially not be getting a ratings hike as some kind of perverse reward for his behavior. And the discussion should not be about infidelity or how Letterman’s wife of six months will react – it should be about our attitudes toward sexual harassment, and why Letterman’s actions were not in violation of company policy. Letterman has even been turned into something of a victim by the attempts to extort him, and that’s ridiculous. Regardless of whether he felt “menaced” by the blackmailer, Letterman put his family into this situation when he chose to repeatedly sleep with subordinates, and when he then expressed no remorse. Even worse than the jokes? Letterman’s matter-of-fact declaration that it would be “embarrassing” if this information were made public – not for him, but for the women. Right, because when a man does it, it’s ok, but those women should be ashamed of themselves.
Let’s demand some accountability here. Instead of laughing at Letterman’s jokes about sexual misconduct in the workplace, we should make sure that he doesn’t emerge from this unscathed. Sexual harassment in the workplace is an enormous hidden problem, and when David Letterman turns it into a joke, he legitimizes it. Ask yourself: how would you want your employer to behave?
Photo courtesy of CBS