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

120 comments

LMj Sunshine

Thank you for article.

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LMj Sunshine

Thank you for article.

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LMj Sunshine

Thank you for article.

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LMj Sunshine

Thank you for article.

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Anita L.
Anita L.7 years ago

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Zoi Ioz
Zoi Ioz7 years ago

I agree with the majority of comments I've read: sex between consenting adults is not a crime and nobody's business. Everyone assumes Letterman used power pressure and solicited sex-- no one suggested maybe some of those "women" approached him. Why not? Are women not capable of sexual desire?

And as has been pointed out, no one has even accused him! The extortion was the revelation that he had had sex, not that he had harassed or coerced or in any way done anything wrong, unless you're going to call adultery and promiscuity wrong, but that's a personal choice and has nothing to do with anything. When a woman steps forward and says "He made me feel like I had to" then I'm ready to listen. Until then, I think it's insulting to suggest that women can't be sexual without being victims.

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John Bauer
Past Member 7 years ago

I agree with Gayle here, as this could have happened to anyone. What if this happened to a female celebrity? What if Oprah did this and had sex with many men who worked for her? It is only a big deal because of the person who is famous. Secondly, he will not get fired because he is likely the executive producer and therefore the one paying for the shows to be done, so if he gets fired or quits, he may own the show and the license. Thirdly, an event happened in his life and as a comedian, get this, he comes to light with his tragedies by making fun of them. Wow, you mean he laughs it off so he feels better about everything? Yep. Just like when people pass-away and relatives think about the good times, not the bad times.

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Carol H.
Past Member 7 years ago

I don't think so because as long as went on between adults knowing what they were doing I don't think so. They both wanted something out of it and they got it whatever it was but if he took it from the girl then that is a whole other thing or if he told the women if you don't do it you will lose your job that is whole different thing again then and only then there should be charges brought forward.
His wife worked for him at one time and he was fooling around with other women at the same time when they weren't married and I am not sure even when they got married and if that being the case I would show him the door.
The person I am concerned about is his child out of all of this that is one person who will be very hurt and that is a fact.

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Karen Z.
Karen Z7 years ago

When exactly did David Letterman admit to sex with "many" women? Why don't we just make things up to make the story even more sensational? Sorry, this is out of line for a Care 2 blog. And who are you to assume that these women were victims of sexual harrassment? Or that he only had sex with women he worked with? If any of these "many" women feel that they were victimized they certainly had the option of reporting it. I don't believe that has happened. Your article is short on facts and long of assumptions. I believe this is between Letterman and his wife and everyone involved since they are the only ones who know the truth. You are actually the one making women sound like victims who don't independently choose whom they sleep with. Give us a little more credit.

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P H.
P H7 years ago

My last sentence should have read, Why didn't he have sex with women whom he did not employ if this was not taking advantage of his position??????

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