Fox News Has a Sexual Harassment Problem and It’s Way Bigger Than Roger Ailes

Sady Doyle August 26, 2016

Harassment isn’t an individual problem; it’s a problem inflicted by communities, either because the members participate in the violence or because they’ve learned to stay quiet as a means of self-defense. (Johnny Silvercloud/ Flickr)

The Roger Ailes harass­ment scan­dal was nev­er just about Roger Ailes. We knew that from the begin­ning: Gretchen Carl­son, the woman whose sex­u­al harass­ment law­suit helped top­ple the Fox News chief (and unleashed a flood of sim­i­lar harass­ment and assault alle­ga­tions) stat­ed that she’d only come into Ailes’ line of sight because she was pur­su­ing rem­e­dy for a dif­fer­ent instance of work­place discrimination.

The cir­cum­stances of Carlson’s suit are indica­tive of a wider prob­lem. In her suit, Carl­son alleges that her Fox & Friends co-host, Steve Doocy, made her life hell by mock­ing her dur­ing com­mer­cial breaks, shun­ning her off air, refus­ing to engage with her on air, belit­tling her con­tri­bu­tions to the show, and gen­er­al­ly attempt­ing to put her in her place by refus­ing to accept and treat her as an intel­li­gent and insight­ful female jour­nal­ist.” When she report­ed his behav­ior, Ailes alleged­ly called Carl­son a man hater” and told her to get along with the boys,” even­tu­al­ly demand­ing sex in return for his intervention.

With all that in mind, can it real­ly be sur­pris­ing that yet anoth­er woman has now come for­ward to allege sex­u­al harass­ment — or that the woman in ques­tion, Andrea Tan­ta­ros, describes Fox News itself as a sex-fueled, Play­boy Man­sion-like cult, steeped in intim­i­da­tion, inde­cen­cy, and misogyny?”

The spe­cif­ic harassers named are new — Bill O’Reilly, cor­re­spon­dent John Roberts and for­mer Sen. Scott Brown are all named — and so are some details. (Tan­ta­ros alleges that after she shot Ailes down the company’s media rela­tions depart­ment began arrang­ing bad press for her, even set­ting up fake social media accounts to attack her online pres­ence with nasty com­ments.) But the over­ar­ch­ing alle­ga­tion that Ailes “(did) not act alone” — that oth­er men at the net­work ben­e­fit­ed from a sys­tem designed to enable sex­u­al harass­ment and that the sys­tem found a way to cov­er for the accused men and make their female vic­tims dis­ap­pear — was famil­iar from Carlson’s suit. The play­ers may change, but the song remains the same, and any­one who’s stud­ied how sex­u­al harass­ment works has no trou­ble rec­og­niz­ing this par­tic­u­lar tune.

Fox News has declined to com­ment on Tan­ta­ros’ case, cit­ing pend­ing lit­i­ga­tion. The network’s par­ent com­pa­ny, 21st Cen­tu­ry Fox, released a state­ment say­ing it was con­duct­ing an inter­nal review of con­duct by Ailes and Doocy. Ailes has stren­u­ous­ly denied the accu­sa­tions against him, as has Brown.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled on Ailes’ per­son­al repug­nance over the past few months, but sex­u­al harass­ment almost nev­er comes down to one cor­rupt exec­u­tive. For that mat­ter, the harm done to vic­tims usu­al­ly doesn’t start with the big, obvi­ous assaults or demands. Sex­u­al harass­ment is built on minor vio­la­tions accrued over time — a put-down here, an off-col­or hint there — until the bound­aries of nor­mal work­place behav­ior have been erod­ed to the point of col­lapse, and the major crimes (assault, stalk­ing, quid pro quo demands) can be com­mit­ted with­out fear of vio­lat­ing norms.

Though some harassers may be more vicious and more preda­to­ry than oth­ers, the process of dis­in­te­grat­ing those bound­aries and estab­lish­ing an unsafe envi­ron­ment is usu­al­ly crowd­sourced through­out an orga­ni­za­tion. If harassers don’t think they can get away with some­thing, they won’t do it. Cre­at­ing an envi­ron­ment in which they can get away with it — and in which they can get away with it pre­cise­ly because every­one else is already doing it — is part of the process.

To think of sex­u­al harass­ment as a prob­lem of one bad man is to fall into the fal­la­cy of see­ing sex­u­al assault as a crime of pas­sion. Sex­u­al harass­ment is much more like­ly to result in some­one los­ing her job than in sex. Some­one is unlike­ly to fall in love or lust because she’s been forced to undress in front of col­leagues (some­thing Tan­ta­ros alleges Ailes did to her) but she’s very like­ly to have her job per­for­mance com­pro­mised by psy­cho­log­i­cal dam­age or dis­trac­tion, or gain a rep­u­ta­tion as dif­fi­cult because she can’t safe­ly or com­fort­ably work with cer­tain col­leagues, or sim­ply quit because she can’t bear to come into work.

Sex­u­al harassers don’t want sex. They want to push women out of the labor force, which they can eas­i­ly do by mak­ing work more dan­ger­ous for women than it is for men.

Though it’s tempt­ing to see the Fox News sit­u­a­tion as some­how due to the unique­ly hor­ri­ble pol­i­tics or per­son­al­i­ties of the peo­ple involved — and they are, indeed, hor­ri­ble — work­place envi­ron­ments like that are com­mon enough that up to 1 in 3 women reports expe­ri­enc­ing work­place harass­ment in her life­time. And while we often envi­sion harass­ment as com­ing from a preda­to­ry boss, in prac­tice it’s large­ly a hor­i­zon­tal crime, com­mit­ted between peo­ple whose only real pow­er dif­fer­en­tial is their gender.

In the above-cit­ed sur­vey, 75 per­cent of women’s harass­ment came from male co-work­ers, and only 38 per­cent came from male man­agers. (Female co-work­ers were also rep­re­sent­ed on the list — but com­prised only 10 per­cent of per­pe­tra­tors.) What caus­es work­place harass­ment isn’t the pol­i­tics of the work­place, or even indi­vid­ual pow­er dynam­ics. The under­ly­ing cause is how the orga­ni­za­tion sees and enforces gender.

One of the defin­ing fea­tures of sex­u­al harass­ment, and one of the main rea­sons few cas­es are ever for­mal­ly report­ed to high­er-ups, is that vic­tims are often penal­ized (as Tan­ta­ros says she was) or faced with an esca­la­tion in the harass­ment (as Carl­son says she was) if they speak up. By the time a harass­ment case gets bad enough that a woman asks for help, the sys­temic cor­rup­tion has already tak­en hold and the deck is like­ly to be stacked against her.

Yet, as dan­ger­ous as speech can be, silence is worse. Con­sid­er the many silences that sup­port­ed Ailes: The women who were kept out of jobs because they refused Ailes’ advances (thus nar­row­ing the field to women who were less like­ly to report him), the women who were removed or told to get along with the boys” or let it go” if they com­plained about less­er instances of sex­ism (thus send­ing the clear mes­sage that report­ing larg­er instances would not be wel­come), the men who, in the absence of any con­se­quences, learned to behave as if there were no rules and joined in with a grope here or a propo­si­tion there, or sim­ply a dai­ly habit of being nasty and demean­ing to their female co-workers.

Each minor infrac­tion gives oth­er men the mes­sage that they can get away with sim­i­lar or worse infrac­tions. Each penal­ty dealt to a female co-work­er teach­es oth­er women not to speak up or sup­port their fel­low vic­tims. Before long, the entire orga­ni­za­tion is a minefield.

This is what we miss when we try to frame sex­u­al harass­ment as a mat­ter of a cer­tain per­pe­tra­tor, or a cer­tain act or even a cer­tain orga­ni­za­tion. Mon­sters breed in silence and shad­ow, and though we may be revolt­ed by the ones we do occa­sion­al­ly bring to light, pun­ish­ing or revil­ing them does noth­ing about the wider prob­lem — which is our com­plic­i­ty, our par­tic­i­pa­tion in cul­tures that exalt men and feed off female humiliation.

Harass­ment isn’t an indi­vid­ual prob­lem; it’s a prob­lem inflict­ed by com­mu­ni­ties, either because the mem­bers par­tic­i­pate in the vio­lence or because they’ve learned to stay qui­et as a means of self-defense. So, while it’s fun to point at Ailes and Fox News, we should also keep in mind that what we’re see­ing is not unique, and maybe not even that spe­cial. We should look around at our own com­mu­ni­ties, and ask where the shad­ows have fall­en and who might be get­ting hurt, just out of sight.

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is the author of Train­wreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beat­down. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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