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.
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Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are 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 them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.