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Sexual Harassment and Progressive Organizations

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Self-defined progressive men progressive organizations are far from immune from the plague of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Rather, it’s a huge problem on the job for women at progressive organizations as we see in this devastating discussion of what happened at FitzGibbon Media.

In retrospect, there were some red flags. One former FitzGibbon Media staffer told Vox that FitzGibbon gave off a “weird” vibe and was overly “touchy-feely,” but most people chalked it up to social awkwardness.

Rachel Tardiff, who left the firm in July, said that while she never experienced sexual harassment from FitzGibbon, she isn’t surprised that it happened. He would sometimes say things that seemed inappropriate or over the line. He treated male staffers with an “overgrown frat boy demeanor” while he scolded or more sharply criticized the women.

Another former staffer said FitzGibbon didn’t react well when he was told about sexual harassment allegations against someone else at the firm. He was angry and dismissive, yelling about how he didn’t believe that such a “good guy” could do something like that. FitzGibbon also had issues with some anti-rape campaigns the firm ran, according to the staffer. At one point he confronted an employee about the campaign in front of about 10 other people. He questioned the tactics of holding “alleged” rapists accountable, talked about how false rape accusations had ruined his friend’s life, and said that being accused of rape was actually worse than being raped.

“A lot of people heard that. How do you report when you know that’s the feeling? Who wants to put themselves through that?” the staffer said.

Tardiff said FitzGibbon’s personality and the firm’s structure also made it difficult for anyone to come forward. “There was no real HR. Everything flowed through or from Trevor,” she said. “His tendency to respond extremely personally to any criticism also fostered an environment where speaking up — in basically any situation — came with the risk of him lashing out in a way that would make things even more difficult.”

In other words, predatory scumbags come in all political persuasions.

And just because progressive women are well-aware of how awful these men are doesn’t mean it’s suddenly easy for them to go after the bastards:

It’s also harder than people think for women at progressive organizations to come forward when there is a problem. Some organizations have structural problems or a hostile culture like it seems FitzGibbon Media did. But even at a supportive workplace where things run smoothly, cultural norms can hold women back.

One progressive activist told Vox about a case of sexual harassment that she reported to her employer. It was about as clear-cut a case as you could ask for, complete with witnesses. Still, she spent half the night before reporting it crying. “I was so scared of what the consequences might be,” she said. “I’d only been at this new job for a couple months and was terrified of being seen as someone who ‘rocks the boat.’ We’ve all heard a million stories about how women are treated or retaliated against for complaining. It was honestly terrifying.”

Another progressive strategist recalled moving to DC and having three different women give her lists of which members of Congress she should avoid being alone in a room with. The lists included members from both parties, and there were enough of them that all three lists had different names.

Enduring inappropriate advances from men in power is “bipartisan and almost like a rite of passage in DC from what female friends have told me,” Mary said. And of course, politics isn’t the only place where men get away with routinely abusing their power over women who fear not being believed, or fear retaliation because of a man’s influence. Just look at Bill Cosby.

It’s not just that this story is disturbing. It’s that we, and especially progressive men, have a responsibility to call out these jerks for this behavior and confront men who are doing terrible things to women when we know about it.

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  • CrunchyFrog

    I was lucky to start my career in one of Silicon Valley’s great companies of the 1970s early 1980s (now long since merged into oblivion). Very progressive – in 1982 the President (yes, children, there was a time before “CEOs”) told the WSJ that we were a socialist company because of how we were organized internally and how employees were treated.

    When I became a manager I had to attend a terrific “Managing within the Law” course that covered every aspect, including a tremendous amount about sexual discrimination and harassment. The instructor had personally, successfully, sued many of the major corporations in the Valley before selling her firm to her employees, so had lots of great examples to provide. Later, as a manager, I had a few dicey situations to deal with regarding employees and our HR was terrific (no HR department I’ve worked with since was as solid as this one).

    I mention this because, in spite of that otherwise great climate, the said President himself had a real problem following the rules, especially with the sweet young things in his executive office. I would later learn from an HR director that it was just considered part of their job that they often had to address situations the President created. The Board knew about this and it was fine. Many lawsuits were settled. I personally experienced this in a chance meeting with the President at a local pizza place when I was visiting from out of town. He invited me and a co-worker to sit with his table, where the office workers were celebrating a birthday for one of them. His primary topic of conversation was oral sex on cable TV. No, really.

  • Crusty

    I thought most men joined progressive organizations to meet chicks.

    • Dilan Esper

      Maybe not most men, but i am sure some do adopt feminist stances to impress women, e.g., Hugo Schwyzer.

      More generally, Nora Willis Abramowitz wrote about this recently. The basic point is a person’s politics does not determine whether they are a predator. (Indeed, just as there are liberals who are predators, there are conservatives with awful political positions regarding gender who nonetheless do not do this shit.)

      And we have to deal with predators as predators, whatever their politics. And that is really difficult to do sometimes- people don’t want to believe bad things about their allies or harm the movements or institutions they believe in.

      • Manju

        I was reminded of Hugo recently…after hearing the rape allegations against James Dean. Hugo invited the dude to lecture his feminist porn class. Boy can he pick ‘em.

        As a sidepoint, as far as I can tell, the charges are being taken seriously. I thought that was interesting. And good.

        • Hogan

          That would be James Deen.

          (Like to give me a heart attack, young man.)

          • postmodulator

            It’s not an original observation to me, but someone on Twitter pointed out that the porn industry turned its back on an accused rapist faster than the fashion or entertainment industry seems to be able to.

            • JMP

              Or sports in particular – hell, the Pittsburgh Steelers still have a serial rapist as their quarterback, and yet hardly anyone ever mentions it; they way the media ignores all the women Ben Roethlisberger has raped while praising his playing of football as if that should matter, like how it was with Bill Cosby until recently, is just despicable.

              • Pseudonym

                Does this mean that the sports media value dogs above women?

                • LosGatosCA

                  Yes – SATSQ

            • Dilan Esper

              Post:

              It’s true, but if you think about it, it makes sense. A rapist porn star causes two problems in MAINSTREAM porn (I capitalize this for a reason, which I will get to). First, porn sets operate on pretty formal rules of consent, as they have to, both because a lot of the performers come from troubled backgrounds and thus documenting consent is a significant liability issue, and also because the performance can sometimes include lack of consent or blurred consent as part of the storyline, making documenting formal consent a huge issue. (It’s basically the same reason BDSM play includes safe words.)

              Second, the market for mainstream porn includes a lot of women, and some men, who are going to be very turned off by the thought that the performer is a rapist- and the whole point of porn is that it is a fantasy that is supposed to turn on the audience, not turn them off.

              In other contexts, neither of these things are going to be true. The NFL, institutionally, doesn’t care much about the private lives of its players (and the players’ guild will of course negotiate as little regulation of morals as possible into the contracts), and football fans don’t give a crap about whether the players are rapists or even murderers or dogfighters.

              Now, the reason I capitalize mainstream is because in gonzo porn, marketed mainly to misogynist men, I doubt the reaction would have been the same way. If Paul Little (Max Hardcore) had raped a performer (and it wouldn’t surprise me if he had, actually), I doubt it would affect his marketability at all, and I doubt the industry would distance itself from him the way they have with Deen.

              • postmodulator

                I guess, but I kind of perceive a lot of that “look at how much we care about consent!” stuff the industry does as being marketing, or at least defensive positioning so they don’t go to jail. If nothing else the porn industry has the same informal pressures on “employees” (who are, of course, independent contractors) that you see everywhere else in late capitalism — “oh, yeah, I consented, because I was sort of hoping to pay my rent.”

                Did you watch Hot Girls Wanted on Netflix? I used to know some people on the periphery of the industry, but that was years ago; if that documentary is typical of the way things are done now, then they have somehow managed to make everything about that stuff even sadder.

                • Dilan Esper

                  I didn’t watch that, I should have. I do know some people in the industry as well as some people who used to work in it.

                  The thing is, unless you just don’t want to have a commercial porn industry, by definition, the people who are going to work in it are often going to be people who have little economic choice but to consent. (This is a point one can make about a lot of sex work.) Yes, there are some people in the industry who really love it, but for the most part, it’s a way for young and desperate people to make quick money, a sort of strip club on steroids.

                  And yes, the “look how much we care about consent” is basically marketing (in the sense that they are marketing a fantasy that, at least in mainstream porn, depends on there being actual consent) and legal protection (probably more from civil litigation than criminal prosecution, but possibly both).

                  I’m not really bothered by the mainstrean porn industry. If you’ve seen my posts on trade issues, I think consumers count as well as workers. Porn plays a role in a lot of healthy sex fantasies, it keeps some relationships together and puts sparks back into them, and it is free expression. All that counts for something. And if you tried to structure the industry so that nobody was ever in it because they just wanted to pay their rent, you’d have no commercial porn, which in my mind would be quite a loss.

                  I think the industry, overall, is pretty good about consent in mainstream product (though not, as I said, in gonzo porn). At least it’s basically as good as it is going to get given the realities of who is going to agree to perform in porn.

                  Where the industry has real problems is in STD prevention, actually.

                • UncleEbeneezer

                  When the Deen story broke, I was curious/hoping that there might be a post on it here (from a Labor standpoint.) The reaction by the Industry so far has been admirable but I wonder what kind of protections it can offer in the future given that most of the workers are contract positions with very little power.

      • Marek

        Speaking of predators, a friend of mine was roofied by a guy she trusted because he worked for the rape crisis center.

        Why yes, it was at UVA, why do you ask?

        • Brett

          Jesus. Reminds me of that marine sergeant in charge of a sexual assault response group who not only raped women, but solicited the victims showing up to try and get them into prostitution.

          You just have to wonder what’s going on in their heads. Are they deliberately putting up an anti-sexual assault front to pre-emptively gaslight any of their victims?

  • Murc

    Something that was pointed out to me recently is that if a dude seems perfectly normal, a real good guy, to you and other men… but women, not just a woman but multiple women, seem very uncomfortable with him or come to you with a disturbing report of his behavior when there are no dudes around… consider the possibility that he’s actively deceptive.

    There’s a thing creeps do where they use the cloak of “I’m just socially awkward” to hide under, because a lot of people are socially awkward, a lot of men find it tricky to interact with women in a way that’s more mature than five-year-olds on the playground (which is a whole separate problem), and so they’re predisposed to think “Well, Gary there is so well-meaning, I’m sure you’re just blowing it out of proportion.” They count on it.

    And here’s the thing. If Gary were well-meaning, people would be able to tell. Generally speaking, people who interact with you for an extended period of time will be able to tell that you are attempting to engage with them in a respectful, mature way and simply fucking it up. Maybe you’re badly socialized. Maybe you have genuine problems; you’re on the autism or aspergers spectrum. But they can tell, and because most people aren’t assholes, they’ll cut you a lot of slack.

    But Gary probably isn’t well-meaning, and the way you can determine that is that other men don’t see him doing anything untoward or awkward with them. Because people who are socially awkward are socially awkward all the time, with everyone. They radiate it, and they often know they radiate it and their discomfort and frustration with that fact make them radiate it more.

    But if Gary seems perfectly normal with you, but all the women don’t want to be in the same room with him? That almost certainly means Gary is clever. Gary is deliberately presenting a not-a-creep persona with every guy he meets so that when Gary the Creep comes out with women and only with women, he can rely on their stories being doubted by other men. Gary isn’t socially awkward. Gary is a high-functioning sociopath.

    • Sly

      A related story: I had a student once – around 13 years old – who couldn’t help touching everyone he talked to. Everyone. Tapping, nudging, grabbing, hugging, you name it. The kid was the very personification of “handsy.” And the entire staff knew that it wasn’t sexual because the kid literally did it to everyone, boys and girls, fellow students and adults, friends, parents, siblings, strangers, and people he didn’t even like. The only concern was that, if he didn’t “grow out of it” as he got older it would lead to a lot of uncomfortable conversations.

      That is socially awkward. A straight dude who is only grabby with women? That’s a creep. And if you can’t tell he’s a creep you’ve either been conditioned to ignore creepiness in guys like him, he’s actively deceiving you, or you’re probably also a creep.

  • Brett

    It’s not just that this story is disturbing. It’s that we, and especially progressive men, have a responsibility to call out these jerks for this behavior and confront men who are doing terrible things to women when we know about it.

    This. I don’t blame women for being fearful about coming out about this – FitzGibbon probably could have fucked up their career if he wanted to, and the same goes for many of the other well-placed serial harassers. I’m much less forgiving of the so-called progressive men at these organizations, who no doubt saw and heard about this but did nothing and said nothing.

    • Peterr

      Yes.

      It’s the same dynamic at work in the Roman Catholic church, where plenty of folks knew that certain priests had “problems” but they did nothing and said nothing for fear of rocking the boat or getting sideways with the bishop or . . .

      A culture of silence — whether in the church or in secular progressive institutions or anywhere else — is enabled by nourishing a culture of fear.

      It’s not the reporting of harassment or abuse that creates problems for these organizations. It’s the harassment and abuse that does that.

      • keta

        Thanks for posting what I was thinking.

        The Vox piece mentions Fitzfucknuts had a history of sexual harassment at his previous employer. I suppose you sidestep that particular bit of ickiness by starting your own company, but as per CruchyFrog above, if you’re the boss then the rules are for everyone else.

        And am I the only one who thinks the whole “at a progressive company? really?” angle is about as red as a herring can get? Eric correctly notes that “self-entitled asshole” identifies miles ahead of political stripe.

  • Nick056

    Nobody likes HR. But this is what a good HR department helps prevent and resolve. As such, I don’t really think the lesson here is men needing to “call out” such behavior — in a business run like this one was, the incentives are stacked against “calling out” the boss and it just does not work to say that men and women who may be at-will employees should publically or privately “call out” their boss when there’s no apparent process to handle those call outs other than a direct appeal to his sense of decency and his reputation.

    No. It may sound dull and depressing, but you need an actual HR/EEO staff who can handle complaints discreetly and to independent investigations at a firm this size. If the accusations are against a company president, then there needs to be an attorney involved who can explain Title VII liability to him (or, perhaps, her). Nobody can prevent a president or owner from harassing his own firm’s employees, but even a guy who’s a rape apologist bully might respect the almighty dollar.

    None of this is to say people should actively excuse themselves from a responsibility to challenge this type of behavior. Just the opposite. But when there’s no administrative support system underlying a call out — it is so insufficient for protecting people being harassed.

    • Murc

      Nobody likes HR.

      … really?

      I love HR departments. It’s their entire job to make sure you’re well-informed about stuff, lest things go sideways on them real fast. I have generally found them very eager to answer questions I might have, especially in areas where not answering those questions fully and completely can get the company in legal trouble; if I want to know the ins and outs of my health care they will trip over themselves to provide information.

      That information is often not to my liking but that’s a different issue.

      • Pseudonym

        The only thing worse than an HR department is the lack of one.

        • ColBatGuano

          This is what we are dealing with a my company right now. Our HR rep is three states away at another facility so we have no one to speak to about issues.

    • Ronan

      Yeah, ive never understood the rhetorical hate for HR depts (well, okay, i do have an idea where it’s coming from). But the best guide you can have to whether a workplace is entirely dysfunctional is if they have a dysfunctional HR dept.

    • There’s two basic sources for the ill will towards HR: First, they’re the mandated bearers of bad news. This is kind of like hating the IRS, but boils down to hating the messenger.

      Second, HR is responsible for enforcing sexual harassment rules, diversity rules, etc. A lot of anti-HR humor has historically gone hand in hand with griping about how these days you can’t make Jew jokes and squeeze a secretary’s ass at work anymore. The stereotypical HR drone is generally described in terms matching a castrating, shrewish woman, or your goddamn mother-in-law, or your nagging wife, etc. HR is seen as yet another case of women telling men what they can and can’t do.

      • postmodulator

        None of that jibes up with any of my experience in the workforce except possibly the “bearer of bad news” part. I’ve seen HR departments cover up for harass-y managers way more often than I’ve seen them be humorless shrews. I also can’t remember the last time I ran into an HR employee who actually knew how to do something, or knew something about the organization at which he or she worked.

        When my employer first started talking about laying me off last summer, I spent a substantial portion of the first meeting I had with our head of HR explaining to her how the layoff would go, how severance worked, etc.

        • Mr. Rogers

          Being in HR I can tell you there are a lot, and I mean a LOT, of crummy HR professionals out there. People get into the field because “they’re good with people” and only master the breaking of bad news and not the legal or training aspects of the job. Sr. Managers want HR departments who will cover things up and keep them just within the law. Other managers see them as functionaries who just do the paperwork, and the people management skills HR tires to impart as having no value. That leaves a lot of space for people to just skate by, keep upper management’s screw ups from going public, bear bad news and not push back on middle management and still make a decent living.

          I’ve seen it at non-profits and for profits, family businesses and huge national conglomerates. But bad as they can be the tales I hear of companies without HR departments make me cringe.

          • guthrie

            Wasn’t a speech or article covered on here a year or two ago where the head of the professional organisation for HR in the USAS admitted they were doing a terrible job of adding value to companies?

            Anyway, my work experience matches Mr Rogers – good and bad HR, and a lot of smaller companies have half trained people who don’t know what they are doing wearing HR hats and making a mess of things.

            • Mr. Rogers

              I don’t know if it was covered here, but it’s not uncommon in the field for people to lament the state of the profession. Too many companies that would never hire a finance person with no accounting or finance training gladly take a lower level finance person and tell them they are now “HR/Personnel” and that person moves on to their next job with that title and still no training.

              To get geeky, HR act as Force Multipliers, but if no one else in the party thinks Bard is a worthwhile character class then you’re not going to get any traction because they’ll keep asking why your singing gives them a +2 on their Disable Device roll.

              • Ahuitzotl

                great metaphor

        • Ahuitzotl

          This! I love good HR departments, and real HR professionals, but my experiences suggest that this is a very small proportion of the whole, and too many HR departments are headed by managers who got shifted sideways because of incompetence in other roles, and often staffed by a high proportion of the same. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve had to fight with various HR entities over simple & obvious legal obligations, for me or my staff.

      • Linnaeus

        I think there’s also the sense that HR departments aren’t truly there for the employee; they’re not independent of the institution in which they’re situated and can’t go to the mat for someone who needs their help if the institution really wants to resist.

        • Mr. Rogers

          There is that sense, but there shouldn’t be – again, a function of bad HR. If your location isn’t unionized then your employees need someone they see as a fair advocate they can approach to address issues. If you do have a union then management needs both that and someone who can work smoothly with the union leadership. If someone on your staff is screwing up you need a way to identify and deal with that as quickly as possible. If your staff has unreasonable expectations about pay/benefits/whatever you need to be able to address that quickly and fairly as well.

          Never being willing to go to bat for the employee is deliberately degrading your business effectiveness because you don’t want to have awkward conversations. Or because you are a sociopath who likes messing with your employees lives, which is a failing common to the model.

        • Nick056

          Well, HR is never truly there for the employee when employee interests diverge from employer interest — they are there to serve the company that pays their salary, which is pretty appropriate. But it’s a terrible practice to not give the more sensitive HR functions as much independence as possible so that they can recommend coming down hard on management in order to save the company trouble and help a beleaguered employee. If HR people are doing their jobs right, the employees will understand that HR is not their advocate in the strict sense, but that HR will take up for them when company policies are squarely on their side. The most important thing is for employees to believe that approaching HR could not make things worse, but only better (unless they’ve done something seriously wrong, themselves). That’s a difficult balance. In sexual harassment claims, it means getting people to trust that they can safely report/participate, maybe fix a problem, and not lose anything for their efforts.

      • Marek

        Third, you can represent unions and/or employees. The next great HR department I run into will be my second. (There is one I have dealt with.) So many problems that should be headed off, are not. Keeps me in a job, I guess.

  • kped

    I know this was/is a huge issue in the Atheist community, and really splintered that group, as a huge contingent are just really sexist and awful. It really exposed Richard Dawkins (he’s since continued to expose himself as awful on a number of social issues, in case people forget how much of a scumbag he is).

    Doesn’t matter what group, or how aligned you think it is with feminism, sexism and harassment just finds a way to piss in every pool. “How can I be sexist when i’m a socialist/atheist/progressive??” We’ve found out that you can, and it’s quite easy.

    • Brett

      “How can I be sexist when i’m a socialist/atheist/progressive??” We’ve found out that you can, and it’s quite easy.

      I’ve found with atheists like that, their atheism is often just another way for them to validate their sense of self-superiority – it’s why they’re supportive of atheism but often hostile to any other criticism suggesting they might be privileged racially, economically, gender-wise, etc.

  • Sadly, it’s an issue in activist circles as well. And they don’t have any sort of HR department or other organizational structure to help solve the problem. Hearing stories about sexual harassment (and worse) from other people and, in a similar vein, witnessing bullying did a lot to cause my disillusionment with communities explicitly organized around activism.

    The book The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities discusses it at length. It’s mostly people talking about their personal experiences, but it also has guidelines and ideas for how to solve the problem. It can also be downloaded for free.

  • Origami Isopod

    I’m shocked, shocked to see a pro-Wikileaks bumper sticker on FitzGibbon’s car (in the HuffPo story). I’m not against the concept of Wikileaks, but that community is just full of fauxgressive manarchist shitheels who can’t believe St. Julian of Assange is guilty of anything.

    • Brett

      To be fair, Assange has said he’d go back and face the music on the rape charges if Great Britain would offer a guarantee to block any extradition from Sweden to the US once he goes. That the UK hasn’t done that to get him to leave is telling – I suspect the US government really wants an excuse to get its hands on him.

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