From Anita Hill To Gretchen Carlson, A Myth About Sexual Harassment Victims That Just Won’t Die

Gretchen Carlson and Roger Ailes CREDIT: AP/BRYCE COVERT
Gretchen Carlson and Roger Ailes CREDIT: AP/BRYCE COVERT

An old line of attack against those who speak out against sexual harassment is surfacing once again in response to allegations against recently ousted Fox News executive Roger Ailes. After former host Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit against Ailes, eliciting similar stories from a number of other women who worked for him, many pundits are publicly questioning why they worked with him and even praised him at the same time that he was harassing them.

While it may seem contradictory, there are plenty of reasons for victims of harassment to stay silent and keep trying to build their careers. Doing so can still go hand in hand with enduring abuse.

When initially asked about the lawsuit, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said he thought the allegations were “unfounded.” He went further on Meet the Press this Sunday, casting doubt on some of the women because they worked with Ailes and said positive things about him.

“I can tell you that some of the women that are complaining, I know how much he’s helped them. And even recently. And when they write books that are fairly recently released, and they say wonderful things about him. And now all of a sudden they’re saying these horrible things about him,” he said.


Trump’s not the first to make this defense. Ailes himself has made it. Besides the public lawsuit from Carlson, Ailes has reportedly been accused of harassing Fox host Megyn Kelly, who told an internal investigation into Ailes’s behavior of her experiences early in her career. In response, Ailes’s lawyer told the New York Times, “Roger Ailes has never sexually harassed Megyn Kelly. In fact, he has spent much of the last decade promoting and helping her to achieve the stardom she earned, for which she has repeatedly and publicly thanked him.”

Ailes hinted at a similar self defense in his farewell letter to Fox after he was ousted. “I take particular pride in the role that I have played advancing the careers of the many women I have promoted to executive and on-air positions,” he said. “Many of these talented journalists have deservedly become household names known for their intelligence and strength, whether reporting the news, fair and balanced, and offering exciting opinions on our opinion programs.”

We don’t give women a whole lot of safe choices to make.

Even the media has fallen into this line of thinking. In a sit-down interview with Carlson, New York Times reporters John Koblin and Jim Rutenberg wrote of “a series of handwritten notes that Ms. Carlson sent Mr. Ailes late last year” in which “she told him that she would love to stay at Fox and asked for additional opportunities at the network.” They asked her “why she was seeking better assignments if she felt she was a victim of harassment.”

Carlson had this to say in response: “I think it’s hard when you’ve been a victim — you keep thinking things are going to get better.”


Carlson is right: many victims end up dealing with their abuse and harassment by simply trying to push through to better opportunities, especially when faced with few good options.

Many women find themselves subject to harassment from men who hold positions of power and can be an indispensable boon to their careers — or a giant roadblock if they are crossed. According to many women’s stories of their treatment from Roger Ailes, that was a role he exploited often. Most women say he propositioned them or said inappropriate comments in business meetings about how he could help further their careers. Ailes bragged to one woman about all the others he had gotten sexual favors from in exchange for helping them advance. He told another as she struggled to get out of an unwanted embrace, “Well, you know no girls get a job here unless they’re cooperative.”

That’s a common tactic harassers use. “It’s Sexual Harassment 101,” said Jennifer Reisch, legal director at Equal Rights Advocates. “You can say, ‘Do this or I’ll fire you,’ or you can say, ‘Do this and I’ll promote you.’”

Some victims may try to come forward right away; at least one woman who says she was harassed by Ailes did. A woman using the pseudonym Susan says when she was 16 she went to audition for a part on The Mike Douglas Show, where Ailes was a producer, late in the evening, when he brought her into his office, locked the door, took his genitals out of his pants, and told her to “kiss them.” Some years later she wrote up her experience and sent it around to the media, but she couldn’t get anyone to publish or cover it.

And that’s not an uncommon reaction to a woman who says she’s been harassed. Many of them are met with disbelief and inaction — so the incentive to come forward is that much weaker. “People have to make choices about how they navigate that situation,” Reisch said. “We don’t give women a whole lot of safe choices to make.”

Gretchen Carlson’s Lawsuit Opened A Floodgate Of Harassment Allegations Against Roger AilesLast week, former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson sued Fox Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, alleging…thinkprogress.orgComing forward can have enormous negative consequences for an accuser. She may not only face public character attacks, but also risk losing her job and the career opportunities she may have been working toward.


Carlson claims her contract wasn’t renewed because she rebuffed Ailes’s advances. Rudi Bakhtiar, a former Fox News on-air employee, told the New York Times that she was propositioned by a different Fox employee and was fired when she rejected him. Other women who have come forward say they were blacklisted: one woman told New York Magazine that after she turned Ailes down, a meeting she had set up to sign a major contract was canceled, and she was later told it was because Ailes had put out the word that she shouldn’t be hired.

“If the person who is harassing you is someone who is really important not just in your company but in your industry, you have to worry not only will this make it impossible for me to continue to work here, but…what kind of black mark am I putting by my name by speaking up,” said Emily Martin, vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center.

So there is a great deal of risk and often little gain for taking action. Instead, many victims try to put up with the harassment and avoid their abuser as best as they can. In a major report on workplace harassment, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that only a very small sliver of victims say anything about it or take formal steps against abuse. Instead, the most common response is to keep the job and stay quiet. “The vast majority of women who are experiencing sexual harassment are very likely working with the people who are harassing them,” said Reisch.

There is a very good reason for saying nice things about your boss in public.

It’s no big leap, then, to imagine that victims will still try to further their careers by accepting opportunities from their harassers and by publicly thanking them when those opportunities arise. “There is a very good reason for saying nice things about your boss in public,” Martin pointed out. “Lots of us have had bosses that in private we talk about differently than when we talk in public. That’s not a unique experience.”

“Even if you have experienced harassment, you may still think that you really need to protect your own job and protect your own interests,” she added. “Often doing that will mean saying nice things about the person who has power over your job and over your professional future.”

The country has long wrestled with these issues. This same line of questioning came up a quarter century ago during one of the most important, breakthrough discussions of sexual harassment: the Anita Hill hearings. In 1991, when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was nominated to the bench, Hill went public with allegations that Thomas had sexually harassed her when she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Megyn Kelly Reportedly Told Investigators She Was Sexually Harassed By Roger AilesIn the wake of former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson’s sexual harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes, a phalanx of…thinkprogress.orgIn the hearings over Hill’s allegations, the senators who questioned her seemed baffled as to why she stayed silent and kept a working relationship with Thomas.

“If what you say this man said to you occurred…why in God’s name would you ever speak to a man like that the rest of your life?” former Senator Alan Simpson asked. He called the fact that she stayed in touch with him after he was no longer her boss “most puzzling and contradictory.”

In response, Hill explained why a victim might behave in such a way. “I was afraid of retaliation, I was afraid of damage to my professional life,” she said. “One of the things I have come to understand about harassment, this response, this kind of response is not atypical.”

Twenty-five years later, it’s still true that this reaction is typical. And yet this line of reasoning in defense of those who stand accused of harassment — that if a woman continues a positive professional relationship with her harasser then she must be lying about her experience — continues to emerge.

“We put these double standards out there for how women are supposed to speak up and tell their stories,” Reisch pointed out, “and yet when they do, everything they’ve decided to do and every reaction is questioned.”