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Sexual harassment and the progressive movement

If you claim to be a progressive space, you can't treat victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault as an inconvenience.

CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Diana Ofosu
CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Diana Ofosu

Benton Strong, a former employee at a leading liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress, was accused of harassment by at least two of his colleagues when he worked at the organization in 2016, BuzzFeed reported on Tuesday.

ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news outlet housed at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

According to BuzzFeed’s reporting, two women filed complaints against Strong in May 2016. BuzzFeed’s report does not name the first woman, and identifies the second only as “Mary” by her request.

The unnamed woman who filed a complaint against Strong said that during a work meeting, Strong asked the women present if anyone had masturbated in front of them or exposed themselves — and then made fun of her when she told him she cried when people did these things to her. Mary said that Strong sent her “incessant” inappropriate text messages. In one of Strong’s messages, he said that he and several other male staffers were speculating about whether black or white women were better at oral sex. Strong also commented on Mary’s body and repeatedly invited her to his apartment, according to her complaint.

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After investigating Mary’s complaint, CAP suspended Strong for three days, through his scheduled departure date in July 2016, according to BuzzFeed (Strong had already accepted a new job by the time the two complaints were made). Mary left the organization three months later.

Mary told the publication that after she reported the harassment to the HR department at the Center for American Progress, she felt she was treated differently by her supervisor, who didn’t make her feel part of their team.

In response to BuzzFeed’s story, a spokesperson for the Center for American Progress told ThinkProgress in a statement that the organization is planning a sexual harassment training and will “continue to solicit any and all ideas to strengthen our policies, our workplace environment and our workplace culture.”

“We investigated allegations of retaliation related to this case, interviewing third parties as well, and while we don’t doubt the victim’s sincerity, we found none,” the statement read. “However, that anyone felt uncomfortable at CAP is something we are very sorry about and have worked to address. We continue to work with staff and others to ensure our policies are as strong as they can be.”

This harassment happened in a progressive space, and it’s definitely not the first time progressives have grappled with sexual harassment. Since last fall — and long before the #MeToo movement put a spotlight on this issue — we’ve heard countless stories of progressive activists, celebrities, politicians, and even labor union leaders sexually harassing and sexually assaulting people.

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Last December, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) resigned after several women accused him of groping and sexual harassment. Several women accused Don Hazen, executive director of AlterNet and the former publisher of Mother Jones, of harassment that same month. The nonprofit parent organization that ran the publication at the time placed him on leave. California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D), who was a prominent face in the #MeToo movement, is under investigation for sexually harassing and groping a former staffer. Glenn E. Martin, who started a nonprofit focusing on criminal justice reform, JustLeadershipUSA, groped an employee who went to his apartment for a work meeting. She was paid $25,000 in 2015 to conceal those allegations, according to The New York Times. According to the Times, three women in total accused him of similar advances. Martin left his position in December.

And there are so many more of these examples to choose from.

Harassment in progressive places

There is nothing new about people in progressive spaces, and men in particular, using their power to silence others, usually women. Misogyny and abuse of power infect every political and ideological space, and dismantling the systems that support harassers requires serious commitment from everyone in those spaces.

When the woman Martin harassed described what happened to her, she said“I joined JLUSA to empower people and instead had all the power taken away from me. I was rendered powerless and silenced while he was empowered with an even bigger microphone.”

Tina Dupuy wrote in The Atlantic that after Franken groped her at a Media Matters party during the first Obama inauguration in 2009, she felt dehumanized. “It shrunk me. It’s like I was no longer a person, only ornamental. It said, ‘You don’t matter—and I do,'” she wrote.

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Kristen Gwynne, a reporter who worked for AlterNet for a few years, tweeted about Hazen’s conduct, which included kissing her and hugging her and showing her photos of an adult film actress that he said looked like her. “Working at AlterNet was the most helpless I ever felt in my life,” she said.

But too often, in progressive spaces, survivors of sexual violence, harassment, and abuse are told that one very powerful person fighting for a cause is more important than the people they harm along the way.

Look at Franken as one example. Some Democratic senators wanted Franken to reconsider his decision to resign, and according to sources who spoke to Politico, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) told Franken privately that he regretted calling on him to step down. In January, David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, tweeted, “As two new senators are sworn in today, I can’t help thinking that Al Franken was sacrificed by Senate Dems to enhance their chances against Moore in Alabama.” Comments and tweets like these signal to victims of harassment and sexual assault that their stories don’t matter as much as the great men “sacrificed” after their stories go public.

After Franken’s resignation, many liberal men bragged on social media about how much better Democrats handled sexual harassment compared to Republicans by demanding he resign from his post. That is one interpretation. Another interpretation would be that Democratic leaders actually dragged their feet a bit.

The first allegation against Franken, by Leeann Tweeden, became public on November 16. By November 23, multiple women had accused Franken of harassment and by November 30, a fifth woman came forward. A seventh woman came forward with allegations on December 6. Only then did a group of Democratic senators call on Franken to resign.

Even if Democrats had immediately called on the senator to resign after the first few allegations, the glee and the pride emanating from those congratulatory tweets and Facebook statuses seemed tone deaf. At times, it felt like people forgot about the victims themselves, and instead decided to pat themselves on the back for doing the bare minimum to address harassment.

As a culture, we tend to allow progressives, especially progressive men, to use their feminism and support for other liberal causes as a shield against allegations. 

I continue to read tweets from people with #Resist in their Twitter bio who claim Franken wasn’t to blame. Publications ran stories focusing on the Russian bots that supposedly put pressure on Franken to resign. I saw men and women who did not appear to have read the accounts from Franken’s accusers — or perhaps they read every single story and did not care — insist that Franken had been unfairly cast aside by Democrats.

Perhaps we should instead be asking why someone whose policy decisions prioritize women would disregard the agency of women over and over again.

The path forward for progressives

When progressives talk about what Congress has lost as a result of Franken’s resignation, I always think of Dupuy’s description of how excited she felt about the future before Franken made her feel so small.

In Dupuy’s piece in the Atlantic, she wrote that she was enjoying the inauguration party and felt optimistic about the Democratic Party. “I’d never been in the proverbial room where it happens… The town was buzzing with optimism,” she wrote. Then Franken groped her. Then she felt like she was “no longer a person.”

How do we shift the conversation from the experiences of harassers to instead prioritize all of the people whose accomplishments we’ll never benefit from, or whose enthusiasm we never held onto, because we would rather prioritize powerful people and the institutions that protect them?

Arguments for more mandatory sexual harassment trainings are often a major focus of this conversation. This isn’t an easy or quick solution, however. According to researchers, many sexual harassment trainings aren’t effective because they’re focused more on companies ensuring themselves legal protection than they are on protecting people who may be targeted for sexual harassment or who have already endured harassment and need to report it.

If organizations are really going to try to improve their approach to preventing harassment and handling complaints, researchers say employers need to have clear policies on sexual harassment. That includes explaining to employees what behaviors can be considered harassment, explaining how to report harassment, providing assurances that reporting harassment will not be retaliated against, explaining what retaliation is, and if possible, giving employees confidentiality of complaints. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that there were more reports of harassment when surveys more specifically defined which acts are considered harassment.

Employers have to show that there is a culture of accountability and transparency, even for the most powerful employees, but they also have to understand the barriers that marginalized workers face in their workplaces. Do women have the same access to opportunities that will help them advance in their workplaces as their male counterparts? Is the organization taking steps to ensure that managers are held accountable for gender bias in performance evaluations or to reduce bias in evaluations by changing the process? Sexual harassment is so clearly enabled by the pay gap, and we need to address them both at the same time.

Harassers may target certain groups of people for harassment because they know they don’t have the economic power or connections to demand accountability. The EEOC lists risk factors for harassment, including a significant number of teenage and young adult employees, workplaces with “high value” employees, such as executives or senior managers who see themselves as exempt from the same rules as others, and workplaces with significant power disparities, such as most of the low-ranking employees being women. Progressive institutions and activist networks can’t afford to ignore these power differences by shrugging them off and saying their employees are all part of working toward the same mission.

And then there is the inadequacy of legal protections for victims of sexual harassment themselves, as Sarah DeWitt wrote in the Minnesota Law Review. These laws don’t always recognize the practical decisions people make in their workplaces. For example, many workers use “passive strategies” such as ignoring conduct, but remaining silent hurts a sexual harassment claim. And while the actions of Harvey Weinstein, such as assaulting women in hotel rooms, are “unambiguously sexual harassment,” DeWitt explains, “the law offers fewer protections for claims of sexual harassment not involving sexual conduct.”

Until these discrepancies in the workplace and the courts change, people are turning to less formal methods of accountability as a result.

One of the most prominent examples of informal approaches to accountability is Moira Donegan’s anonymous Google spreadsheet, known as the Shitty Media Men list, circulated among female journalists last fall to warn them of harassers in their industry. Many of the men listed on the spreadsheet have since left their positions.

If progressive organizations and activists want a more formalized accountability process for people who abuse their power to sexually harass their colleagues, they’ll have to figure out how to convince people that they will be listened to, that their concerns are a priority to the group, and that they will not be treated as an inconvenience.