Slate column asks readers to see the ‘upside’ of sexual harassment in the office

"The Upside of Office Flirtation" is dangerous.

Participants march against sexual assault and harassment at the #MeToo March. CREDIT: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
Participants march against sexual assault and harassment at the #MeToo March. CREDIT: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Two months ago, a wave of allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein opened the door to a reckoning. In recent weeks, victims have spoken candidly about their abuse at the hands of powerful men, including Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), and Roy Moore, just to name a few.

When one woman used the hashtag #MeToo to share her own experience, there were more than 12 million Facebook posts and comments with the same tag within just 24 hours.

For the first time, some (though certainly not all) abusers are facing consequences, being fired from jobs, having their shows pulled off the air, being removed from films. Women, newly assured they are not alone, are telling their stories more often and more publicly than ever before.

On Tuesday, Slate published another example of a powerful person abusing that power and thus endangering women in the workplace.

“When I was 23 years old, my boss would look down the gap at the waistband of my jeans when he walked past my desk,” Slate’s executive editor Allison Benedikt wrote. “I was an entry-level fact-checker at my first magazine job, and he was an older and more powerful editor. My career, at the time, was in his hands.”

The essay, at its start, reads like a lot of the personal stories women have bravely shared in recent weeks. Benedikt, one suspects, is adding her voice to that chorus. Instead, she goes on to describe how her boss asked her out for a drink one night at a “dark bar,” which led to more dates, a kiss, and, eventually, a marriage and three children.

Benedikt, understandably, writes that she has been thinking back about the origins of her marriage in recent weeks. But she goes on to use her personal experience to diminish the experiences of women bravely coming forward and pushing us, as a culture, to address the tight grip of rape culture on all facets of our lives, including and especially the workplace.

Benedikt writes that she has heard how horrific allegations of sexual assault and harassment have piled up alongside what she calls “murkier stories of older men ‘forcibly kissing’ younger women who didn’t want to be kissed, men planting ‘unexpected’ kisses on female colleagues, [and] men being ‘creepy AF’ in Twitter DMs.”

That Benedikt is so quick to write off the experiences of other women, to think that only horrific assaults are the problem, is dangerous. By writing it, Benedikt — and Slate, by choosing to publish it — is endangering the women in her workplace.

As the executive editor of a large publication, she’s signaling, from a powerful position in a large newsroom, that she’s comfortable writing off reports of unwanted advances as “murky.”

And her only justification for doing so is her own experience. Benedikt wonders in the essay, had she not been interested in her husband’s advances, would that have been harassment? Was it harassment even though she was, because he was her boss?

She answers those questions, writing, “Today, many people seem to think the answer is yes.” Because it is.

It was all okay, in her eyes, because she was attracted to her then-boss and future husband. But “attraction” is not the currency of harassment. Power is.

Last week, NBC fired Today Show host Matt Lauer following sexual harassment complaints from women at the network. Former talk show host, Celebrity Apprentice contestant, and current Fox News contributor Geraldo Rivera defended Lauer on Twitter, tweeting, “News is a flirty business.”

The tweet — rightfully — set off a firestorm of criticism and Rivera eventually apologized. But on Tuesday, when Benedikt made the same argument, dressed up by a “liberal” outlet, she was showered with praise. Her essay was ripe with the same incredulous tone as an Associated Press story from Monday headlined, “In wake of Weinstein, men wonder if hugging women still OK.” How, the men and Benedikt ask, can we find love now? How can we find sex now? Will we be reprimanded, even fired, for workplace interactions that used to seem okay?

Benedikt is asking the wrong questions. She ought to ask: What about women who don’t reject advances from their boss out of fear of retribution — a desire to please their boss to keep their job?

Many people, in the midst of the reckoning, have looked back at previous interactions in a new light, perhaps reconsidering whether both parties consented or whether it crossed a line. But Benedikt’s essay reads as a justification for the origins of her marriage and a public declaration that, despite holding a prominent role in a prominent newsroom, she is sympathetic to powerful men crossing lines with young women whom they supervise.

It’s a public declaration of how Benedikt may handle a report of sexual harassment in the workplace. She may say, as she wrote in her column, “[W]e all make each other uncomfortable sometimes, particularly when sex and attraction are involved.”

The reckoning is bringing with it new standards: Don’t look down the gap at the waistband of your employee’s jeans when you walk past. Don’t abuse positions of power. Treat women like they’re people.

The new rules are not complicated, but for so many people, even “liberals” and women, those standards—unbelievably—seem too high. Choosing to declare as much from a position of power isn’t adding anything to the conversation. It’s dangerous.


UPDATE: On Wednesday afternoon, Slate responded to requests for comment from ThinkProgress regarding the company’s HR policy and Benedikt’s column.

“Slate has no tolerance for harassment in the workplace,” Julia Turner, Slate’s editor in chief, said in an email. “Creating a safe and humane workplace where all of our employees can do their best work is our top priority.”

Turner also said she was proud of Benedikt’s essay, adding that it was, in her view, “in no way an endorsement of harassment, but raises fascinating questions about human behavior and our current cultural moment.”