Slate executive editor Allison Benedikt recently wrote an essay about meeting her husband at work, when he was her boss and she was a 23-year-old entry-level fact-checker: “My boss would look down the gap at the waistband of my jeans when he walked past my desk… My career, at the time, was in his hands.” In the essay, Benedikt worries that the current reckoning around workplace harassment would make relationships like hers impossible. She sympathizes with women who “have written recently that they fear a coming backlash — that one false allegation against a famous man will bring this whole new reality crashing down, or that in the understandable urge to name names, women will be seen as the aggressors, out to tar every man’s reputation.”
A take like this annoys me, not least because women are clearly already being seen as aggressors. It doesn’t help to have our peers making the patriarchy-addled assumption that we are all lying in wait, eager to wrongly accuse someone who did nothing, apparently relishing the vicious, vitriolic backlash that every woman who speaks out experiences. Benedikt continues:
I have those fears too, but I also fear the consequences of overcorrection, of the concept of harassment ballooning to include perfectly legitimate attempts at seduction—the initial touch, the scooting closer in the booth, the drunken sloppy first kiss, the occasional bad call or failed pass.
This is a popular concern right now, and it annoys me even more because it assumes women are somehow unable to tell the difference between a well-intentioned attempt at romance and harassment. None of the stories that have come out so far struck me as falling into that grey area. Glenn Thrush was married when he allegedly made passes at much, much younger women (Benedikt’s husband, for the record, was a mere four years older than her). Michael Oreskes, the now-ousted NPR editor, abruptly kissed women who asked to speak with him about getting a job at the New York Times when he worked there.
Benedikt asks a series of questions about what constitutes a consensual relationship at work, concluding that their answers were not “definitively yes”:
If a younger woman asks an older and more professionally powerful man for job advice, and that man ends up hitting on the woman, is that on its own harassment? Is it always wrong when a man is attracted to a woman at work, and acts on that attraction? If that man tries to, say, kiss the woman he is attracted to, and she’s not into it, and they leave it at that, was that forcible kissing? If a woman is not attracted to a man who comes on to her, and that man is in a position of any sort of power, is that clearly a fireable offense?
If a young woman asks a man for job advice and he hits on her, that is inappropriate. If a man is attracted to a woman at work and acts on it — well, wait a minute, how is he acting on it? Is he Matt Lauer, calling the woman into his office and then raping her? Or is he Benedikt’s now-husband, asking the woman if she’d like to get a drink, then kissing her at the end of what was, we can assume, a night with charged chemistry?
If Benedikt’s husband had, as she describes in the third question, kissed her and she wasn’t into it, and they left it at that, it may have been uncomfortable and frustrating and anxiety-inducing for the 23-year-old fact-checker. But chances are she would have blamed herself, as we are conditioned to do. She would have gone home to her roommates and said, “I’m so stupid, going out for a drink with my boss, thinking it could just be friendly.” She would have been wrong for beating herself up, and hopefully her boss would have told her as much.
The questions Benedikt asks are flawed because they are not descriptive enough. What is meant by “comes on to her”? We all know people who met their partners through work. A friend of mine has been dating a man for four years who was her intern. She never acted on her attraction to him while he worked for her. Another friend is married to a woman he interviewed for freelance work. Again, their courtship did not start in that interview. He didn’t simply look at her resume, then drop his pants.
Benedikt is sympathetic to men who “express confusion about where the lines are” and “have largely been met with derision”:
When one guy told the New York Times that workplaces should cancel their holiday parties “until it has been figured out how men and women should interact,” he was dismissed in my work Slack. When a sheriff in Texas wrote on Facebook that he would no longer be hugging his colleagues, because he’s worried that now hugs will be taken as threatening behavior, the Twitterati laughed. “I have an idea! How about just not harassing women?” the flippant response goes. But that reaction is too simplistic. The sheriff and the guy who talked to the New York Times are telling us that there is confusion in the culture about what is and isn’t OK. We certainly shouldn’t elevate those concerns over the need to protect women, but why ignore that confusion with an eye-roll?
Yes, there is confusion in the culture. Laurie Penny wrote about that well for this website in her essay “The Horizon of Desire.” In a perfect world, we would all have limitless patience to hold these men’s hands and walk them through this reckoning, educating them.
But we are tired, and that is understandable. We have been shouldering responsibility for things that weren’t our fault for so long, and it is sometimes a little unimaginable to be kind to people who would foist more responsibility onto our shoulders in this moment. And it is aggravating to see men casting about for some sort of explanation that exempts them from responsibility. The problem is not holiday parties. It is the colleagues who would use alcohol and festivity as a cover for violating boundaries.
No one is saying that romance must die. No one is saying that it is impossible to meet someone at work — a place we spend the majority of our waking hours — and feel a spark. What we are asking in this moment is to be respectful, to be mindful, to consider how your actions and words impact people with less power than you. I am glad that things worked out for Benedikt and her husband and their three children. But I also want things to work out for the countless young women who go into work every day feeling tense and full of self-doubt because they don’t know if their boss really respects their work or hired them so he could look down the back of their jeans.
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 showeredwithpraise. 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.”