NOW: Letterman Created "Toxic Environment"
NOW has posted a formal statement criticizing Letterman on its website. According to NOW, Letterman's behavior created a "toxic environment." NOW reasons that:
[Letterman] wields the ultimate authority as to who gets hired, who gets fired, who gets raises, who advances, and who does entry-level tasks among the Late Show employees. As "the boss," he is responsible for setting the tone for his entire workplace -- and he did that with sex. In any work environment, this places all employees -- including employees who happen to be women -- in an awkward, confusing and demoralizing situation.The statement also describes a call from a man who asked NOW to advise him how to discuss this issue with his daughter:
We recently received a call from a man in Rockford, Ill., who wanted to get advice from NOW about what to tell his 16 year-old daughter who was confused by reports on the latest Letterman controversy. The father raised his daughter to be a feminist. He raised her to stand up for herself. He raised her not be objectified as a sexual object. She admits she is confused because the messages she sees on television and news reports appear to make it okay to objectify women as long as the man in power is famous. It is this kind of hypocrisy that perpetuates the image of men in power preying on women, while many look the other way.NOW's Criticism is Unnuanced
Sexual harassment in the workplace is not only unlawful, but it is a serious problem. NOW's analysis, however, does not distinguish unwanted sexual attention, which federal law prohibits, and consensual sex. Because Letterman is "the boss," NOW deems any sexual contact between him and his (female) staff as inappropriate.
Many feminist legal theorists (e.g., Janet Halley, Kathryn Abrams) have criticized the assumption that women lack agency to consent to sexual relations in the workplace, including with men in positions of authority. Some of the "agency theorists" have failed to appreciate the fact that economic status, race, sexual orientation, and other factors severely limit women's autonomy. Nevertheless, NOW's assertion that any sexual contact between "bosses" and subordinates creates a "toxic" work environment, "objectifies" women, and involves men "preying on women" offers a particularly unnuanced depiction of the workplace.
In some circumstances, the law rightfully assumes that "subordinates" cannot consent to sex. For example, statutory rape laws rest on the understanding that sex between a child and an adult will likely involve some dimension of coercion even if the child offers "consent." Laws also prohibit teachers from having sex with students, including students who have reached the legal age of consent. Similar laws ban sexual relations among staff and patients in mental hospitals and among prison officials and inmates. NOW's position treats the workplace like all of these other settings where the problem of consent seems far more pronounced.
It is also interesting and ironic that in the case of Letterman, a female staffer's male romantic companion spearheaded the extortion scheme. Apparently, Joe Alderman read Stephanie Birkitt's personal diary, discovered that she was having an affair with Letterman, and tried to cash in on the situation.
Alderman treated Birkitt as "his" property. It does not appear that Birkitt conspired with him to commit extortion. Instead, Alderman used her affair with Letterman to address his own dire financial situation. This seems analogous to the archaic notion that an act of adultery with a married women is a crime against the "innocent" married male.
Also, according to some sources, Birkitt apparently told Alderman that she and Letterman where "best friends" when she traveled with him to Montana in 2008. Furthermore, Birkitt has described her relationship with Letterman in very warm terms. These factors undermine the sexual predator narrative that informs NOW's critique of Letterman.
Letterman might be a patriarch. But that does not rob women of the ability to consent to sex, nor does it make him a sexual predator.
Update: Taylor Marsh has also analyzed this issue: Just One Reason I Don't Belong to NOW.