Thursday, October 8, 2009

NOW Condemns David Letterman for Having Sex With Female Staff

The National Organization for Women has strongly condemned David Letterman, who recently admitted to having sex with female staffers. Letterman disclosed the relationships in order to foil an extortion scam.

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.


Stray Yellar Dawg? said...

It is about time we saw a NOW with some sense and courage.

The gradient of power here is so great that, IMO, it is the responsibility of the person in power (in this case Letterman) was responsible NOT to go there. Not at all. Period.

Whether or not a person has ultimate "agency" to say "no" is beside the point.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Agency matters because the law prohibits -- and society condemns -- nonconsensual sex. If a person can offer consent, then the choice to have sex is his or her own to make.

I tend to view sex with co-workers as problematic on many levels. But to describe it as inherently oppressive to every woman regardless of her own power or individual choice seems to distort the situation greatly.

Stray Yellar Dawg? said...

I did not describe it as inherantly oppressive for all women. Only those who are in positions of "less power." If this were, say Ellen Degeneres... and a male staffer of hers, I would argue that she had power in THAT situation.

Agency to offer "consent," in situations where one has more power than another, is at best a slippery slope. But at worst it is society's choice to side with the oppressor.

My real excitement in this matter, however, really has nothing to do with either of those points. My joy is that N.O.W. has been wrested out of the hands of the third wave / cultural relativist "Feminists" ... and seems to be back in the hands of those who understand what "power over" looks like. This is a HUGE step forward for women. And I hope N.O.W. will continue to speak out!


liberal dissent said...

N.O.W.'s fundamental problem is they're fighting the battles of decades past. Feminists' third wave came about precisely because its second wave were mired in the past; rather than end victimhood they tried to embrace it. As legal and political barriers vanished, they theorized ever more abstract proofs of oppression, unwilling to give up that victimhood.

Darren's right, N.O.W. lacks nuance here.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Stray: Although I appreciate the identity-based and power critiques of the second wave, that period cannot accurately portray today's universe; it even failed to capture the past completely. The biggest problem with second wave feminism from my perspective was the lack of a multidimensional analysis of gender. "Women" seemingly shared the "same" oppression and could benefit from the same advocacy regardless of race, sexual orientation, etc. Often, focusing on the unitary category of "woman" became a way of ignoring important differences. The sexuality and race critiques of feminism were absolutely necessary.

Also, NOW described the situation as inherently oppressive. My descrption responded to NOW. Sorry for any misunderstanding.

Finally, I am not sure that the subordinate rule corrects all of the problems I have isolated. A person can be a subordinate, but still have sufficient power to consent to sex. For example, in a law firm setting, some partners are more powerful than others (due to seniority, prestige, etc), but I would not say that a subordinate partner's decision to have sex with a senior partner is inherently involuntary. Admittedly, Birkitt is not a senior official at CBS, but she is a young lawyer, who has the capacity to choose her sexual partners (and to travel across the country with them). I think the line has to sit with "unwanted" sexual attention. "Unwanted" can look complicated in certain settings, but NOW leaves no room for complexity.

Melanie said...

Rather than discussing the nuances of who has power over who in a workplace and how that effects consent, why not discuss why anybody has power over anybody else in the workplace?

No worries about whether or not a subordinate can consent to sex when the place is worker owned and worker run.

FLRN said...

Darren – How can I resist this post??? You are correct the issue hinges on adult consent and yes personal agency. Sexual harassment can be a very real threat to females often subordinate to males in the work place, however consent is the crux of the issue. Being subordinate and having consensual sex does not ALWAYS equal loss of autonomy, nor does it always equal a loss of power, a toxic environment or even an ever proverbial hill of beans. This is not Stepford wives and while NOW holds a very black white position, this gray area is not all or none, or even close to all-inclusive.

Americans spend more than half their lives on the job, traditionally men have higher level position than women in the work force and by goodness sometimes this kind of guy and that kind of women sleep together – through mutual consent. Most adult women are now in the work force so where else are they going to meet a sexual partner? Wake up and look around – this is not your grandmother’s work force or lifestyle. Times have changed and women can make personal choices even if these choices look inherently dumb. Four out of 10 married couples meet at work.

In fact, a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Workplace Romance Survey found that most companies surveyed do not even have a formal, written, romance policy In the SHRM survey, 55 percent of the more than 600 HR professionals responding said that marriage is the most likely outcome of the office romances they have experienced. Other studies have reported a higher level of productivity in dating couples at work. Laws and As much as I am not a fan of Letterman – perhaps there is more to the story than toxins and villains – maybe there is a gray zone complete with wiggle room!

FLRN said...

P.S. DLH did you read the link for the SUN? - I think I have gastric upset - there has to be a crime here somewhere!

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

FLRN: Thanks for the post. Excellent analysis -- and great stats on workplace romance.

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