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Reckoning With Sexual Harassment


October 5 was the day The New York Times published a story that detailed decades of sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein. In the six weeks, the stories of harassment and abuse have leveled powerful men in journalism, politics, film and other industries, where executives have been fired and had to resign, including at NPR. New York Magazine writer Rebecca Traister has written that this is a moment of reckoning. Rebecca Traister joins us from New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

REBECCA TRAISTER: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: One of the things you've written about is complicity in the power establishment. But also, you believe some women have been complicit - people you call game girls.

TRAISTER: I do indeed write about the way that many of the women - including myself - many of the women I know are wrestling with the ways in which we have participated in this system or not participated in this system. So many of us - if not all of us - have engaged in this in one way or another, whether we were the objects of harassment or assault, whether we decided to stay silent and not report assaults - sometimes in an effort to not get the backlash that many women got when they did file complaints. But if we did that, then did we enable the perpetrators to do it to other women who are our younger colleagues or who came after us? If we did not participate - if we rebuffed, did that hurt our careers?

I think that there are all kinds of ways in which many of us - men and women - are reexamining our professional paths and seeing the ways in which they have been shaped and redirected by these kinds of power abuses.

SIMON: And you do say us. You believe that you've been complicit in some small ways, too.

TRAISTER: Of course. I believe that everybody has. I tell a story in the piece about a former colleague of mine who did not harass me but who I saw harass other people. And at a later job, that colleague, I was told, was going to be brought on. And I made this stand. No, I will not work with him. But I was on a leave at the time. And I was told - OK, it'll just be temporary. By the time you get back from your leave, he'll be gone. And he was.

However, when I got back from that leave, there were younger employees who came to me afterwards and told me that he had messaged them inappropriately. So you know, here I was thinking, actually, that I was, you know, doing the right thing by raising my voice in concern. But in fact, in doing it only, in some ways, on my own behalf, I failed to protect the others - younger women - from that kind of behavior.

SIMON: Some of the allegations against prominent men - and be they Harvey Weinstein or Roy Moore or James Toback or President Trump or Al Franken - are 10, 20, even 30 years old. Should some of the women who defended President Bill Clinton from allegations of sexual misconduct in the '80s and '90s reassess the support they gave him now?

TRAISTER: Absolutely. I think that we are overdue for a reevaluation of the conversation that was had about Bill Clinton. And I do think that the way in which the left and the feminist left came to his defense in the '90s - in the years after Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas - had really helped to clarify that this behavior wasn't just sort of a matter of individual quirky habit or just the way that men were.

I think that the defense of Bill Clinton, coming on the heels of that Anita Hill conversation and those set of revelations, really did derail a conversation about the kind of impact of sexual harassment on women and the kind of impact that it should have on conversations about gender and power. I also think we run a little bit of a risk right now in returning to Bill as the original sinner and not dealing with the president who's currently in the White House and who has been accused by more than 20 women of forms of harassment and assault - or about, you know, Roy Moore who's running for the Senate - or, more broadly, - and this is what I've been writing about - the reality that these kinds of offenses are taking place in so many of our workplaces.

And even though we're far too late in doing the Bill Clinton re-examination - and I'm all for doing it - I think in some ways, there's a refuge in going back and talking about Bill Clinton and making him the main subject again and not taking a look at what's happening all around us right now in our own offices and in the White House, as it is currently occupied.

SIMON: Do you have any concern that, in the present atmosphere, it is possible that people who are innocent or well-meaning wind up getting harmed?

TRAISTER: I have tremendous concern on that front - first of all, because I am always worried about innocents getting wrongly accused because you don't want to see miscarriages of justice. And there are real risks of being tried in the court of public opinion. And I'm always concerned about that.

I also have real concerns about what will happen to the feminist conversation that I think is so necessary that we're having now. And as soon as there is a false allegation or a repercussion that is out of line with the severity of the trespass, that is going to be used as a moment that will be a springboard for, I fear, a very punishing backlash against this whole wave. And it will be re-envisioned as a witch hunt and as the women coming to get the men with torches.

And that, I think - I worry will end the conversation and the examination that we really do need to continue to engage in for a long time moving forward.

SIMON: Rebecca Traister, a writer for New York Magazine - thanks so much for being with us.

TRAISTER: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.