Sexual Harassment: Our Double Standard Is Nothing New, But Growing Old

With the explosion of sexual harassment stories in recent weeks, it feels like the longtime culture of secrecy around the subject is finally starting to erode. But there’s one aspect of this culture that should be discussed more and that’s the double standard between politicians and just about everyone else when it comes to sexual harassment.

I brought this subject up with WJBK-TV’s Let It Rip show on Detroit TV yesterday, when discussing the allegations against Congressman John Conyers, in office since 1964 when multiple guests on the same panel, including his attorney, called for “due process.” I noted that in the business world, once scandals become public, they tend to quickly cost careers. Case in point, Charlie Rose, who was fired last week by CBS and had contracts terminated with both PBS and Bloomberg. Also, the Fox News Channel, which, once previously private sexual harassment settlements became public, fired its top-rated host, Bill O’Reilly, and even its CEO/creator, Roger Ailes.

From a PR standpoint, it makes sense. Charlie Rose’s audience likely wouldn’t have been able to watch him this morning knowing what was revealed, and he didn’t deny, just last week. Entire business reputations can be lost because of how a company handles one individual.

But that’s not the case with our elected officials. The “names on the front of their jerseys” mean too much to those who count on their votes or signatures.

This dates back at least to Bill Clinton who, nearly 20 years ago, was caught lying about an affair with an intern. If it was any other CEO caught in that situation, it would have resulted in termination. But Clinton was thought by enough Americans to be an otherwise effective President (among other factors including those who minimized the behavior), so he stayed in office.

It continues with Roy Moore, who could be elected to the U.S. Senate, but would be rejected if he filled out any other kind of job application, and Senator Al Franken, who if he was still on Saturday Night Live would have been booted off the show. Never mind Conyers, who is accused of giving Fox News-esque hush money, except paid for by taxpayers.

There are reasons that include democratic safeguards. But, above all, partisanship reigns.

The fact is that we are more quick to accept the otherwise unacceptable behavior of politicians than we are even entertainers. There were no cries of “due process” for Louis CK. That’s OK. Even fans of his comedy will move on. But take away a potential “win” for a political side? Even a President whose sexual harassment denial, of sorts, included “She would not be my first choice, I can tell you that” got a pass from enough voters in enough places to be elected.

Business PR practices shouldn’t always be emulated or even commended. But now even Hollywood is meeting this cultural challenge with a higher set of values than the political world.