Gretchen Carlson's Sexual Harassment Suit Against Fox News Is Empowering Other Victims

It takes a bold woman to speak truth to power.
Publish date:
July 12, 2016
media, sexual harassment, fox news

If you were in any doubt about Fox News CEO Roger Ailes being a slime mold before last week, that should definitely have been resolved by now, thanks to a tide of sexual harassment allegations triggered by Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox News host. Her decision to step forward and be extremely frank about what happened during her time with the network was a really important event, and not just for her and the pursuit of justice in her case.

Sexual harassment is a perennial problem in media — look at the Jian Ghomeshi case. The former CBC host faced multiple sexual assault charges which were ultimately withdrawn after he signed a "peace bond," a legal agreement that doesn't admit guilt, but also doesn't mean the party who signed it isn't guilty. What it really means is that, thanks to rape culture, it's extremely difficult to prosecute people for sexual assault, and sometimes you have to take what you can get.

That's something he would have been well aware of, and it's something that men in the media in general are familiar with — sexual harassment and sexual assault are notoriously difficult to prosecute. That's especially true in a workplace environment, where there's a great deal of "he said, she said," and attitudes about the costs of doing business, because apparently being a woman in the workplace means that you're also signing up for sexual harassment and assault.

Carlson's highlighting a problem that media insiders are already painfully aware of: If you're a woman in media, you've been sexually harassed. Especially if you are a conventionally attractive woman — which is definitely the case for most women in TV journalism, because being pretty is a job requirement for women. (Men can look like whatever apparently.) Age apparently doesn't matter either, given that Carlson just celebrated her 50th birthday.

Her courageous decision to file charges also opened the floodgates, creating room for other women to follow in her footsteps. In many ways, this situation is following a similar path as the Cosby Case: All it took was one person coming forward to embolden others, who in turn made others feel safer about speaking up, and then suddenly an icon was crumbling. Ailes isn't an icon to the extent that Cosby was, but he's definitely taking a hit, and he should be.

Carlson's allegations alone are pretty bad, particularly her claim that Ailes once said: "I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago and then you’d be good and better and I’d be good and better." This rather nonsensical statement was part of a larger patten of what she alleges was constant and systemic harassment, including making sexualized comments about her body and personal life.

But once she went public, six other women promptly emerged from the woodwork to tell their own stories. Like Kellie Boyle, who suggests that Ailes blackballed her after she refused to have sex with him. And three former models who claimed he harassed them in the 1960s, holding the prospect of modeling work over their heads in an attempt to compel them to do what he wanted. And a TV producer who says he told her that if she wanted to succeed in media, she'd have to have sex with him. Another model recounted an incident from the 1980s in which he allegedly sexually assaulted her, saying she's so traumatized by the incident that she's blocked the details from her memory.

The thing about sexual harassment and sexual assault is that people can live with it for decades until they reach a breaking point. Sometimes people carry it to their graves, dealing with the psychological aftermath in silence. Others decide they can't remain quiet anymore, and so they start speaking out, even if the chances of getting legal recompense are vanishingly slim thanks to how much time has gone by.

And sometimes, a woman like Gretchen Carlson comes along. She says that Fox refused to renew her contract because she didn't play nice with Ailes, and at 50, the sad fact is that she's going to struggle to find a place on another network, because younger (and more pliable) women are generally preferred. She knew that she had a lot to lose by not filing suit, including the potential that Ailes would go on to harass other women, and that counterbalanced the risk of getting to be known as a "difficult woman."

We need difficult women. It's difficult women who make history, and her decision to not just file suit but go very public with it meant that others felt more confident about coming out to comment on their past experiences. Her former Fox coworkers are attacking her, including a number of female anchors with "that's not the man I know" stories, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that at least some women at Fox have a very different view, even if they're too afraid to join the suit.

Men like Ailes believe they own the world, and they're confident that no one will report them because of what's at stake: A job, and potentially an entire career. Victims of sexual assault and harassment are not responsible for that happened to them, or what happens to others after them, but when someone is in a position to speak out, it can give voice to those before them. The experience of hearing someone define and validate what happened to you can be lifechanging, even if you don't pursue legal options.

But inevitably, the story doesn't end on a triumphant note of a news anchor taking a stand against sexual harassment. People are already calling the claims by other women into question, and saying that they likely can't be used at trial due to their age and supposedly dubious nature. That's actually not uncommon with sexual harassment cases of this nature, where numerous victims may come forward, but only a small core actually sign on to a suit, because attorneys pick and choose the most recent and most clearly substantiated claims.

Even assuming that these women are left off the suit, though, there's another problem. Carlson, like many people all over the world, signed a binding arbitration clause in her contract, a measure a lot of corporations use in attempt to limit legal liability. Under the terms of her contract, if issues arise with her employment with Fox, they're supposed to be handled through arbitration, not open court. And there are some indicators that the clause applies to Fox employees, not just the company as an entity, which would mean that Ailes is protected via that stringent and increasingly common contract clause. (Seriously, if you've signed a contract for something lately, check for an arbitration clause, and if you're in contract negotiations, fight to get any arbitration clauses removed.)

The exact legal situation here will take some time to untangle, and it's frustrating that she might not actually get any personal legal justice out of it. What she will get, however, is the satisfaction that she gave other sexual harassment and assault victims the courage to come out and speak their minds, and that she validated the experiences of women who are likely still struggling with what happened to them in interactions with Ailes.

I hope she gets a meaningful resolution to her case, because she deserves it. I also hope that this serves as a wakeup call to alert people to the fact that it's vitally necessary to talk about sexual harassment in media, because it's a huge problem, and Roger Ailes is just a symptom.