Monday, August 12, 2013

A Different Look at Sexual Harassment

Feminist icons like Gloria Steinem and the late Betty Friedan, who were long-time colleagues and friends of mine, might see this as “blaming the victim,” but that is 180 degrees from what I have in mind.

I spent decades editing women’s magazines, hiring generations of bright, ambitious young women. As years went by, it was like standing at the stern of an ocean liner, watching the shore line slowly recede.

Only a simpleton or a saint would have been unaware of such a sexually charged atmosphere, and I was neither. Early on, I interviewed a former model for a low-level job. “I would do anything to make you happy,” she said. I chose someone else.

My best friend ran a public relations firm staffed by young women. He selected among newly graduated English majors who announced they were ready to sell out. “Exactly what is it,” he would ask, “that you have to sell?”

In that world, which still exists in too many ways today, a woman’s path upward in business or politics inevitably meant pleasing men and the definition varied, depending on those involved. It wasn't and still isn’t fair.

Workplaces like the New York Times (see Gay Talese’s “The Kingdom and the Power”) and book publishing houses were notorious for the couplings of older men and younger women mutually using one another.  

It was wrong then if it became predatory, and it’s wrong now, but the outrage over slugs like Anthony Weiner and Bob Filner and, at the heights of academia, philosopher Colin McGinn, omits a crucial part of the context, a social structure that invites such behavior.

McGinn claims he engaged a doctoral candidate in “a warm, consensual, collaborative relationship,” an “intellectual romance” that never became sexual but was full of “bantering.” The sophisticated may sneer, but how can we know who is the victim here?

A society that rewards aging men for aggression and young women for their looks (pace Fox News, Newt Gingrich et al) preys on that dissonance while feasting on the antics of those caught in the hypocrisy.

My own character was tested in middle age when I was asked to become Hugh Hefner’s successor. In 1969, over lunch in Chicago, Playboy's publisher complained about the struggle to curb such excesses as perpetual parties and an always available 727 while subtly probing to see if I too might go hog wild over such amenities.

It was an out-of-body experience, an inner voice questioning my sanity over being atop an empire of sensual pleasure against all evidence of my nature and experience. After 45 years of being Mr. Responsible, how could I think of plunging into every boy’s fantasy, with permission--no, mandate--to spend days, and nights, in an X-rated world? Could I?

Wallowing in the notion, my mind mocked me with a movie memory of a fat Nero in a palace while near-naked maidens dangled grapes over his mouth.

By coffee, the publisher was satisfied with my stability and suggested dinner with Hef that night. “He’s going to fall in love with you and offer you the job on the spot,” the publisher said, then hesitated. “If he does, what will you say?”

Foolish fantasy could only go so far. I answered honestly: “I don’t know."

He was unnerved. “Unless you’re sure you’ll say yes, I can’t take you to meet him.”

So it was settled, but I felt entitled to a small indulgence. “Does it work this way,” I asked, “with women, too?"

In today’s world, Hefner is a joke, an octogenarian lecher, but the sexual confusions of the society that made him rich and famous are still here. We mock dirty old men but fail to change the conditions that allow so many to keep what they would call scoring with young women who would do anything to get ahead.

How much longer will we all continue to smirk about such goings-on before enough true gender equality is achieved to change the society and make them obsolete?   

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