I was a 23-year-old intern at a now-defunct newspaper publishing company in the Washington area when an older, more established colleague invited me out to lunch.
I had just started, so I happily accepted. I assumed he had taken an interest in my career and wanted to mentor me. Instead, while we were sitting at a table inside a darkened restaurant, he suddenly lunged across the table to kiss me, knocking the silverware to the floor, and spilling the water glasses. I was stunned.
He went on tell me the usual blah-blah-blah that his wife didn’t understand him and he wanted to date me. I let him know that I wasn’t interested. We ate, and I assumed it was over. Silly me. After I got back inside his car, my colleague refused to drive me to the office unless I kissed him first. I refused. He persisted, but eventually gave up and drove me to the newsroom.
I buried this incident for many years, even in recent months amid all the sordid sexual abuse allegations against Bill Cosby, President Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Sen. Al Franken, Rep. John Conyers, and Alabama’s Roy Moore. As much as I felt for the female accusers, those were their stories – not mine.
But as I watch powerful men such as Today‘s Matt Lauer, CBS This Morning‘s Charlie Rose, MSNBC’s Mark Halperin, and Minnesota Public Radio’s Garrison Keillor of A Prairie Home Companion fame, get accused of similar abuses of power, it really brings the issue home for me.
Eight women have claimed that Rose made unwanted sexual advances toward them that included lewd phone calls, groping, and – get this – walking around naked in front of them. NBC officials haven’t detailed exactly what sexual improprieties Lauer is accused of, but they had to be bad for him to be fired so quickly. According to Variety, they involved allegations from multiple women, including one to whom he reportedly gave a sex toy as a present.
I can relate to why the accusers didn’t speak up earlier. They were worried about their careers, as I had been. Then there’s the fear of condemnation from people like the actress Angela Lansbury, who had the nerve to tell an interviewer recently that women are responsible to some degree for sexual harassment.
“There are two sides to this coin,” Lansbury, 92, told Radio Times. “We have to own up to the fact that women, since time immemorial, have gone out of their way to make themselves attractive. And unfortunately it has backfired on us – and this is where we are today.”
Shame on Lansbury for victim-blaming and for raising the old “What were you wearing?” argument. Insulting assumptions like that are why too many of us remain quiet. When we report something as humiliating and possibly professionally harmful as sexual harassment, the last thing we should be told is that we are the problem.
Looking back, I wish I’d had the guts to have cursed out my colleague then and there. But I wasn’t that strong or professionally secure. I felt ashamed for having accepted his invitation to lunch, even though it is commonplace for more established journalists to welcome newsroom newbies by taking them out for lunch or drinks.
I unwittingly participated in a culture in which female journalists whisper about which men are to be avoided. It doesn’t happen to me here. But at industry conventions, women would warn about certain “recruiters,” especially those who invite aspiring female broadcasters to their hotel rooms “to view their tapes.” Discussing potential employment over drinks is common, and aspiring journalists knew we paid a price if we refused to play along.
“It was so commonplace,” one of my journalism buddies reminded me on Wednesday. “You just knew: ‘Here he comes. Run.’ ”
We laugh about it now. Back then, not so much. We were scared. We were vulnerable. We were silent.
That’s why I applaud every female accuser who has had the courage to come forward and stand in her own truth. I wish I had been brave enough to have done that back when my colleague tried to kiss me.