Sexual Harassment Myths and Secrets in the Les Moonves Case

How power and sexual harassment myths serve harassers and stymie change.

Posted Sep 11, 2018

Hitting the news this week is a sexual harassment story featuring high-level CBS media executive Les Moonves. Apparently, Moonves has a two-decades-long record of forced sexual contact with women in his employ. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Ronan Farrow’s interviews with Moonves’ victims tell a tale that illustrates several common sexual harassment themes and why people keep sexual harassment secrets.

The Moonves case exemplifies how people in high social or organizational positions sometimes use their power, and the protection provided by their high professional status, to coerce victim compliance and prevent victim reporting. Moonves’s victims cited his industry power and his penchant for retaliation and intimidation as reasons for their lengthy silence about their assault. When sexual harassers are top earners or industry darlings, their importance to the organization or industry further protects them from consequences. Moonves, for example, was extremely powerful because he had led CBS from being the last-place network to the most-watched network. The Moonves case also demonstrates the role of organizational culture and leadership in workplace harassment. Under Moonves, male CBS executives and personalities were allowed to remain in their positions despite sexual misconduct.  

Moonves expressed shock at allegations against him and suggested that because these were the first public accusations in 40 years, they couldn’t possibly be true. He claimed that any sexual conduct was consensual, although he did say that “there were times decades ago when I may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances. Those were mistakes, and I regret them immensely.” But the thing to remember is that Moonves’s power fostered his victims’ compliance and silence and also the complicity of the CBS board, who apparently knew, but failed to act, on information about Moonves’s sexual misconduct for over a year. Bystander intervention is also prevented when the perceived costs of action are high.

Moonves’s sexual misconduct stretched over decades because of his power, but power and fear of retaliation aren't the only things that silence victims. Common sexual harassment myths silence victims. They increase the perceived costs and perceived futility of reporting and make victims feel shamed and blamed. They are a reason that false reports are uncommon and sexual harassment (like other forms of sexual assault) is underreported. Sexual harassment myths take several forms: 

  • Minimization or denial of victims’ complaints (e.g., “She’s lying/attention-seeking,” “She’s too sensitive,” “It can’t be sexual harassment because she continued to work for him/she went along with it,” “It’s just a compliment/flirting/teasing…”) 
  • Victim blaming (e.g., “She invited/allowed it,” “She should’ve/shouldn’t have…”).
  • Excusing perpetrators and giving them the benefit of the doubt (e.g., “He was just joking/flirting,” “He says it was consensual/a lie,” “He’s harmless/It was harmless,” “It was a misunderstanding,” “Men can’t help it. They’re biologically destined to seek sex…”).

Farrow’s interviews show how victims try to ignore and forget their harassment because of the risks of speaking up and skepticism that saying something will make a difference. Some cited the #MeToo movement as a source of courage for speaking up long after their assaults occurred. This speaks to the positive effects of the #MeToo movement and the role we play in countering the sexual harassment myths that silence victims and protect perpetrators.

Note. Media attention to sexual harassment incidents involving powerful men obscures the other ways in which power influences sexual harassment and other motivations and sources of sexual harassment. For example, sexual harassment is sometimes used to punish gender-nonconforming men and women for violating the traditional gendered order. Sexual harassment can be driven by hostile sexist attitudes and a short-term mating orientation, endorsement of traditional masculine ideology, and low empathy and narcissism. It’s more common when there’s organizational tolerance, a male-dominant culture, a sexually objectifying environment, and/or masculine group norms where harassment serves male bonding. We also need to pay more media attention to the sexual harassment that occurs in public spaces, on the internet, and in our schools. 


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