by Leslie Morgan Steiner
Like the nearly four million people who regularly watch his late night comedy show, I’ve always found David Letterman hilarious. But I don’t find it funny that he’s been having sex with his staffers for years.
The story broke last Thursday when CBS producer Robert Joel Halderman was arrested outside the CBS Manhattan office for trying to extort $2 million from Letterman. Letterman quickly fessed up  on-air, calling himself “creepy” and telling his audience that night: “I have had sex with women who work for me on this show.”
I wonder how many working women agree with public relations veteran Ken Sunshine , asked by the Washington Post for his view: “He didn’t murder anybody. He was extorted. It’s consenting adults. Nobody’s accusing him of rape. This is [like] shoplifting.”
Jeez, he makes it feel like we should all feel sorry for poor Dave. But as a woman who’s navigated large and small workplaces for over 25 years, I’d like to present a different view.
Workplace sexual harassment is a crime. And not a victimless one, as many like Mr. Sunshine would prefer we believe. The less power you have at your workplace – the younger you are, or the more you need the job – the more vulnerable you are to being insulted, groped, or pressured into having sex with someone who outranks you, formally within the office hierarchy or informally through seniority.
The first time it happened to me, I was a 16-year-old girl hundreds of miles from home, living and working on a dude ranch in Wyoming to save money for college. One of the 40-year-old wranglers remarked, while we were alone in the barn and I was shoveling horseshit out of a stall, that I had “teats like a milk cow.”
I told the owner of the ranch, a woman. With chagrin she explained that the man came from a prominent, longtime family in the area, invaluable to the ranch’s success. In other words, deal with it, honey. So for the rest of the summer I wore two bras to work and avoided being alone in the barn with the wrangler – no easy task.
Throughout my career I faced similarly bizarre situations. I endured a couple of hard years working for a small company president who pursued – and rewarded with promotions – female employees willing to take three hour lunches alone with him; I saw him kiss one passionately at the company Christmas party. Eeew!
Once I had children, the derogatory sexual comments shifted to ones questioning my commitment as a working mother. “Wish I could go on a three month vacation,” I remember one manager remarking as I worked doubletime to prepare my department to function while I was on maternity leave with my third child. I wish he had to give a quarterly report wearing maternity pantyhose. I did notice that once I earned my MBA, the trouble diminished noticeably. I had more power, more status, and was obviously far less vulnerable. My problem was solved.
But that’s not the solution for our society. Our workplace laws – and our culture – should protect the weakest as well as the most powerful. The New York Times reported that associates allege Letterman had a history of pursing employees, particularly his assistants, dating back to the early 1980s. Does anyone else find it odd that the production company he created for his show is called “Worldwide Pants”? Keep ‘em, Dave. Letterman doesn’t deserve our pity for being an extortion victim. His on-air confession should not guarantee prosecutorial immunity. Employees who have been sexually harassed are the only victims here.
Letterman defenders argue that these women were “consenting adults.” When pressured is applied, especially when the abuser is a media icon like Letterman, “consent” becomes almost meaningless. One personal assistant, Stephanie Birkitt, allegedly had a longtime relationship with Letterman; her rewards included appearing in on-air skits. This type of coveted treatment, usually based solely on talent and proven ability, sabotages the women being targeted as well as other employees who do not benefit from such preferential rewards. Widespread favoritism based on sexual compliance can corrode an entire department, company or industry.
And that’s no laughing matter.