If you’re reading this and you don’t know a woman who has been sexually harassed, you clearly do not know many women.
And now, a one-time aide to the Alaska legislature who thinks it all very unfair, and it is very unfair, has launched her own, one-woman, anti-harassment harassment campaign to strike back. Dani Bickford is sketching penises adorned with the faces of lawmakers who have offended her.
Pay back has become an art form.
How did we get here? You can probably start by blaming nature.
Sexual harassment of females has been a human societal norm probably forever. We all like to think we’re different from the rest of the animals on the planet: better, smarter, more sophisticated, you name it. But at a fundamental, reproductive level, we’re not.
Your average human males spends a good part of his life consumed by hormonal drives that only overcome members of the deer family in the heat of the rut. And if you live in Alaska, where moose are the biggest of the deer, you know how crazy things can get in the heat of the rut.
Bull moose will fight to the death for nothing but the opportunity to harass cow moose until they give in and decide to breed.
Well human males, will do some of those dumbest shit imaginable to try to get somewhere with human females. Future NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre texted photos of his partially erect penis to a New York jets employee in 2009 thinking this was somehow going to impress.
And while Favre’s behavior was downright tacky, it wasn’t the worst of things.
We’re now seeing a public display of the worst of things, and they stretch from Hollywood on the West Coast of the continent to Alabama on the southern edge of the East Coast and all the way back to Alaska on the northern frontier.
In words and sketches, Bickford is shaping a picture of Alaska’s isolated, Juneau capital as something of a modern-day, near-Arctic den of inequity where powerful men harass powerless women.
“I have to get a little more off my mind,” she writes at her blog, before going on to describe an incident involving a Southeast Alaska lawmaker in this way:
“He used to keep a dildo in his office. How do I know? Because he and his finance staffer stuck one in my hands on the last night of my first (legislative) session, in 2009, when I was 23. Not funny… My reaction was good for a laugh for him.”
Bickford has plenty more to say on her blog where she is not shy about naming names. The names of the guilty, the implicated and the innocent are not being repeated here for reasons that will be discussed later, but have nothing to do with any doubts as to Bickford’s belief in what she is reporting.
And yes, there are probably innocents or at least semi-innocents in this case. Some people go through life clueless, and a lot of people go through life trying not to get involved in much of anything. They are the people who end up as “collateral damage” when wars erupt.
Bickford has gone to war, and in that she is representative of women across the country standing up to push back against powerful men in business and government who try use their power to sexually manipulate, intimidate or abuse.
Sometimes, sadly, wars are necessary to change the world.
As most everyone already know, all of this started unpredictably, as these thing usually do, with once-powerful film producer Harvey Weinstein.
Problems for Weinstein, an influential West Coast liberal, began with an Oct. 5 New York Times story that revealed sexual assault allegations dating back more than 25 years and continuing to the present.
The Times investigation found a Weinstein pattern of promising career advancement and threatening career destruction to obtain sex. At least eight women were brave enough to file lawsuits accusing Weinstein of sexual misconduct over the years. The suits were quietly settled and buried.
“Mr. Weinstein enforced a code of silence; employees of the Weinstein Company have contracts saying they will not criticize it or its leaders in a way that could harm its ‘business reputation’ or ‘any employee’s personal reputation,’ a recent document shows. And most of the women accepting payouts agreed to confidentiality clauses
prohibiting them from speaking about the deals or the events that led to them,” the Times reported.
Such contracts are not unusual. Alice Rogoff, the millionnaire former publisher of the bankrupt and now restructured Alaska Dispatch News, is known to have inked settlements with former employees that included confidentiality clauses.
Such clauses are how the powerful bottle up the resistance of the courageous few who fight back. The reason the powerful do this is obvious. As the Weinstein case has demonstrated, entire empires can crumble when the many learn some stood up to power and triumphed.
Weinstein hung onto his position in Hollywood by maintaining an aura of incontestable power. For better or worse, that was enough to make most people willing to tolerate his behavior even when they knew it was wrong. Sadly this sort of tolerance is something that seems to apply equally to both sexes.
As Bickford observed, “the rate of women who participate in abusive culture and help cover it up is…startling.”
People are social animals, like wolves. They fall in behind the leader of the pack. They often follow blindly right up until the time they don’t. And when the leader falters, they can turn on him (or sometimes her) in a flash.
Blame the media
After the New York Times broke the Weinstein story, dozens of women began to talk about how he had sexually harassed, manipulated and some cases abused them. The floodgates really opened when women were encouraged to use the hashtag #MeToo to weigh in on the Weinstein scandal on social media.
“….The hashtag went on to be used more than 500,000 times in its first 24 hours by people from all lines of work,’‘ the Times reported in a Weinstein follow-up story on Oct. 16. “Those taking part included the singer Lady Gaga; the actresses Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin and Evan Rachel Wood; and the poet Najwa Zebian.”
“The democratization of the spread of information can finally move faster than a powerful media mogul’s attempts to bury it,” Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow told the Times.
And what happened in Hollywood affected the whole country. The Weinstein effect seemed to embolden women everywhere.
It wasn’t long before Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, a conservative and former member of the Alabama Supreme Court, was accused of making sexual advances on a 14-year-old while a 32-year-old, assistant district attorney almost 40 years ago.
Other women soon followed that accusation with more accusations, and though Moore has denied them all, politicians and others from across the country – both Republicans and Democrats – are calling on him to drop out of the Alabama Senate race.
The Weinstein-Moore-fueled outcry about how women are harassed by powerful men has now reached the point where even former Democratic President Bill Clinton, a man who once seemed immune to the accusations from women who said he did everything from grope them to rape them, has been dragged back into the picture.
“It was a pattern of behavior; it included an alleged violent assault,” wrote Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic on Monday. “The women involved had far more credible evidence than many of the most notorious accusations that have come to light in the past five weeks.”
It is against this national backdrop that Bickford emerged to talk about the gender climate in the Alaska state capital in Juneau, a community of less than 35,000 near the north end of the Panhandle with no roads in and no roads out.
Going off to Juneau for the annual legislative session is for many a lot like going off to war. Isolation and long working hours breed the sort of environment that “naturally,” as Flanagan describes it, “fosters a level of romance and flirtation.”
Juneau has always been known for the hanky-panky that goes on during the legislative session, but Bickford contends it isn’t always all so innocent.
Often the sexual aspect is all tied up in the power aspect.
“In Alaska, it’s such a small community,” she said in a series of text exchanges. “And here, abuse of power trickles down to economic deprivation.”
If you happen to be in Juneau working for an Alaska lawmaker and lose your job, there aren’t a lot of other jobs to be found. And if the lawmaker in question is powerful enough to blacklist you, then a career could be over.
“‘You’re being blacklisted,'” Bickford writes on her blog. “It’s hard to imagine evil plots like a blacklist being real, but it happened to me. Long story made short, Rep. Jay Ramras didn’t like me. I ended up working part of an interim in late 2009 for him, and I wasn’t a good fit for the job. At all. But instead of tell(ing) me that I wasn’t a great worker, Jay via staff told me that I was being fired because my catching the swine flu that fall meant image concerns for the office. Meaning: ‘You’re fired because we think you’re a slut.’
“My next job was with an abusive co-worker in the House Majority Press Office for session 2010. I thought we were friendly, but he informed me that he didn’t select me for the job. I knew I was screwed. His estranged wife writing me an aggressive letter about their marriage problems didn’t help. The entire session I endured constant abuse from him. It got out of hand. A few times I thought he would hit me.”
There is no doubt the powerful hold a big hammer over the powerless in the tiny and contained world of Juneau, and there is little doubt the hammer is sometimes used on men as well as women. But it is culturally easier for males to push back. Women in America, like it or not, are still expected to be “good little girls.”
Bickford, once a television news reporter, is quick to admit she did not and does fit well in that mold.
“For years I would question myself and wonder if I really was a ‘brat,’ and what if they’re right? I’m glad people have been permitting cultural boundaries to break a little and have discussion about the topic at large,” she texted.
Still, she admitted to being a little scared about ripping the band-aid off this wound, and then both surprised and troubled by the response.
“I thought I was going to get venom dumped on me,” she said. “Shockingly, a number of people have reached out to me privately to cheer me on and to share their own experiences with harassment and even assault. This is a bigger problem than even I knew from my own perspective as one person.”
Given what is known about what has happened elsewhere, it would be surprising if sexual harassment in Juneau hadn’t in some case escalated to sexual assault.
The innocent man
Which is not meant to condemn any and certainly not all men in Juneau.
With sexual harassment accusations flying all over the place these days – since the Weinstein scandal erupted dozens of men have been accused of sexual misconduct, harassment or assault (including some gay man accused of harassing vulnerable young men or even boys) with new accusations emerging almost daily – it’s pretty much inevitable someone will end up wrongly accused.
Situations like this invariably take on the some of the elements of a witch hunt, and a witch hunt always finds witches.
Lo be the poor, innocent bastard who gets caught up. It is hard to prove oneself innocent in the battle of she-said, he-said, or he-said, he-said, or – and this seems inevitable too even if it has yet to happen – she-said, she-said.
The Times approached the Weinstein investigation carefully, cautiously and professionally. Caution and professionalism are not terms often associated with social media where some new accusations have emerged and where tongues are kept wagging by each new news revelation.
CNN on Tuesday reported on a Washington, D.C., “‘creep list’ — an informal roster passed along by word-of-mouth, consisting of the male members (of Congress) most notorious for inappropriate behavior, ranging from making sexually suggestive comments or gestures to seeking physical relations with younger employees and interns.”
Issues with younger employees and interns have sometimes emerged in Alaska’s capital over the years, too, but these sort of interactions are often complicated.
A statement that might be merely in bad taste if uttered by a co-worker can become something wholly different when voiced by a supervisor. Something said sober in an office is different from something said in a bar after everyone has had a few drinks.
Status matter. Context matters.
Politics can enter the picture. Perceptions can enter the picture. Personalities can enter the picture.
The gender dynamic is inherently complicated, but what is not complicated is this:
The system is weighted in favor of the powerful, and especially so when it involves powerful older men and younger women. Weinstein understood how this works and took advantage. So, too, Bill Clinton.
And they appear to be but the tip of a big iceberg.
It’s likely women working in the Juneau have some sort of informal “creep list” of their own. There are no doubt men in Alaska politics who’ve engaged in sexual misconduct, not to mention the possibility of a guilty Alaska journalist or news commentator as was the case with Fox News talking head Bill O’Reilly and NPR’s Senior Vice President for News Michael Oreskes.
Attractive woman have long had to deal with the stereotypical accusation of sleeping their way to the top in their professions while powerful men using their influence to manipulate women for their pleasure has been largely accepted.
That dynamic now appears to be shifting. Maybe it’s time.