Feminist Leaders Slam Letterman; Lawyer Claims Evidence Of Harassment

The president of NOW has issued a statement slamming David Letterman for "setting the tone for his entire workplace... with sex" and calling on CBS "to recognize that Letterman's behavior creates a toxic environment and to take action immediately."

I agree with NOW president Terry O'Neill (that's not her at left; it's attorney Gloria Allred) that the controversy has "raised serious issues about the abuse of power leading to an inappropriate, if not hostile, workplace environment for women and employees" — issues we should certainly think about and discuss. If Letterman's situation is a catalyst for that, terrific. And if O'Neill is calling on CBS to, say, issue a statement unequivocally condemning sexual harassment and promising a full investigation, then I'm right behind her. But if she's calling for him to be fired or otherwise disciplined based only on what we know so far? I'm afraid I'm still in the camp that believes we simply don't know enough. As Vanessa at Feministing put it,

Yes, the power dynamics of sexual relationships at work between superiors and their staff can be fucked up. But it would also be fucked up for us to label these women as powerless victims who didn't know what they were doing when as far as we know, it was consensual sex. Do I personally think it's gross? Did Letterman do a really stupid thing? Totally. But that doesn't mean what Letterman did was illegal.

If it turns out that Letterman did do something illegal, mind you, I will be all for seeing him both fired and prosecuted. I don't think he's above the law, and I don't think that some good jokes and the appearance of genuine humility make up for sexual harassment. But I also think it's both wildly premature and infantilizing to the women he had sex with — only one of whom we even know about, unless I'm way behind — to start insisting that the clear difference in power and status between Letterman and practically anyone else working at CBS means the sex was necessarily coercive. If they feel it was, if they felt they'd be risking their jobs by saying no, that's one thing. But then, that's the rub, isn't it? The women in question would have to come forward — sacrificing whatever privacy they have left at this point and exposing themselves to humiliation and judgment — in order for us to learn how they felt about it. I certainly wouldn't blame them for not wanting to, but that only means the rest of us sit here and speculate, without really knowing a damned thing about what happened.

Similarly, for us to know if Letterman blatantly played favorites, hit on staffers who weren't interested, or otherwise created a toxic work environment, we'd have to hear from actual employees. So far, they don't seem to be talking. Is that because they're too afraid to speak out, or because they have nothing bad to say? Could go either way.

David Letterman has a lot of power, yes, and power can easily be abused. But to characterize his behavior as abusive based on what we know so far requires the presumption that there is no such thing as a consensual relationship between unequal employees of the same company, and/or that such a relationship will always poison the office environment, no matter how the people involved handle it. And I'm just not there yet. It's possible that Letterman took advantage of these women, maybe even likely. It's possible that other employees suffered for it, maybe even likely. A whole lot of things are possible, maybe even likely — and if we find out some or all of those things are true, I'll be the first to write a post titled, "Reminder: David Letterman Committed Sexual Harassment." But right now, I simply don't believe we have enough information.

Having said that, we might not have to wait long before there's more to chew on. Gerald Shargel, a lawyer for Letterman's extortionist, Robert Halderman, claims he already has evidence that Letterman committed sexual harassment, and he's conducting his own investigation to find more. Of course, says the L.A. Times,

It remains to be seen whether a judge would allow Shargel to introduce such evidence. Jeremy Saland, a criminal defense attorney and former Manhattan assistant district attorney, said the issue was potentially relevant, but only if the defense could establish that Halderman was seeking the money on behalf of a victim of sexual harassment and not for his own gain.

It does seem rather unlikely that Halderman — also a powerful CBS employee who apparently got the dirt on Letterman via a relationship with one of the same women, I might add — will be able to prove that the extortion plot was all about righting a wrong. But one thing we do know for sure is that no one's letting this story die, and plenty of people are trying to get to the bottom of it. Personally, I'd rather wait for someone to do that before I offer any opinion of Letterman's guilt or innocence beyond, "I have no idea."

The Latest Letterman Controversy Raises Workplace Issues for Women [NOW]
Halderman's lawyer says he has evidence that David Letterman committed sexual harassment [LA Times]
Why aren't feminists mad at Letterman? [Salon]
Where's the feminist outrage over David Letterman?!? [Feministing]

Earlier: Letterman Jokes And Owns Up - What More Do We Want?