The Only Comebacks We Need Are From Harassment Victims

The bad men of American media are ready for their comebacks. Yes, already.

A number of the sexual harassers who lost their jobs and projects are now trying to orchestrate their returns, hoping that we’re ready to forgive and forget, and fork over our money to them.

Perhaps it’s inevitable. But we shouldn’t give them any space, nor make any accommodations, for their comebacks. Certainly not yet. Not before we do so first and foremost for the people they victimized, who have already almost certainly suffered financial and professional consequences for the mere misfortune of crossing these men’s paths.

Before we let any of the bad men return, we have to make sure the women whose suffering they caused are made whole.

A who’s who of the men outed as abusers and sexual harassers and ousted during the first phase of Me Too have already begun considering how they can get back to the fame and fortune to which they had grown accustomed. By April, celebrity chef Mario Batali was consulting with industry insiders on how to restart his career. Former CBS anchor Charlie Rose pitched a new interview show. Former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly is now in talks with Newsmax TV for a new 8 p.m. show. Former “Today” host Matt Lauer is reportedly “testing the waters for his comeback.” Disney is discussing bringing animator John Lasseter back to the company. Comedian Louis C.K.’s friends are already giving advice for how he could return to the comedy circuit. Former “Prairie Home Companion” radio host Garrison Keillor wants to go on tour and is working on resurrecting his former shows. Former WBUR radio host Tom Ashbrook is publicly asking for forgiveness so he can keep doing “great work.”

Before we let any of the bad men return, we have to make sure the women whose suffering they caused are made whole.

As a recent New York Times editorial noted, this took some real chutzpah. Rose had already been tipped off that 27 more women were going to come forward saying that he harassed them, and Batali was under criminal investigation by the New York Police Department.

Those two incidents alone illuminate how little we still know about what these men did and the extent of their harm. That’s why calls to consider how these men might appropriately re-enter society put the cart miles before the horse. In a recent New York Times op-ed, journalist Katie Baker asked, “What do we want from abusers? Under what terms should they be allowed to return to normal life?”

“I don’t have answers to those questions,” Baker wrote. “What I do have is a plea to take them seriously. Because to tell men to sit down, to stay quiet, to disappear — cathartic as it may be — is its own form of looking away, and it is likely to come at someone else’s expense.”

She’s not entirely wrong, and she makes it clear she thinks these men are not going about it in anything close to a productive way. But it’s still the wrong time to try to answer the questions she poses. Not until we know just how much destruction they caused. And, more importantly, not before we focus on rehabilitating their victims. Right now, we shouldn’t concern ourselves with these men’s future careers at all. If there’s a time for that, it hasn’t come yet. We should be worried first about the careers of the women they harassed.

The NYPD is now investigating sexual assault claims against Mario Batali.
The NYPD is now investigating sexual assault claims against Mario Batali.

Because, for the famous and nameless alike, sexual harassment takes a perverse toll on the people who are subjected to it. It usually levies the harshest career and economic price on the victims themselves.

Most people who are sexually harassed don’t report what happened to them out of fear that they won’t be believed or they’ll suffer repercussions. But of the small share that do report, about three-quarters experience retaliation such as demotions or even terminations.

Given the harsh reality of what awaits most people who speak up about harassment, most keep quiet and find other ways to deal with it. In a recent study, researchers found that 80 percent of early-career women who experienced sexual harassment changed jobs within two years, a far higher rate than women who didn’t experience it. Most women simply flee their jobs and even industries. In technology, for example, a field still dominated by men, about half of women report experiencing sexual harassment. More than half of women who are sexually harassed say it was part of why they left a previous job.

Women are damned if they report and damned if they stay silent, damned if they leave their jobs and damned if they stay.

Leaving comes at a cost though: These women often give up whatever seniority or pay raises they had accrued. Women who are harassed at work experience greater financial stress two years later on, stress that’s akin to suffering a serious injury or even being incarcerated.

Those who stay in their jobs likely fare no better. Sexual harassment usually has a negative impact on a victim’s psychological attachment to the workplace where it happened, which can make her tune out or even stop showing up altogether, damaging her work performance.

One study puts it pretty bluntly: “Sexual harassment has been identified as one of the most damaging and ubiquitous barriers to career success and satisfaction for women.” It’s a quadruple bind: Women are damned if they report and damned if they stay silent, damned if they leave their jobs and damned if they stay.

We already know this is what happened to some of the victims of the aspiring comeback kids. Take Andrea Mackris, who never worked in television again after experiencing Bill O’Reilly’s abuses. Or Ann Curry, who has described “pervasive verbal sexual harassment” at NBC while Lauer worked there; she reported him to management for that very behavior and was deposed as a co-host of “Today.” Harvey Weinstein, who is unlikely to stage a comeback while out on bail over charges of sexual assault, has been accused of blacklisting actresses who didn’t give in to his advances, such as Rose McGowan, Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd, who is suing him for the damage to her career.

Ann Curry described “pervasive verbal sexual harassment” at NBC while Matt Lauer worked there.
Ann Curry described “pervasive verbal sexual harassment” at NBC while Matt Lauer worked there.

We know these women’s stories in large part because of their pre-existing celebrity. There are countless others with less famous names or who haven’t come forward yet. Charlie Rose fired one of his victims after she confided in a mutual friend, for example, and she left the TV industry. There are many more who are almost certainly still reeling from the fallout of their experiences.

So the question we should really ask right now is not, “How can these men be redeemed and returned to television?” but, “What we can do to make up for the punishment these women had to suffer because of their own victimization?” Hiring managers, producers, editors, casting agents and executives of all stripes and in all industries need to take a look at these women and think hard about what potential was smothered by abuse. What talent have we lost at the hands of sexual harassers? What talent can we still recover if we put these women’s needs before the attention cravings of their high-profile predators?

And then those gatekeepers need to reach out to these women and ask them to man high-profile projects or offer them prominent jobs. That’s what A&E has done by giving Gretchen Carlson, one of Roger Ailes’ sexual harassment victims, the reins for a new document series about harassment. Mira Sorvino was cast on ABC’s “Modern Family.” Rose McGowan is working on a documentary series for E!. We can only hope many more such projects and opportunities are in the works. Women deserve to pursue the careers that their abusers derailed.

These are the people who deserve second chances. Not the men whose violence and misogyny were exposed, but the women who had to suffer it, either in silence while making career changes to escape them or by speaking out and suffering the professional consequences. These are the people whose comebacks I’m rooting for.

Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at The New York Times and a contributing writer at The Nation.