On the second anniversary of #MeToo, we are here again: wondering if allegations against a prominent man will provoke the deeper change that is needed to address our nation’s endemic problem of sexual harassment and assault. This time, it’s a result of Ronan Farrow’s new book, Catch and Kill, which contains an on-the-record allegation that former Today show anchor Matt Lauer anally raped former NBC producer Brooke Nevils—horrific details that were not made public at the time of Lauer’s firing in November 2017.
Two years after the story of Harvey Weinstein’s abuses was broken by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey at The New York Times and Farrow at The New Yorker, we have yet to understand its true lessons. We must shift our gaze from the lurid details of individual allegations. Yes, the stories, traumatic and salacious, matter. But underlying the stories are workplace rules and cultures that leave millions of women chronically vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The time has come to name those policies and practices for what they are: a form of soft corruption.
People understand that public corruption is rampant. We need look no further than the current presidential campaign, which includes a prominent focus on combating the ways that powerful people use influence-peddling to rig government for their own benefit—and against the public interest.
But corruption is not limited to government. The real takeaway from the Weinstein investigation, compellingly recounted in Kantor and Twohey’s She Said, was not Weinstein’s serial predation but the ways in which he was aided and abetted by a complex system: lawyers, Hollywood agents, private intelligence agencies, and a board of directors that viewed its job as protecting the company from legal liability and reputational damage that could hurt its bottom line. Together, they allowed Weinstein to write his own rules so that he was shielded from accountability for decades.
Money and influence have rigged the rules of entire industries, entwining the institutional interests of companies like Fox, CBS, and NBC News (Farrow takes particular aim at the latter in his book) with those of the powerful men within them. “The stories that we have been doing are about a system,” Irin Carmon said when accepting the Mirror Award for her reporting (with Amy Brittain) on Charlie Rose’s serial sexual harassment. “The system has lawyers and a good reputation. It has publicists. It has a perfectly reasonable explanation about what happened.”
“Complicity machines” are not limited to the rich and powerful. The reason that millions of women saw ourselves in the Weinstein story—the reason it ignited a movement—was because the allegations exposed the vulnerability that many millions of working women face. Everyday workplaces may not have high-powered attorneys on retainer or special deals with tabloids to “catch and kill” allegations. But they are still guided by a perverse incentive structure that traps women in toxic, or even dangerous, jobs.
The Weinstein investigation helped shine a light on the way common legal and workplace practices such as nondisclosure agreements and forced arbitration became tools for protecting powerful interests, silencing accusers, and restricting their access to justice. But we have yet to devote comparable attention to parallel complicity machines for working-class and poor women, who are disproportionately women of color. The lack of good jobs, the power of employers, and weak labor law: These are the conditions in which sexual harassment and assault continue to flourish. Harassment is rampant in low-wage industries. Forty percent of female fast-food workers report that they had experienced sexual harassment on the job. Twice as many restaurant workers working in states that pay the federal sub-minimum wage of $2.13 per hour experience sexual harassment as those working in states with “one fair wage.”
Labor law has not kept up with today’s fragmented, fissured workplaces. The laws that are on the books are not enforced by any reasonable standard. Bad deals, like non-compete agreements, favor employers and confine workers. These rules reinforce a culture that dismisses poor women’s allegations and allows harassment to continue unabated.
Sexual harassment is a manifestation of the corruption that has concentrated economic power in the hands of a few. Can we expect a woman to come forward when it could mean losing a job at the only company in town that pays a living wage, thanks to the market concentration that has destroyed small businesses and depressed wages in rural communities? What are the practical implications of a woman’s reporting harassment when she is subject to a non-compete clause meaning she can’t leave her job to take her skills somewhere similar—which, by the way, destroys the ideal of a “free labor market”? (Non-competes are increasingly prevalent, today covering 30 million American workers, including 12 percent of workers without a bachelor’s degree earning less than $40,000 a year.) Even as #MeToo has opened up a public conversation on the trauma of sexual violence, we have done precious little to change the economic and material conditions that make the costs of speaking out about it so high.
Examining the issue through a “corruption,” or structural, lens moves our public conversation toward real solutions. It points to the importance of limiting forced arbitration and nondisclosure agreements and extending anti-harassment and civil rights protections to all workers. But it also demonstrates why higher wages, the elimination of a sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, the right to organize, and basic labor standards around scheduling and leave are not just tools for economic justice but powerful anti-corruption measures in the fight against harassment. Providing more working people with security and stability in the workplace equips them to challenge sexual harassment in real time.
#MeToo, it turns out, is inextricably linked to the battle to save our democracy. To build healthier institutions. To keep moneyed interests in check. Two years after the hashtag went viral and 13 years after Tarana Burke founded the Me Too campaign, we must go beyond the lurid details and the focus on perpetrators. We must begin the hard, clear-eyed work of rebalancing power for workers.