Dear Imprudence: My Boss Sexually Harassed Me, Should I Cover It Up?

This week’s edition of Dear Prudence had several entries that got me extremely riled up, but the one I’m choosing to feature is one from a young intern who got, well, some pretty awful advice.

The intern wrote:

Dear Prudence,

I landed a dream internship in the entertainment industry and on my first day on the job got to be part of a fabulous evening-long project that culminated in a victory party at a bar. Due to pressure from my supervisors, who were buying the drinks, and poor decision-making, I wound up too drunk to drive home. One of the bosses took me home with him, and when we got there he repeatedly tried to kiss me. This confused me, because I had been certain that he was gay. When I rejected him, saying, “I don’t understand,” he told me that he found me incredibly beautiful and sexy. Twenty minutes later, I was throwing up in his living room while he tried to play nurse and let me sleep it off on his couch. The next day he begged me not to quit, although he didn’t apologize for putting the moves on me. I intend to stay at this internship, because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Do I write the incident off as a crazy, drunken night and nothing more, or confront him about it? Harassment on my first day, though committed under inebriation, is a pretty heavy issue to just sweep under the rug. What should I do?

—Harassed and Hungover

Here’s how Prudie responded:

Dear Harassed,
Get the full DVD set of Entourage and discover that yours could be considered a tame first day on the job in the entertainment industry. Certainly your supervisors should never have encouraged an intern (or any employee) to get drunk. But if you are old enough to have an internship, you should be old enough to know your own limit. Now you do, so that was a valuable evening. There is no Most-Powerful-Man-in-the-World exemption for hitting on an intern (even if the intern flashes some thong); and there’s no Hollywood one, either (especially if the intern is inebriated). Your boss gave you a revolting welcome to the industry, but at least he backed off and got all Florence Nightingale after you ralphed in his living room. Although I’d love to be there, as would any reality-show producer, when you clarify your surprise and horror at his unwanted advances by explaining, “I was certain you were gay, so I couldn’t believe you were trying to kiss me!” there are some things that are best left unsaid. His begging you not to quit indicates that he knows he behaved terribly. Now that you’ve both showered, sobered up, and returned to your desks, you need to show your boss that you have the good judgment to forget about your unfortunate start, and instead spend the rest of the summer showing that you are great at your work.

—Prudie

So, let me get this straight (haha). The intern wrote identifying what happened to her as sexual harassment. Prudie proceeded to blame the victim, basically say that she should have expected this given the industry, and then tell her to forget about it.

Prudie’s advice is bad on a lot of levels. First of all, telling someone to ‘forget about’ harassment is just a terrible thing to do. It’s not enough that he ‘feels he behaved terribly.’ If this intern is comfortable reporting and wants to go through with the process of filing a claim, she should consider doing so. Because she is obviously upset about what happened, she obviously feels violated, and she is obviously feeling uncertain about what to do, but knows what she wants to do something.

To add some victim blaming about how the intern ‘should be old enough’ was just gratuitous and so not necessary. When you are starting a new job and you are trying to fit in, you are not existing in a vacuum. You are struggling with certain pressures and attitudes and it’s not as simple as ‘just say you don’t want anything to drink.’ ‘You learned your lesson, Little Lady,’ is basically what Prudie says here, and no. Being sexually harassed is not ‘learning a lesson.’ You do not need to experience what could have turned into a sexual assault to ‘learn a lesson.’

So, on an individual level, terrible advice. Really, really terrible.  But it’s also bad on a structural level.

Here’s the thing. The entertainment industry is sexist. We know this. Amanda Hess over at The Sexist recently wrote about hiring inequalities on The Daily Show and made a really critical series of points about how sexism intersects with the show’s hiring practices. Her points are applicable to the entertainment industry in general; she talked about the way that ignorance, ingrained prejudices, and societal forces all play a role in the perpetuation of sexism in entertainment. The point here is that sexism is institutionalised in the industry, which means that rather than being an individual problem, as Prudence makes it out to be in her response, it is a structural one.

We cannot fight sexism in the entertainment industry by telling people to ‘forget about’ sexual harassment. Or by reinforcing the attitude that ‘well, it’s the entertainment industry, what do you expect?’ Women in entertainment are devalued, constantly reminded that they are worthless, and frequently told that they just need to ‘deal with’ dehumanising behaviour, including rape, sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination. Prudence very neatly reinforced all of these beliefs in her column without a second thought, apparently; presumably she does edit her columns after writing them and apparently still thought it was appropriate to submit this for publication.

The way we dismantle institutions is not by propping them up. Better advice would have included a reiteration that, yes, this is sexual harassment, a reminder that, no, this was not the intern’s fault, and a link to some resources on handling and reporting sexual harassment in the workplace. She could even have included a note that working in a notoriously sexist industry can be an uphill battle sometimes, and wished the intern good luck with her career.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

6 thoughts on “Dear Imprudence: My Boss Sexually Harassed Me, Should I Cover It Up?

  1. Yes. Especially good point about structural sexism in the entertainment industry.

    What especially bothers me is Prudie’s “advice” to “watch Entourage” and saying that “any reality-show producer” would “love to be there.” The idea that actual sexual harassment has entertainment value REALLY bothered me.

    Also, the boss’s behavior doesn’t indicate that “he knows he behaved terribly.” It may indicate the he knows his behavior could jeopardize his career/repuation if he got caught.

  2. “You should know your own limit [with alcohol]” – that really stuck out and pisses me off.

    I’ll be 22 in August, I’m “old enough,” but no, I don’t know my limit.

    And why did he take her to his house? That’s just icky.

    And Prudie ignored another reason to blame her – she got in his car instead of a taxi. *eyeroll*

    If she’s working in the entertainment business, she should report him and he may be a big name, so it may lead to surface policies. And why can’t interns go to the celebratory party? That makes no sense. (As does the whole answer.)

    I bet there are many comments in response to the LW saying, no, it’s not your fault, and maybe Prudie will make a bad apology in her next column. (Saying it’s your fault for being offended.) She trivialized sexual assault, focusing on irrelevant details (I thought he was gay).

    People will read this and be afraid to report sexual assault or even ask for advice from friends and family. Yet again. We treat victims so poorly.

  3. Kaitlyn: “You should know your own limit [with alcohol]” – that really stuck out and pisses me off.

    And of course, there are those of us who do know our own limits… and who are constantly mocked by others because our limits couldn’t possibly be that low. It’s a no-win situation, really. (And people wonder why I don’t go to many social events at bars…)

  4. @Codeman38:

    My migraine medication (propanolol) drastically lowers my alcohol tolerance. I am fine with this, as lower alcohol tolerance is VASTLY superior to constant immobilizing pain in my life. However, other people keep telling me that I should be “cured” from taking pills for the past 1.5 years, or that I should have “rebuilt” my tolerance by now.

  5. Every time I read something like Prudie’s ‘advice’ I just get so angry and bewildered that the only response I can manage is something like, “SHUT THE FUCKSAJFODISFJLKJ!!!!!11!” Thank you for articulating everything that is wrong with this when I can only stew in my own outrage!

  6. ACK.

    That makes me so, so, SO mad. I’ve been the girl who was harassed while inebriated and not very well able to express that I didn’t want what was happening. I kept pulling away, turning my head, and ducking when the guy was trying to kiss me. He’d also been drinking, more heavily than me. I am very, very lucky that things stopped there, because it got through his soggy skull I didn’t want to be kissed, and the next time I saw him, he actually said, “I should have stopped the first time you moved away.” To my knowledge, the event shook him up enough that he’s never gotten drunk around a girl he’s not already involved with in the five years that have passed since then, with the exception of a wedding, where he actually asked the girl, “Can I kiss you?” before he did. Major props to him for learning from the experience.

    To have to work with someone who has harassed you is awful. I’ve been there, too. My boss wrote the whole thing off as a laugh, but I didn’t think it was very funny that I had to tell a married guy I’d never expressed any interest in to stop putting his arm around me and calling me his girlfriend. And when your boss is the assailant, or when your boss is complicit like mine, it’s so much harder to do anything.

    The right answer is, he shouldn’t have done that to begin with, and at very freaking worst should have stopped after the first attempt was brushed off. She should do what she feels is right – whether that’s reporting it, talking to the guy and telling him how wrong what he did was, or trying to get transferred to work under someone else.

    The real right answer is that he should have never put her in that situation. That someone in his position should know better than trying to prey on interns. Grr. That sort of problem shows up in the law, as well, unfortunately. We did a case like that in my trial advocacy class, and one of the guys actually said that it wasn’t the fault of the powerful male supervising attorney if he kept dating and ditching the young female attorneys he was supervising – “how is it his fault if they keep biting?” he said. I wanted to throw something at him! The supervising attorney shouldn’t be hitting on someone they supervise, that’s what’s his fault! Especially not as a repeated course of action that he seemed to do to every woman he supervised. I tried to explain the problem, but like most people in a position of privilege, he didn’t want to see how the behavior he’d just endorsed was problematic. Yet another man who, when he finds himself in a position of power, may use it in a sexist way. It was so disappointing…especially because the other women in the class likewise thought the case we were dealing with was a joke!

    ~Kali

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