Sexual Predators Flourish in a Carefully Crafted Field of Silence
Updated: Feb 8
Not only am I a scholar and a consultant, but I am also a farmer. My family raises sheep. One of the things you learn quickly as a sheep farmer is that sheep get sick. A lot. As the designated sheep medical practitioner in the family, I have learned an unfortunate amount about different types of illnesses. None of them are good, but the infections I dread the most are from anaerobic bacteria. Unlike most bacteria that need oxygen to grow and develop, anaerobic bacteria thrives in dark spaces without oxygen. Predatory sexual harassment is the anaerobic bacteria of organizational life: It is persistent and normalized in the organization; it is diffused across the workplace with multiple targets; it is organizationally supported; and it operates in a field of carefully crafted silence.
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How is silence carefully crafted? Based on the relentless advocacy by targets of predatory harassment as well as films such as #SheSaid, it is clear that nondisclosure agreements are one way in which silence is carefully crafted.
I recently had the opportunity to watch Gretchen Carlson, previously a top Fox News broadcast talent, and a cofounder of the nonprofit organization Lift Our Voices, speak about the silencing power of nondisclosure agreements. I was blown away by Carlson’s dynamic presentation, her personal presence, her vocal intensity. There is a reason why she was a top broadcast news talent. She earned her way into that space with her ability and effort. Yet, she faced persistent and severe sexual harassment while at Fox News. There are even television dramas and documentaries about her experience. Don’t you think it is weird that due to her nondisclosure agreement with Fox News, Carlson is not legally allowed to tell her own story? She can’t tell us if the dramatizations got it right. She can’t even talk about the stipulations in the nondisclosure agreement.
As was made clear in the movie #SheSaid, nondisclosure agreements are not just about individual targets. Their very existence sucks the oxygen from the room, allowing the predatory behavior to continue unabated. Although these agreements are the most recognized form of silence, they are a post harassment form of silencing. Long before a nondisclosure agreement is signed, targets of predatory sexual behavior face silencing that occurs prior to, during, and after the predator acts.
Perhaps the most powerful form of organizationally crafted silence is mystification. Mystification is kind of like #gaslighting, but on a grand scale. Instead of a single individual making another individual doubt their reality, the organizational culture as a whole works to make the target of predatory sexual behavior doubt their experience. Someday I will do an entire blog post on mystification, but for now, I will walk you through an example.
Megan (a pseudonym) was sexually assaulted in her private office by a colleague/predator. While physically hurting Megan, the predator talked about how much he cared about her, how he could help her with her career, how much she will enjoy their sexual encounter. Although she keeps saying “no,” the colleague predator pulls back for a moment then reengages, as if Megan's “no” is only a momentary “no.” Eventually he leaves her office and Megan wonders why she let him do this stuff to her. Of course, she did not let him do it. He assaulted her without her consent. But you see, his words contradicted his behavior. His behavior was non-consensual, but his words sounded like this was a mutually consensual encounter. It sounded like He was doing Her a favor. The predator's behavior is classic gaslighting. It is what happens next where gaslighting becomes mystification.
The mystification continues when Megan tells a colleague/friend about the assault. The colleague looks puzzled by Megan’s account of the story. The colleague/friend tells Megan she was unprofessional when she let the predator close her office door. Everyone knows the colleague/predator will push the situation as far as he is allowed. Next time, keep the door open and brush him off (Next time? But yes, this happens).
The mystification scales up when Megan reports the behavior to her supervisor, she is asked if she really wants to pursue this issue. After all, she could destroy the predator’s career over an event that was most likely a misunderstanding.
The mystification diffuses through the organizational culture when Megan mentions the event to her close colleagues. They look embarrassed and try to remind her that the predator is really a good guy with a family. He is just socially awkward. You see, Megan violated unspoken cultural norms that you don’t talk bad about other colleagues, even when the colleague is a sexual predator.
Megan knows she was hurt, but as a result of the relentless organizational response, she begins to question her version of reality.
She thinks maybe she is the problem.
She thinks maybe she could have stopped the assault.
She thinks maybe she is weak.
She thinks maybe she is the bad guy.
Megan does not pursue the harassment claim, soon leaves the organization, and suffers from ongoing anxiety due to the assault. This is the most common outcome of predatory sexual harassment. Mystification not only makes a person doubt their own reality, but creates an organizational culture where others doubt the targets experience as well.
What are our action steps? Well, first, it should be illegal for nondisclosure agreements that obscure or hide illegal behavior by an organization—regardless of what that illegal behavior may be. Predatory sexual harassment includes sexual assault, pedophilia, rape, quid pro quo demands, and hostile environments. Hiding this behavior through nondisclosure agreements allows sexual predators to continue to engage in illegal, hurtful, and destructive behavior. Based on the work by #LiftOurVoices and by other advocates, the United States passed the #Speakoutact, which limits the enforcement of nondisclosure agreements in sexual harassment and abuse cases.That is good news. But what about mystification? What do we do to stop this nonsensical behavior. The answer is complicated, but I would suggest we start by taking the target seriously and to stop worrying so much about the predator’s career and family. Instead, we need to focus on the organization and worker well being. That means, sometimes, making the hard call by recognizing predatory sexual behavior for what it is, and by removing these people from the organization.
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