Why aren’t feminists mad at Letterman?

Conservative bloggers say the lack of outrage over the "Late Night" host's sex scandal is a case of lefty hypocrisy

Topics: Sex, Broadsheet, Feminism,

Why aren't feminists mad at Letterman?David Letterman as he tells his story during a taping of his late-night show Thursday Oct. 1, 2009

As bloggers continue to feed at the trough that is the David Letterman sex scandal, a question has arisen: Where’s the feminist outrage? After all, the man admitted to sleeping with female employees of the “Late Show” — subordinates, presumably — who may have been pressured or unfairly rewarded for their after-hours work, the argument goes. Why aren’t we calling on CBS to give him the ax? Where are the rants about male privilege and sexual harassment in the workplace? For the most part, our inquisitors are conservatives who suspect another instance of liberal hypocrisy is at play — remember, we did give the comedian a pass on Sarah Palin and her brood — but it’s a fair question.

The most obvious answer is that we’ve been too wrapped up in the other scandal of the moment, a case of child rape, to debate sex between two consenting adults. That really can’t be emphasized enough — because while there may be gray areas when it comes to sex in the workplace, child rape is a black-and-white matter, regardless of what certain Hollywood “liberals” claim. But, sure, let’s take a break from that world of extremes.

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As far as we know, Letterman’s affairs with staffers were consensual. Workplace canoodling happens all the time, and so are young women frequently drawn to male superiors. Many find power imbalances to be very sexy — and more power (or less, as it were) to ‘em. There is nothing inherently wrong about a sexual relationship between two adults who are at different points in their careers. It would be awfully patronizing to suggest that women aren’t capable of meaningfully consenting to sex with a workplace superior. That isn’t to say I don’t pass personal judgment on Letterman for sleeping with young women who were from the sounds of it at the starts of their careers — oh, judgment abounds, believe me! But is it illegal, is it sexual harassment?

Well, Letterman’s production company doesn’t ban manager-employee relationships. It’s possible that an employee agreed to sex without actually wanting to for fear of losing her job or missing an opportunity to quickly advance her career. It’s also possible that other employees who did not have dalliances with the boss were passed up for promotions or other perks. Legal analyst Lisa Bloom explains on CBS’ “Early Show Saturday Edition”: “Somebody can come forward and say, ‘The boss was sleeping with other employees, they got favors and advantages that I didn’t get.’ They got to appear on the show, perhaps, for example. Got additional payments for that.” (On that note, Gawker reports that Letterman paid former assistant Stephanie Birkitt’s way through law school.)

If all of those hypotheticals are true, then the “Late Show” has a legitimate claim of sexual harassment on its hands. The truth, though, is that we don’t know who made the first move, if any of these employees felt pressured into sex or whether his lovers were professionally rewarded for their amorous overtime. We aren’t even totally clear on which employees were involved! We simply don’t know much of anything about these office affairs, except that they happened and that they were a royally bad idea. So, perhaps the final answer to the question posed by innumerable bloggers is that feminists don’t yet know enough about Letterman’s affairs to be outraged.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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