The Trial

The campaign against sexual harassment may have started out as a noble cause, but is the cure becoming worse than the disease? One of the major figures in the Spin trial speaks out.

Published June 9, 1997 9:20AM (EDT)

i have a story to tell, but it's trapped in the rubble of dead language. "Sexual harassment," "discrimination," "environment," "toxic," "sexism," "inappropriate" -- these are the kinds of words George Orwell would have labeled "pretentious diction," words that "are used to
dress up simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments," as he described it in "Politics and the English Language."
These are now big words, signifying words -- the words we use in the post-feminist era to define our positions in the revolution.

What revolution? Let's call it the Revolution Against Transgressive Behavior in the Workplace, a k a "Sexual Harassment," the battle against which has recently grown to zeitgeist-defining proportions.

The French speak of "Le Mistral" -- a terrible wind that blows, fiercer, more determined than any other wind -- it whistles through every keyhole, and it carries an ominous mood of threat. "Sexual harassment" -- the very phrase now feels to me like such a mistral, a force that nobody dares question, lest they be targeted next, lest they be thought of as improper, insensitive, sexually warped, anti-feminist.

The irony, of course, is that the self-appointed morality police, who speak so quiveringly of wanting to defend the delicate, honorable souls of women, are often startlingly brutal. It's an ancient dilemma: If virulence is what is required to correct a social injustice, how do we then correct the new virulence so that it stops short of hurting innocent people, or even of hurting not quite innocent people, badly? The new generation of feminists at the forefront of the new sexual wars must, absolutely must, address that problem. At present they seem to have taken the stance that no amount of excess, of injustice, of sheer insanity in the name of combating sexual harassment is to be regretted, now that it's finally time to fry the bastards.

I disagree. And I speak from close personal experience.

although this story is, on the surface of things anyway, about a sexual harassment lawsuit, it has many chambers. It's not "my" story -- it is an elephant that hundreds of people would describe in hundreds of ways. It has, to me, the texture of nightmare, in that it is filled with scary, illogical events I would never expect to happen, patterns of thought and, more important, morality, I can't follow. It is a story about what happens when the oppressed becomes the oppressor. It's a very depressing story, ultimately, about America, because it combines the worst elements of Puritanism with the worst elements of capitalism. It's about a sexual harassment lawsuit that ripped through a magazine, Spin, and left dozens of people's private lives ransacked, scrutinized and judged. In this case, it was not only "transgressions" that were seized upon, but every last instance of sexuality expressed, even consensual. In fact, especially consensual.

I suppose I could start by saying: "I had a relationship with my boss many years ago, and boy did I get my butt kicked." But that's only a small part of the epic. Besides, "relationship" needs definition. And so does "boss." All these words are very, as my friend Daisy would say, "un-beautiful" -- designed to exclude all the uniqueness and nuance of real life. Consider the difference between "sexual relationship" -- the term that came almost
hissing off the lips of the plaintiff's attorneys -- and "love," a word that was never, in three years, mentioned.

Not to harp on Orwell, but in his novel "1984" he did describe a society in which romantic love was forbidden, where helicopters hovered outside bedroom windows and people were relentlessly persecuted and punished for expressing not subversive politics but intimacy.

If you know the story at all, you probably know this: Former Spin research editor Staci Bonner filed suit against Spin publisher Bob Guccione Jr. Much to everybody's surprise, he refused to settle, and the case went to court this past spring.

Sixty-six pages, 311 paragraphs long, the suit, filed in 1994, charged Spin (Camouflage Associates) and its then owner, Robert Guccione Jr. (the magazine was recently sold to the publishers of VIBE magazine), with sexual harassment, sexual favoritism, sex discrimination, intentional infliction of emotional distress and unequal pay.

The logic went something like this: The reason the plaintiff was never promoted to a "creative" position (although she did write 42 pieces that appeared in Spin during her three years of employment) was not only because of a "harassive
environment," but also because of a pervasive and insidious form of sexual discrimination. In order to prove this supposed discrimination, they had to establish systemic injustice. They came out with blazing guns, claiming that the only way women "got ahead" at Spin was by sleeping with the editors. Or, failing that, by laughing at
their jokes. Or by simply being a member of the privileged class, which the plaintiff defined as "tall, thin blondes." (Although Staci herself is pretty, blond and fairly tall.)

Much of the suit was a protracted battle over the extremely tenuous issue of "talent." The Catch-22, though, was that once you became identified as one of these scarlet women who'd slept with the editors, there was no such thing as proving yourself, because everything you'd ever achieved was now filtered through the lens of "opportunities" granted due to sexual complicity. The more
you tried to use your accomplishments to prove your worth, the more you dug your own grave, for it was precisely those accomplishments that you were being hanged for. And no amount of discourse on the complex nature of cause and effect would deter this angry mob. "God," remarked one scholarly girlfriend of mine disgustedly, "they're so Newtonian."

In effect, the suit sorted women into two categories: "good" and "bad." It defended the "good" women, i.e., those who had perceived all sexual invitations or comments as "hostile," and it attacked, with startling savagery, the "bad" women -- those who had documentable inter-office flings or even flirtations. The paradigm that took shape was almost Marxist in form, but rather than capital being the thing that explained everything, to these feminists it was sex. No, not sex, something much more abstract -- sexual chemistry.
Whose lunatic idea it was I don't know, but they actually set out to explain every last byline, promotion and even desk placement at a struggling rock magazine according to the sexual dynamics of the workplace.

Apart from the standard-fare props of "sexual harassment" (a few copies of Playboy, a cactus, a string of lurid expletives, "inappropriate" late-night phone calls and the like), the suit was designed to target, and expose as pernicious and unfair, this workplace chemistry. (The term "workplace" distorts the fact that this was a creative, not a corporate, entity.) Messy realities -- the smoky brew of each person's sense of self, sexuality, confidence, mood, childhood, you name it -- were ignored in favor of sharp, clear lines connecting the dots.

The maddening thing about the suit was that there was no real smoking gun. Instead it piled up a mountain of minor offenses, rude behaviors and alleged expletives, finally relying on a "pattern" of sexual favoritism and discrimination only discernible to those who shared the political convictions of the plaintiff or who once worked at Spin and harbored some calcified grievance against Guccione. The murky hypothesis of sexual favoritism preceded any clear evidence to support it (and indeed, an impartial jury that sat through almost four weeks of testimony failed to detect any such favoritism or, for that matter, any sexual harassment to speak of). In order to prove that the women who were "sexually complicit" in the workplace were rewarded, every sexual connection had first to be unearthed, later to be traced along the
lines of "career advancement" at Spin.

I had been, for almost 10 years, on and off, editor and writer of Spin's monthly AIDS column, and I had been, for a few years, involved in a serious relationship with my employer, friend and mentor, Bob Guccione Jr. I was the bull's-eye on the dartboard -- the perfect example of someone who had benefited from this pervasive injustice.

how do you describe physical shock? Once I was crossing the street in broad daylight, when a large man spoke to me. I stopped and said, "Excuse me?" and he delivered a punch to my chest so powerful that I flew several feet. He had cracked my chest bone.

That unique combination of fear and pain came back to me the day I got my document request. A lawsuit is a kind of violent attack, if you are on the receiving end, and it is made all the more nightmarish by the fact that the invasion into your private life proceeds with a humming, smooth efficiency. No faces, no voices, just the mounting presence of malevolence arriving in
envelopes from no person -- from a system.

as it turned out, the nightmare had only just begun. Over a period of almost three years, I was subpoenaed for thousands of pages of documentation, including every draft of every article I ever wrote, my entire academic record, love letters, diaries and documentation of any "dates," "gifts" or any other physical remains of the affair. It was very clear that the objective was to break me down psychically -- to convince me of my lack of talent, my ineptitude. This is a mental torture technique that works best on women -- preying on their insecurities. They knew that.

I borrowed money and hired lawyers and tried desperately to escape this degradation, but it was futile. I was in the system. I was a witness, but treated with the kind of hostility usually reserved for a defendant. I lost over 10 pounds and was twice forced to go on anti-depressants, because I couldn't handle the care of my son.

I submitted boxes and boxes of documentation in compliance with the subpoena, including every draft of every article, every memo, every story idea, correspondence and much, much more. I was deposed for two days. If I had won an award, I was now told that the organization that gave it to me was not very significant, or that my name had not appeared on the plaque. I
was asked, in a tone you'd expect to hear when a criminal is questioned, why I hadn't written for Esquire or Vibe or The New Yorker (subtext: If I'm so damn convinced that I have talent). I was asked where I was standing when I got my acceptance as an intern at Spin in 1986. Who did I report to? How many credits did I take at college that year? Who gave me this assignment? That assignment? Where was my desk? How could I explain that there were people on staff who felt I had not submitted my fact-checking material in a timely and organized fashion? These lawyers had copies of a paper I wrote in college that I didn't even have a copy of.

It was all very Eastern Bloc-ish, in the sheer volume of paper and trivia amassed during the several-year-long "discovery" period. One day as my sister and I were leaving the courthouse, after my first of three testimonies, my sister stopped and turned to me. "I hate that woman," she said, referring to the plaintiff's attorney, Hillary Richard. "Did you see that folder she had?" she asked. "It said 'Celia Farber Volume One' on it." We both laughed. How many volumes are there, I wondered, still not quite believing that all of this was really happening.

An investigator called my first editor four or five times and asked him whether he ever saw me and Bob touch each other, whether we ever left the building together, whether we ever held hands. He said no. In fact, he hadn't even known about the relationship for the first two years it
was going on. They kept calling him back. The very restaurant we had lunch in the day Bob told me about the suit would be subpoenaed for every credit card receipt ever signed by him. Witnesses, mostly former or present Spin employees, were brought in from as far away as Taiwan to comb their memories of every expletive shouted by an editor on deadline, every crude remark, every inter-office liaison, every flirtation. Even speculations about sexual attractions in the office were paraded in front of the middle-aged jury, in an attempt to make gender sense out of the so-called haves and the have-nots at Spin. Scores of past and present Spin editors -- many of whom are now top editors at George, Rolling Stone, Time-Warner and other major media outlets -- were asked to testify on the writing talent, or lack thereof, of their colleagues, and of their former boss. Mishaps as minor as
a wrongly angled photocopy were brought up as evidence of the "favored" women's incompetence.

One woman, who had dated Guccione briefly years after the plaintiff left
the magazine, was forced, during a deposition, to graphically detail a sexual experience with him to a thundering (male) attorney -- who was ostensibly fighting on the side that was against sexual harassment. The Spin employee, a very sweet woman, left the building in shock, and later told me, "I have been raped, and it wasn't as degrading as that."

as the beginning of the whole affair, unbeknownst to me, a private investigator was calling all around the country, interviewing dozens of former Spin employees, digging for dirt, gossip, rumors. Years later, I would meet this woman on a bench outside the courtroom while I waited to testify. She was looking at me with a squint, as if she couldn't quite make sense
out of my presence. She was also loudly, brashly, talking about the suit -- who had testified, what the Village Voice wrote. How excited she had been to hear that "Gucciown," as she called him, was about to go down the tubes and be forced to sell the magazine.

A former colleague, who I seconds earlier realized was testifying against Spin, nervously introduced us. I asked her who she was and she said proudly, "I'm the investigator on this case. I was the one who called
all the Spin employees and talked to everybody." "You didn't talk to me," I muttered. "No," she said with a broad smile, "but I talked to a lot of people about you."

i knew the plaintiff very well. In fact, she was one of my closest friends at the magazine in the years that we both worked there. I knew her to be incredibly sweet, loving and supportive. I also knew that she had been very unhappy at Spin, as had I. We bonded in a mutual sense of outsiderhood, excluded, as we both were, from the hard-core cliques that sometimes form in offices. The reasons we each were excluded were different, and very complex, but when I first read the suit in its entirety, it sounded to me like the political sculpture of somebody else, not Staci. Never, ever, had I heard Staci describe the problems at Spin along such sharply delineated gender lines. Rather, I recall we both felt that the place was simply rough. Rough in the sense that it was a place where nobody would ever cut you a break, lend you a hand, compliment you on a job well done.

I accepted this state of affairs, because even years after the relationship had ended, I was still paying for the fact that I had been romantically involved with Bob. I was paid, as many of us were, very little. I had my own office only briefly, and was often without even a desk. Many nights I stayed, not only late at the office, but overnight, on the floor. I must have been flogging myself in hopes of redemption, approval, forgiveness. I was well aware that the relationship had inspired scorn. I didn't necessarily begrudge people these feelings, but at a certain point, after years of dedicated work, I hoped there might be some reprieve. This is not, I wanted to scream at their stony faces, what you think. I have no power; I want no power. I want only love, and for my colleagues to be decent, to accord me and him some humanity.

When the relationship was on, we were very discreet. When it was off, I fought back tears, turned a deaf ear to gossip about his dating and kept working. In the end, the AIDS column that became my biggest contribution to the magazine became like some kind of child, who we were determined not to take our personal failure out on. I remember being in Bob's office editing the column one night when he suddenly, again, ended the relationship. I cried right onto the galleys, silently, but we never even paused. We finished the edit. We both knew how to use work to escape from life. The column, no matter what, would prevail.

Staci had always been effusive in her support
of my work, even written several letters and cards about how I had inspired her, how I must, no matter what the office politics were, believe in myself. These are the kinds of things that women say to each other -- not men. She signed the letters with hearts and Xs and, always, the words "Je t'adore."

Staci had quit and moved to Atlanta in 1993. I had also left Spin, a year earlier, and eventually got married. We had exchanged letters. When I sent her a birth announcement and a photograph of my newborn son, there was a strange silence. When she finally wrote back, she alluded cryptically to "something" that was "happening" that we were going to "have to agree to
disagree about."

"I hope," she wrote, "that I don't have to lose something as dear to me as our friendship, because of a conviction I had which I believe required me to act."
She gave no clue as to what the "something" was.

so, you are asking, what did go on at Spin, for surely nothing, as King Lear said, comes of nothing. Well, behavior went on, certainly. Rock journalism is hardly the kind of endeavor that breeds gentlemen, and Spin was no exception. There were "toxic" people, yes, jerks, yes. Are jerks illegal? Hungover, caffeinated, stressed-out, people with borderline personalities. Who else would be available to edit a rock magazine?

During the trial, Guccione "admitted" to dating a few women on staff, as well as some interns. An executive editor rubbed the shoulders of a female staff member, called her at home and wrote "executive sex kitten" on a napkin when she asked what her next title was going to be. A senior editor (who testified for the plaintiff) called a female editor a "stupid cunt." (This incident I am actually intimately familiar with. The plaintiff and one other woman -- the woman who had been deemed "executive sex kitten" -- came to me and complained, having overheard this. I told them to go to Bob and tell him, as I couldn't report something I did not personally witness. They did, and the fellow was fired later that day, by all accounts for other reasons as well. His recollection is that he quit. He now works at the Village Voice, which, in weeks of pro-plaintiff coverage of the trial, never managed to mention that their own employee was the source of one of the most infamous expletives in the whole trial.)

The plaintiff claimed that Guccione once pulled me onto his lap, whereupon I complained that he should let me go, as I wanted to "tell him about my idea." Apparently, this caused trauma to the plaintiff. The plaintiff also alleged that he "pushed" me into a bathroom once.
Here we are dealing with the plaintiff asking to be compensated for acts allegedly perpetrated upon another person (me) that I couldn't even remember.

Apart from Guccione, there were three main bogeymen -- one who was accused of being drunk on the job and flirting with one employee, one who was accused of being verbally abusive and sexually explicit, in his journalism as well as in real life, and one who was depicted as the classic class bully, who allegedly said things like "girls can't write for shit" and who rejected the plaintiff's ideas for stories. This editor was accused of having said to the plaintiff: "I don't want to fuck with you, I want to fuck you." When asked by Spin's attorney whether he was possibly kidding, the plaintiff replied resolutely that "fuck means fuck." Indeed. It must have been she who triggered the exchange, by saying: "Don't fuck with me." Did "fuck" mean "fuck" when she said it?

The examples of "favoritism" were not exactly hair-raising. I, the central target in this category, basically kept the same job for 10 years, overseeing Spin's AIDS column. Once, years after the personal relationship was over, I was promoted to features editor, and by the time I left Spin was earning $35,000 a year. The editor who replaced me, who never dated Bob, leapfrogged to the position from freelance copy editor (whereas I had inched my way, over five years, to the job) and was soon earning $50,000 a year. And yet, my salary was dissected over and over, written about in the press, as if it were anything unusual. I started at $5 an hour in 1986, as a research assistant. I earned $8,000 a year, then $12,000, then $18,000 and so on. This was described as wild salary jumps, explainable only via sex. In other words, I was accused of being a prostitute. Now, I have nothing against prostitutes, but if I were going to make my money that way, I shouldn't have had to put in the 60-hour weeks.

One woman, who writes a freelance music news page, was lambasted by a parade of sadistic squirrels, who insisted her work was sub-par. Of course, she dated Bob. Dating Bob meant that by definition you were untalented. The writer for the Voice who covered the trial sneeringly referred to Spin's defense strategy as "The women who slept with Guccione all happened to be geniuses, which accounts for their rapid advancement."

Geniuses? No. the problem was the inverse -- that we were expected to be geniuses in order to survive the excoriation that followed inter-office romance.

One woman who dated Bob was dragged through the mud endlessly, and she only wrote one article! Oh, but everybody had to be dragged from their NYC media perches, to take the stand and testify with nauseating passive aggression that this article was really bad. I sat on the bench outside the courtroom waiting for the first of three testimonies, and my former colleagues started to pile in, avoiding eye contact with me. One woman who, it came out, used to wear a T-shirt that said "I'm in a band. Fuck me," testified that she felt really uncomfortable with the sexual banter at Spin. I glanced at them on the bench, knowing they were going to testify against Spin, and thought: Have you all lost your minds?

i worked at Spin for nearly 11 years, with a few hiatuses, and when I read the lawsuit, I did not recognize the place where I worked. In my experience, the problem at Spin had zero to do with sex, or sexual banter. I don't have the answer to why Staci didn't get promoted to the position of writer or editor, but I don't think it had anything to do with who dated whom. In the general sense, I felt that those who did well were the ones who fit the mold best, who were part of the gang. On another level, those who liked Bob tended, in turn, to be liked by Bob.

And yes, there was behavior that was deplorable -- I am not attempting to whitewash Spin. It's just that rude behavior does not belong in federal court. Real sexual harassment does. Harassment where sex is used to control women in the workplace. I know of no shred of evidence in this entire case that suggests such a quid pro quo dynamic.

A lot of people Bob hired were simply very angry, very dark and above all very, very passive-aggressive people (unlike Bob, who is an ebullient, complex but emotive man). They sneered and gossiped and tripped each other up. And sometimes it seemed that the only ones who provided relief from this sour, competitive way of life were the ones who, occasionally at least, expressed something resembling lust. At least lust isn't passive-aggressive.

I worked closely, for instance, with Legs McNeil, one of the bogeymen, and I liked him. I liked him even though he screamed at me unjustly, and made me buy a box of mice and feed them to his snake when I was an intern. He was often moody, often outrageous, but he was not a "sexist" when it came to writing. Not to me anyway.

Once, when I had just returned from Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution and had 24 hours to write my piece, he spirited me away to his apartment so I could write in a place where Bob couldn't find me and ask where the hell the piece was. Now, I could twist this into one of those huffy, wounded examples of "inappropriate" behavior, right? His apartment? I remember bagels and coffee and cigarettes, and Legs sprinting about, shouting "write!" I had to press my memory really hard to recall, which I just did, that he described having just seen his first pair of breast implants the night before. Perhaps I'm missing a vital part of my emotional armor, but I was not traumatized by this or anything else, however sexual, that Legs said.

The only sexual comment I can remember came from Legs. He said, one day, "Nice ass, Celia." How did I "feel?" I don't remember. Either flattered or irritated, I suppose, but certainly not totally violated. And this is the axis around which the whole thing revolves -- the idea, the insistence, that there is only one proper response to such a comment. The real power, surely, resides in not reacting. Yes, yes. I can see, it's not right, it's inappropriate, men should learn that they can't talk that way. Fine. But women should learn the art of staying cool, of not reacting, because it offers the ultimate reward -- you get to get back to work.

He said "Nice ass."

So what?

after a week of deliberation, the jury came back with its verdict: $20,000 in back pay, nothing on each of the other 12 counts. The judge, who was clearly biased against Spin, essentially sent the jury back, instructing them to award more, given that she had given them incomplete information about "differing statutes of limitation" for
federal law vs. the state human rights law. They came back with an additional $90,000 on the claim that Spin was a hostile environment. They voted, however, that there was no sexual favoritism and no sexual harassment, or quid pro quo harassment. It later emerged that only one of the nine middle-aged jurors thought Staci Bonner should have any cash reward at all.

i can see the clenched jaws, the women who have been violated in the workplace, jabbing a forefinger at me and wondering why I am defending the enemy. Arguing that by focusing my moral scrutiny on the methods of the revolutionaries, rather than on the "crime" that invited the attack, I am diffusing the "issue." (Oh how I hate that word, "issue.")

You don't have to tell me that so-called sexual harassment is a "real problem." I'm not stupid and I'm not callous. What I'm saying is that the cure in this case is fast becoming worse
than the disease.

It's facile to say that sex, or sex within the workplace, is an "abuse" of power. It can also be a deflation of power. Sex is chaos, office is order. They are interlocked.

If you follow the assumptions behind the Spin lawsuit to their logical conclusions, you realize that every single office in America has the potential for sexual harassment lawsuits, "toxic environment" lawsuits.

The contract of fascism is that you get order -- but you pay with liberty. My life experience has taught me to value the mess of life, the chaos, that the life force resides in that messiness. Life springs from it.

I kept tropical fish as a child and learned, the hard way, that it was no good to clean the tank too much. With all their algae and funk depleted, the fish died.

On the day of closing arguments, I was walking out of the courtroom -- Staci caught my eye and looked at me as if to say, "I'm sorry." My knees almost buckled. I do not feel that her friendship with me should have stopped her from pursuing this lawsuit. But I do think she should have stopped her lawyers from perverting the truth as much as they did, from attacking innocent people the way they did.

In the cafeteria, shortly afterward, she sent a friend over to ask if I wanted to join her for lunch. The friend said she was sitting just a few tables away. I stared in disbelief. I wanted to. I would have loved to. I would have loved to show her a picture of my son, to hear about her life. But I couldn't. It was too far to go. Like fire, lawsuits destroy and blacken. There is no return to what was -- the best we can hope for is wisdom.

By Celia Farber

Celia Farber is a freelance writer who lives in New York.

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