Once upon a time, long, long ago, I spent a couple of years outside of academia, working for the state of California at a regulatory agency. This was the mid-1980s, and so deregulation was en vogue, even though most of my coworkers were Democrats who’d never voted for Reagan. The day after the SCOTUS nomination of Douglas Ginsburg went in flames because he’d had the temerity to inhale, it was clear that 1) most of my colleagues in the policy division had a libertarian streak, and 2) none of us were viable candidates for higher office.
Maybe that slightly libertarian climate allowed for other mild indiscretions, too – or maybe it’s just that workplaces always breed sex. One of my colleagues, a very bright woman in her late twenties, was dating the executive director, who was probably fifteen years her senior. I was mildly shocked when I realized they were together. He was her boss, after all, though not her direct supervisor. But they were both single. They were in love. They were upfront about their affair but didn’t let it interfere with work. Though I lost track of them years ago, a quick internet search revealed that they’re Facebook friends, so I’m guessing they’re still a couple or at least real-life friends.
That was twenty years ago, but in principle, I still think it’s not desirable for a person with any supervisory authority to date a subordinate. As a university instructor, I believe it’s wrong for professors and TAs to get sexually involved with students who are currently in their classes. If the connection is real, it can wait until after finals to be consummated. There’s just too much potential for abuse of power on one side, and for infatuation with power on the other.
If the instructor is the student’s adviser, that’s a stickier situation. The best solution would be to set the student up with another adviser. In some cases, though, this isn’t possible, especially if a graduate student is doing specialized work that only one faculty member can advise. Similarly, my colleague and our executive director could only have eliminated the boss/subordinate relationship if one of them had left the Commission. He was the top cat, after all.
So I think allowances sometimes have to be made for love. It would be a shame to condemn serious relationships, because sometimes, you meet the right person in the wrong place. It would be a shame to stand in those cases where the meeting of two people is a small miracle. Obviously it’s not possible to know in advance which relationships will be “serious,” and reasonable people disagree on what “serious” even means, but at a minimum, both parties should have intentions beyond a hot fling. Besides, I’m talking about ethics here, not rules or laws, so there’s room for individuals to interpret their own situations. And just to be clear, I’m only addressing scenarios where there’s an imbalance of power; I don’t see any ethical problem with two employees hooking up, however casually, if neither is in a direct line of authority over the other.
Now, how does this pertain to Letterman? Well, since he was the top cat, any workplace affair would involve a subordinate. That’s always inherently problematic. He seems to have had a sustained affair with the one woman whose name has been revealed, and if that were the end of the story, I’d be inclined again to give it an ethical pass. (Of course, if he and his then-girlfriend, now-wife Regina were ostensibly monogamous, that presents a whole ‘nother ethical problem, but here I’m only considering the sexual ethics of the workplace.)
However, Letterman also apparently had a series of affairs. As Echnidne puts, it he appears to have harvested his subordinates for sex. And that’s a crucial distinction from a boss who has a single liaison with a subordinate, because such “harvesting” is toxic to the workplace climate. People start to wonder if sex is being exchanged for favoritism. They wonder who’s doing the boss, and who’s not. The talents of women who’ve been promoted come under scrutiny, especially if they had a public affair with the boss. But even those who never slept with him may be undermined, as Tracy Clark-Flory notes at Salon:
A friend raised an excellent point in an e-mail to me: “His apology to his staff raises an under-covered feminist issue: Bosses who are hound-dogs taint the reputation of their women subordinates who don’t sleep with them,” she wrote. “I won’t mention names, but when I had a boss like that, a lot of people assumed that of me, yuck, and I fucking hated it. To this day, I think people think that helped me.” There is no question his staff is currently playing a game of whodunnit; all female employees are now suspect. That’s especially true for those who have climbed the ranks, and many have at the “Late Show”: Three of the five executive producers are female and Letterman has a reputation for promoting women. How sad that instead of celebrating that, many will start questioning it.
So the activities of horndog bosses can harm all of their underlings. And while I know horndogging isn’t an exclusively male activity, I’m pretty confident that this is overwhelmingly a problem of heterosexual male bosses and female underlings. Most such situations aren’t actionable under sexual harassment law (unless there’s a clear quid pro quo trade of sexual favors for workplace perks), but that doesn’t make them ethically or politically okay. Horndog bosses set back the cause of workplace equality.
There’s also the little issue of age dynamics. As Suzie points out, Letterman was known for dating interns. These are women who would have been fresh out of college, or maybe even still students, thirty to forty years younger than him. I know an awful lot of women that age. Few of them are secure and mature enough to hold their own with a man so much older and more powerful. That’s not to say the women who had sex with were incapable of consent, only that the situation is inherently coercive, especially when, as Suzie further notes, these women may have wondered if their career hinged on saying yes. Melissa at Shakesville worries:
If there is an expectation, even an implicit or oblique expectation, that sleeping with the boss may be part of your job, whether there can be genuine and undiluted enthusiastic consent is a serious question.
We don’t know the answer to that question, but that shouldn’t stop us from asking it.
And yet, there’s been a lot of shoulder shrugging at the big feminist blogs. Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon, Jill at Feministe, and Vanessa at Feministing have all argued that Letterman probably didn’t break any law, and thus his behavior oughtn’t raise our feminist hackles. But the legal standard alone is a mighty low bar. At a minimum, we know that Letterman’s conduct was unethical and potentially harmful to all of the women who worked for him. Sure, if an extortionist had never forced the issue, we wouldn’t know about his affairs – but now that they’re in the public eye, we shouldn’t give workplace horndogging a free pass just because Letterman isn’t a hypocritical Republican, or because his offense is much lesser than Roman Polanski’s, or even because he’s still a funny, basically likable guy.