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    "Especially for the Women": The Scarlet Letterman

    Near the end of his televised confession Thursday night, David Letterman admitted that the details of his affairs with staffers might be embarrassing, "especially for the women."

    That line was a lot of things: a self-deprecating joke, an appeal for privacy, an attempt to position himself as the defender of his former employees and girlfriends. Perhaps it was a disingenuous piece of rhetoric; perhaps it was a sincere moment of protectiveness; it could very easily be both. But whatever else it was, it was the truth.

    The most vulnerable people in this scandal are the people who are not rich or famous. That means, as it so often means in sexual scandals, the women.

    That truth is being roundly ignored in our media. The hunt is on to name and number every co-worker Dave's slept with, the consequences for those women be damned.

    Blogs, alas, led the way to the bottom. One of Letterman's assistants had been widely identified as a figure in the case before noon on Friday. Blogs were providing pictures and video of her. (Gawker, TMZ, Radar: I am looking, but not linking, your way.) By Saturday morning, even the Gray Lady was giving up a name, although this person has not been accused of any crime, appears to have no involvement in the blackmail plot, and (as the subordinate in a workplace affair) can't possibly have harassed her multimillionaire celebrity boss. The New York Times actually reveals her name in an article that explicitly admits she's not a suspect.

    I understand no one's very interested in what happens to these people after they're publicly dragged through the mud. That's exactly what's wrong with it. Even if the press isn't interested in people themselves, because they don't happen to be bright shiny celebrities, the media should concern itself with the consequences of its own actions. And it's precisely the private figures, the women, who get hurt.

    Consider the one person to be punished most heavily for Bill Clinton's sexual escapades: Monica Lewinsky.

    Now, many people might think that Clinton was punished most. Wasn't he publicly humiliated? Wasn't he impeached by the House? Didn't he see his presidency at risk. It's easy to focus on Clinton, because he's more interesting and dramatic and because he had so much more to lose. And that's the point.

    Lewinsky didn't have nearly as much to lose. So she lost all of it.

    Clinton had vastly more to lose, which made him vastly easier for him to sustain losses, to defend against them, and to recoup them. He lost some dignity and some respect and some influence, but was left more than enough to rebuild his position. I think you'll notice that he's doing just fine today. Mrs. Clinton, dragged through the humiliating scandal, has also done rather well for herself. It's just Lewinsky, who was not famous or talented or powerful or special, who has to wear the virtual scarlet letter until she dies. After that, she'll be trashed one last time, in the obit for the Times.

    Do you think Lewinsky will ever have a normal job interview again in her life? Do you think she'll ever go on normal first date? What do you think happens to her when she checks into a hotel, when she hands a cashier or a waiter her credit card, when she's recognized in the street? Civilians don't get to live things down the way stars do. She doesn't get a second act, where the talents that originally made her famous "redeem" her from ignominy; the ignominy is what made her famous.

    And Lewinsky, unlike a politician or media star, doesn't have the kind of money it takes to insulate her from public shame. Bill Clinton doesn't check into a hotel at the front desk, and he doesn't get served by a waiter who wasn't specifically prepared to serve him, and he doesn't go to the supermarket. Wealthy people involved in a scandal have their personal shoppers, and their housekeepers, and their security staff between themselves and the thousand petty humiliations Lewinsky gets. Nor can Lewinsky make even part of the money it would take for that, except by participating in the same media freakshow that ruined her. Any hope Lewinsky had of a normal career was pretty much scorched by her mid-20s. (Imagine telling your legal department that you had hired America's most famous workplace fraternizer.) That's why the poor underqualified kid had to go on freaking book tour, because the only money she could make came from her humiliating place in the public eye. But Lewinsky doesn't have the rarefied talents that would allow her to navigate a successful public career. Really, almost none of us do.

    Neither, alas, do the women Letterman has slept with at work. We're not talking about Merrill Markoe here, who was once his head writer and who helped him invent the Letterman show we're familiar with today. We're talking about women, now in or around their thirties, who originally had unglamorous production-side jobs with Letterman and who have now moved into decent professional gigs in TV or in other careers. There's no value to hurting these people's modest careers or their private lives, unless ruining and humiliating a bystander is imagined as a good in itself. They won't be harmed as widely or as profoundly as Lewinsky was. The scandal won't be as big, and they've had more time to build resumes and reputations in fields outside "public laughingstock." But they will be certainly harmed, and their ability to protect themselves in limited.

    And what have these people done? They've made an error of judgment while young and in possession of a vagina. That's why they'll get no protection, and why some people will justify trashing them in public: because women's sexual decisions are stigmatized in a way men's never are.

    That's why the general public is okay with trashing Lewinsky: she's a scarlet woman, who committed adultery with another woman's husband. She was also an immature twenty-something who lacked the sense or worldly experience to turn a charismatic older man who was leader of the free world. In any just or merciful world, she would be allowed to live that mistake down. It's not a moment of shining virtue, but Clinton shouldn't need to rely on Lewinsky's judgment to head off bad behavior.

    Some of Letterman's employees slept with him: maybe because he had more power, maybe because they were starstruck, maybe because he seemed so much more accomplished and interesting than suitors closer to their age could be. Stupid? Maybe. Immature? Yes; in every case, we're probably talking about people under thirty, very early in their careers. And it wasn't for them to bring the maturity to the table when they dealt with Letterman. God knows, they made a human enough mistake, and it shouldn't be open to google and the wide world for the rest of their lives.

    If we're going to be Victorians, we should be consistent at least. If we still, after all this time, punish women's sexual misdemeanors harder than we punish men's, we should at least have the corresponding Victorian reticence about exposing vulnerable young women to scandal. It's still especially embarrassing for the women, even if it shouldn't be. So it would be nice to keep their names out of it.


    Bravo! Very well said, good Doctor.

    I hadn't really considered this issue (and hadn't really followed the Letterman saga), but you make an excellent argument for how the media (and bloggers) are handling this poorly.

    "Bright shiny celebrities" should come with warning labels. "Warning, may cause irreparable damage to your psyche and future". Sigh.

    I have to disagree with you, good doctor. The consequences of Letterman's indiscretions remains to be seen, but Bill Clinton irreparably undermined his legacy because of his affair with Lewinsky. Is he still rich and famous? Sure. But his presidency will be forever associated with the affair that shattered his reputation and distracted his administration.

    Do I feel sorry for him? Not a jot. He made his choices and paid a price for them. The same goes for Monica Lewinsky. The relationship was consensual. She knew that he was married. She knew that their secret could be discovered. She knew that it would have consequences. She may have been younger than Clinton, but she was nonetheless an adult and responsible for her choices. Do I feel sorry for her? Not a jot. She made her choices and paid a price for them.

    If it comes out that Letterman coerced the women he slept with, then it's a different story. But insofar as they freely chose to have sex with him--well, if you have sex with a celebrity, you risk publication of the affair. That's life.

    Moreover, I think that coddling the younger woman in such affairs as if she were a victim betrays an implicit sexism. If the woman's mistake was human enough, then so was the man's. And conversely, if the man deserves the consequences of his mistake, then so does the woman.

    Genghis and the doctor are both right, in a way. It's an atrocious invasion of privacy for any respectable news outlet to be publishing the names of otherwise private persons, solely on the basis that they may or may not have fucked a celebrity.

    Monica Lewinsky and Rielle Hunter became fair game only once prominent politicians chose to publicly lie about their liaisons. At that point, the issue became one of trust in the politician's honesty, and the facts of the matter became legiitmate issues of public interest.

    But Genghis and the doctor both both use the word "mistake," which offends me. Why does consensual sex between adults become a mistake just because our societal values are so skewed that screwing a celebrity necessarily exposes you to public humiliation? The sex itself is not the "mistake," unless of course most consensual sex is a mistake. The mistake is the stuff we surround it with: "I thought he/she wanted a long-term commitment ... would look better with his/her clothes off ... would leave his wife ... might be better in bed ... had more money ... wasn't as dumb as he/ she looked ... I was really, really drunk."

    Actually, the latter is the one excuse I'll accept for sex being a mistake. The others are just miscalculations.

    "Mistake" does not imply moral judgment. Clinton's affair with Lewinsky was idiotic due to the likelihood and consequences of getting caught, and so it was a mistake in the sense that it was an imprudent choice that didn't work out well--for either of them. Call it a miscalculation if you prefer, but I don't see the distinction.

    If there is any moral judgment on my part, it's in the cheating. The one obvious victim in the Clinton-Lewinsky affair was Hillary.

    It's a mistake to do something which is likely not in your own interests, or involves a creepy situation.

    Having sex with a married person, or with your boss, is likely to burn you in lots of ways. And both are morally dubious. I don't view the adulterer's partner as a home-wrecker, or as responsible for the other person's marriage (Clinton was violating his wife's trust; Lewinsky wasn't), but you're at best participating in something that the other person experiences as unethical. That doesn't always go well.

    Sleeping with your boss is not nearly as bad as sleeping with your employee; the power dynamic creates a different set of moral responsibilities. But it's not good, even if consensual. You're messing up your workplace and almost always creating a climate where other employees feel either pressured to sleep with the boss or rewarded less well for sleeping with the boss. (Letterman may have paid one assistant's way through law school. That's generous, and arguably kind if it was a post-relationship gift, but it has to make it strange for other assistants who just get the average Christmas bonus.)

    Moreover, I think that coddling the younger woman in such affairs as if she were a victim betrays an implicit sexism. If the woman's mistake was human enough, then so was the man's. And conversely, if the man deserves the consequences of his mistake, then so does the woman.

    I think you're missing the Doctor's point. It's not about male/female, it's about famous before/famous because. If it were Oprah and some male intern, the point would mostly be the same. (I say mostly because unfortunately it's true that due to societal norms, Oprah's hypothetical male intern would most likely not suffer as much scorn.)

    Sure, Clinton's reputation was damaged as a result of the affair, but Clinton's fame is far beyond the scandal, whereas Lewinsky's fame is not.

    Well, as Nebton helpfully clarifies, it's about the power, not the gender. But alas, the power and the gender tend to be correlated very often.

    And I am not saying that moral mistakes should be free from consequences. I'm saying that consequences should be reasonable and proportional.

    Did Lewinsky do a bad thing? Sure. Does she deserve some consequences? Of course. Should those consequences include a life-long humiliation and the end of anything like a normal life. I think that case is a long, long way from being made.

    (And the normal consequences for sleeping with a married man happened to Lewinsky: she got strung along, unceremoniously dumped, and by all accounts had her gullible heart broken. Those are the unavoidable wages of her misjudgment.)

    I also think that consequences should be proportional to each partner's power. Letterman and Clinton had for more control over these situations than their partners did, and were entrusted with more responsibility. No employee is responsible for the boss's erotic life or personal conduct, but all bosses are responsible for their employees' workplace conditions and chances for career advancement.

    What if the younger, less-powerful person in the affair didn't fully consent? What should the penalties for having sex with someone under duress be?

    And as for being patronizing: that's point I worried about. But it's not patronizing to recognize genuine power inequities. That's dealing with reality. And if women aren't fully equal in the professional world yet, it's important to mitigate that inequality until it can be eliminated.

    Thanks for the clarification. I have no position on who deserves what, and I shouldn't have used the word "deserve" at all in my reply. I don't think that any of these people "deserve" the consequences, since I don't regard their misconduct as unethical in the sense that they should be punished for them--any more that I would feel that an acquaintance who fooled around with colleagues or had affairs deserved to be punished. Though I would say that they shouldn't be surprised or feel abused if their choices came back to haunt them.

    To your point, I'm not sure whether I agree that Monica has suffered more than Bill or even whether it's a meaningful question, but I agree that Monica has suffered significantly for her mistake or, as Acanuck prefers, her miscalculation.

    It seemed like you were setting up the famous male participants as the guilty aggressors and the non-famous female participants as the innocent victims, and that's what I disagreed with--though it seems that I misinterpreted you.

    Letterman gets a thumbs up for going on air and admitting his liasons and for a very public apology.  And really, who cares?  This is one woman who will not turn away from enjoying his on-air talent.  And what gives S. Palin the right to comment?  Wasn't she trying to cover up her daughter's pregnancy and pretend that the baby was hers?  Let's worry about real, important news....

    1) Monica was a grown-ass-woman when she did that thing in that House. When you start making excuses for her you rob her of responsibility. When you are an adult you have to take responsibility for your actions, and it ain't always fair, but you still gotta do it. She's an adult, and while it may not be exactly fair, she has to deal with the consequences of bagging the president. 2) You said: What if the younger, less-powerful person in the affair didn't fully consent? What should the penalties for having sex with someone under duress be? What the heck are you talking about? Having sex with someone under duress is rape, that's like pretty well known to be illegal carrying severe penalties. 3) Power paradigm or not, unless she's under 18 or you want to drop the hard R word (rape), there is nothing criminally wrong with sex. Also, calling her a "humiliating bystander" is kind of minimizing and insulting to Monica. 4) You said: She was also an immature twenty-something who lacked the sense or worldly experience to turn a charismatic older man who was leader of the free world Burn! Sounds like are totally dissin' her in this sentence. When she has friends like you who needs enemies? 5) I don't know what my deal is today, but I have been numbering everything I write. 6) Screw paragraphs, I'm numbering for now on. It makes me feel important, like I'm laying out an complex plan that will take sequential steps to undertake.

    1. Larry's point about personal responsibility is 100% top-dead-center. That's the element I couldn't quite put my finger on in my previous comment. 2. Re-reading the discussion, I find myself agreeing with about 98% of everything anyone has written. 3. The post itself is excellent and thoughful, doctor. It's grotesquely wrong for the media to expose non-celebrities to public humiliation merely for sleeping with a celebrity. And once the latter has openly acknowledged multiple affairs, the media don't even have the excuse that by detailing his dalliances they are providing "news." 4. Gossiping about TV or movie stars' sex lives (or drug and booze problems) is a different kettle of fish. Many of these people have signed tacit pacts with the media devil as a means of career advancement. Were Paris's sex videos or pantiless moments mistakes? If so, they sure worked out well for her. 5. Cleve's point that power inequities can both impact sexual decisions and raise the stakes of exposure is valid. But I tend toward Larry's analysis: if you're of the age of consent, accept responsibility for your actions. 6. As for the issue of harassment, no-one has claimed that but the (alleged) perp's lawyer. Even if true, it's no defence against an extortion charge. 7. I dispute the doctor's implication that either adultery or sleeping with your boss/employee is immoral per se. I've seen office affairs (even adulterous ones) that turned into happy, lifelong marriages -- and I give human happiness more props than I do sucking up to societal norms. 8. I got to eight, Larry. And you really should have run 5 and 6 together, to be fair. But who's counting?

    Obviously you are counting!  But you're right, I was kinda stretching it there.

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