During the past few weeks, the cable news stations and newspapers are filled with stories of women coming forward with accusations of sexual harassment or even rape by prominent entertainers and politicians. Most of these events took place 10, 20 or more years ago. Defenders of the accused argue that these women should have come forth earlier if they were telling the truth about what happened. “Why didn’t they?” critics ask. “Obviously these women must be lying now.”
Other defenders of the accused put forth the defense that, “It was a different time. It was just the way business was done back then. The past is the past and we should not persecute the perpetrators for conduct that was normal and customary at the time. Even if there is a shred of truth in what the women claim, he doesn’t do those things anymore.”
I have also heard people excuse bad behavior with the phrase, “Boys will be boys after all.” That comment is usually accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders or a laugh, indicating there’s nothing you can do about human nature.
Last night I was having dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant with a neighbor couple in their forties. The woman said she wouldn’t go to a different Ethiopian restaurant because they had women in lingerie entertaining late at night. That reminded me of something that happened in the late 1980s that I had completely forgotten. Suddenly recalling the event now, in the context of today’s political/social topic du jour, I felt like a thunderbolt had hit me.
As an associate attorney at a large, prestigious Houston law firm, I was assigned to work on the recruiting team for the local law school with other partner and associate alums. Since there were many more men than women lawyers at the firm, there were only one or two women on the team. The head of the team was a male partner who was a lot of fun, but also known for being a man who used foul language and “slept around” with women not his wife. These things, in themselves, were not anything that hurt his career at the firm.
The recruiting team’s role was to interview students on campus and then invite the ones to whom we thought we might make a summer internship offer to parties at which the students and the lawyers could size up one another. We also organized events for the students who did clerk with us to parties during the summer, all with the goal of recruiting them to come to work for the firm. Since my firm was the largest law firm in Texas and paid the highest salaries and benefits, the ultimate goal of virtually every student intern was to secure a permanent job offer.
I don’t remember if the lingerie parties were held before or after the students came to work, but most likely it was during the summer clerkship. The Head of the UH Recruiting Committee (Let’s call him “Jim”) decided that we would have a party at a new, Texas-themed bar downtown. It was after work and all the students were urged to attend. As a dutiful team member, I was there.
Everyone was drinking and talking and having a good time. At about 6:00 p.m., three or four very lovely young, female “models” entered the bar. They were dressed in sexy lingerie and high heels and mingled among our group. Jim had ordered them as the “entertainment.” At least half of the students were women and I doubt any of them could afford to buy the lingerie being modeled. The models chatted with the crowd, especially the males, leaving most of the female students to talk with one another and me—so much for the female students’ opportunity to make a good impression on the lawyers.
You are thinking that I must have been shocked and embarrassed by Jim’s choice of entertainment for prospective law students, right?
Well, you are wrong. I was in my late 30s or early 40s, having spent 10 years in graduate school getting a Ph.D. I was 36 years old when I graduated from law school and began work at the firm. I had two young daughters in elementary school at the time. I considered myself a liberated woman, doing a “man’s job” in a large law firm and fighting quietly for equal treatment in my legal career. So why didn’t I jump up and scream at Jim and the other men in the bar (all of who seemed to be having a really good time) that this was inappropriate behavior and insulting to the female law students they were trying to recruit?
That is the question I have been asking myself since last night when I recalled the incident. Actually, it was incidents (plural) since the men thought that the party had been such a success that we did it again the next year.
So why didn’t I protest the objectification of women at the time? Why didn’t I stand up for those female students? Several reasons: I was a woman who needed her job and the money it paid to support my family. If I had complained to the men on the team or to the management committee of the firm, the male partners (they were almost all male partners) would have labelled me as a troublemaker. Good legal work would have ceased to come in my door. Eventually, when my billable hours tanked, I would be asked to leave. I couldn’t afford that.
The students didn’t protest or not come to the parties because they needed the job offer. Some of them had student loans to pay or really wanted a career at what they thought was the best firm in Houston when they chose to clerk there. They had no choice but to put up with being ignored while the male students “bonded” with the male lawyers over the models.
If I am honest, however, I don’t think I was all that offended or outraged. In hindsight, it was in poor taste, if not outrageous. But it was the way things were done in those days. When I decided to be a lawyer, I accepted that I was going to have to ignore sexism and sexual harassment if I wanted to succeed. So, the fact that I didn’t speak up and complain about the impropriety of the lingerie party, or any other abuse of or objectification of women that I witnessed doesn’t mean these things never happened. It just means women couldn’t economically afford to bear the consequences of speaking out about what happened in those days. It was just how things were done and everyone said, “It’s just Jim” and shrugged.
I am somewhat ambivalent about whether men should be punished today for something they did when “everyone was doing it.” I think you have to draw a fine line. The lingerie party was wrong, but it didn’t permanently damage anyone (I don’t know about the models.). I can see not punishing a man for things he did or attitudes he expressed that were insensitive and ignorant if “everyone was doing it” and he is behaving himself and treating women with the proper respect today. I think conducting wholesale witch hunts for no purpose other than to be mean or gain political advantage is wrong and dangerous.
But past incidents of rape, coercion of subordinates to participate in sexual relationships, derailing of a woman’s career because she didn’t play along, humiliating women and similar bad acts should not be so easily forgiven. Especially if the perpetrator continues to carry on like this to the present, he should be exposed, vilified and made to suffer the legal and economic consequences of his crimes.
The “boys will be boys argument” deserves to die a miserable death. It is an excuse for laziness and maintaining the status quo. It implies people can never change their attitudes and behavior. I had a nun in Catholic School who used to tell us that “Can’t means won’t!” If social ideas didn’t evolve, women and black Americans would not have the right to vote. The United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights would not have been conceived and written, and we would all still be smoking Camel cigarettes. Progress is made in human society when society arrives at a consensus that a certain abusive way of behaving towards a group of people is wrong and should no longer be tolerated.
I am hopeful that the large number of women who are coming forward and openly acknowledging that they were sexually abused or harassed in the past means that American society is nearing a consensus that men should not objectify, use or abuse women just because they can. The legal and economic consequences of criminally harassing or abusing women may be the motivation that is needed to effect real change and equality in America.
Patricia Holmes is a retired partner in Vinson & Elkins. Her first novel is scheduled for publication in April 2018.