How the iPhone put the spotlight on sexual harassment

Susan Shelley

Columnist and member of the editorial board of the Southern California News Group, and the author of the book, “How Trump Won.”


Someday, when the history of the smart phone is written, historians should give the devices credit for finally ending one of western civilization’s oldest traditions, the sexual harassment and assault of young women by powerful men.

Here’s how it happened. In 2006, Bill Cosby settled a lawsuit alleging that he sexually assaulted a woman. A dozen other women had come forward as part of that case, but the settlement buttoned up the details, and press coverage was skillfully managed by Cosby’s entourage.

Then in 2014, stand-up comedian Hannibal Buress was performing in Philadelphia. He told the crowd he was tired of Cosby’s “smug” lectures on morality, when the legendary sitcom star was himself a rapist.

“I talk about this on stage, people don’t believe me,” Buress said. “Google ‘Bill Cosby rapist.’”

Somebody in the audience recorded Buress’ act with a smart phone and posted that clip to YouTube.

It changed everything.

All the tried-and-true tricks of the publicist’s trade were nullified. No amount of pressure on an editor could keep the story from getting out. And when Cosby and his people tried to call the women liars, it only encouraged more women to come forward with their own, eerily similar experiences. In the pre-iPhone era, it might have been difficult for people to get their stories out through the news media. That was before Twitter, Facebook and YouTube turned every smart phone into an international broadcasting station.

The damage control techniques that had worked for Bill Clinton didn’t work for Bill Cosby, and they didn’t work for Harvey Weinstein, and they’re not working for U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore. Others have already abandoned that playbook. The offices of Sen. Al Franken and former president George H. W. Bush issued statements of apology to women whom they inexcusably groped and insulted.

Some types of sexual misconduct are so serious, so unforgivable, that the loss of a career even 50 years later is not too severe a consequence.

In that category: Any sexual contact or attempted sexual contact between an adult and a child; and any sexual advance or suggestion by a powerful individual to a person seeking a job or professional advancement.

Almost as serious: Any sexual advance or suggestion by anyone in the workplace that causes the targeted individual to feel so uncomfortable, harassed or distressed that the desire to transfer or resign is suddenly overwhelming, when that desire wasn’t present before.

We encourage young girls to dream of careers in any field. We tell them to study and excel, to secure an internship or an entry-level job, to try to get an interview with someone who might be a good contact for the future.

Too often, the first thing they encounter is the sewer at the top.

When a powerful person makes a sexual advance in that situation, a young woman’s professional life is taken from her. If she goes along with it, some people will always think she slept her way to success. If she doesn’t go along with it, the powerful person can make sure she never has the career she wants, the one she’s worked so hard to have.

And just like that, a life is destroyed.

So it’s more than ironic that today there are successful men living in terror that their careers may be derailed by a sexual advance.

Give all the credit to iPhone creator Steve Jobs. He should have named it the iGotcha.

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