garrison keillor
Keillor doing the last broadcast of “The Prairie Home Companion” last year. (photo: MPR News)

Based on recent events, it seems that male sexual behavior is assumed to be inappropriate unless explicitly agreed to in advance. Even if the male behavior wasn’t sexual at all, it can later reinterpreted  by the woman as sexual in order to accuse the man of being abusive. Sound wrongheaded? Consider Garrison Keillor.

Yesterday afternoon, Minnesota Public Radio announced that they were severing all ties with Garrison Keillor, the former host of the  “Prairie Home Companion”. Keillor made this statement:

“I put my hand on a woman’s bare back. I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I apologized.

“I sent her an email of apology later and she replied that she had forgiven me and not to think about it. We were friends. We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called.”

MPR’s statement about this says, in part:

“Last month, MPR was notified of the allegations which relate to Mr. Keillor’s conduct while he was responsible for the production of A Prairie Home Companion (APHC). MPR President Jon McTaggart immediately informed the MPR Board Chair, and a special Board committee was appointed to provide oversight and ongoing counsel.

“In addition, MPR retained an outside law firm to conduct an independent investigation of the allegations. Based on what we currently know, there are no similar allegations involving other staff.”

One woman whose back was touched years ago is enough to destroy a radio icon. It didn’t matter that she understood and forgave him She hired a lawyer and that ended Keillor’s career. This case is a prime example of the “Salem witch trials” mentality so pervasive today.

There are the obvious “casting couch” cases where getting hired depends on sexual favors. It’s a perfect example of leveraging workplace power to get sex. In the past, examples  of highly placed men losing their positions almost exclusively refered to allegations of this sort of behavior.

I agree with the need for a safe workplace. It’s easy to understand that someone, man or woman, who has power over others, can use that power to obtain sexual favors. There doesn’t even have to be a verbal transaction. Rejecting a powerful person is risking serious personal consequences.

The thing is that almost all these accusations are made with no substantiation. Only the most stupid provide pictures or brag about (Donald Trump) their transgressions. In the current environment, a single accusation will cost a man his job and reputation.

This is a rock-and-a-hard-place situation. To require objective proof of harassment puts an impossible burden on the accuser. But to allow one voice reporting a decades-old  incident destroy a man’s life feels like a witch hunt to me.

What happens when several people, fueled by the current wave of publicity, report inappropriate behavior from forty years ago? The 1970’s were very different. We’ve been watching reruns of “The Match Game” from 1974 and 1977. References to “midgets”, jokes about ethnic groups, and obviously sexual teasing are common content. Clearly times were very different then.

Does that make sexual harassment charges from 1977 invalid? Of course not. But, is it right to act on accusations from those long-past days? It’s way too easy to say that it doesn’t matter when somebody did something if it is wrong. These accusers had 40 years to say something but they didn’t. Some say that until now these people were frightened of the blow back if they came forward and, there is no statute of limitations on reporting a perceived inappropriate action, no matter how trivial.

In the wake of the Bill Cosby abuse publicity, some women felt empowered to come forward with charges against other men. Respected public figures fall in the face of their accusations. The latest being Matt Lauer on NBC and Garrison Keillor. In Lauer’s case, one woman came forward. NBC management stated that they had suspicions of other cases as well. Was there proof?

Maybe this is justice. I’m not going to claim anyone is lying. But it feels a little bit like the Salem witch trials or the Joe McCarthy hearings of the fifties. Within the space of a few months, accusers have surfaced to point fingers at the famous and caused their careers to crash. Decades of silence have turned into a chorus of accusation. Mass hysteria.

It’s still difficult to admit abuse, but it is safe, almost fashionable now. I think that many of these cases show a pattern of abuse. It’s reasonable to accept that the sheer number of accusers offers credibility to their claims.  What about cases that have only one or two accusers for alleged abuses forty years ago?

Should there be a moral statute of limitation? When we look through the twenty-first century lens of morality, we see crimes that need to be punished. Wrong is wrong, after all. Twenty-first century moral outrage can be applied to times when the moral compass didn’t point true north. Or can it?

The range of unacceptable activities covers a lot of ground. Some were absolutely wrong in the 70’s. Any use of the ability to hire or fire based on sexual surrender was just as wrong then as now. Others, like a man exposing himself in a hotel room were certainly tacky, but not so shocking in the 70’s. Apparently touching a woman’s back is sufficient to cost a beloved figure his legacy (Keillor).

I’m bothered by the growing wave of almost knee-jerk outrage at any report of unwelcome touching or sexual activity. in most cases we aren’t seeing rape or even overt threats of job loss associated with the alleged activity. We are seeing accusations of inappropriate behavior by famous people; even if this behavior is the accidental touching of the bare back of a woman.

Our President is caught on tape talking about grabbing women by their pussies. That’s inappropriate. Wow, is it ever! Apparently, that is acceptable behavior. He wa elected after it was revealed.

But Harvey Weinstein showing women, famous women, his penis is something that should have caused laughter, even back then. Of course, if Weinstein implied his penis needed to be part of a decision to cast the woman, a much more serious line was crossed.

There isn’t a good answer to the question of what deserves drastic action in 2017 in the context of decades-old accusations. I understand that the behavior caused discomfort, perhaps distress to the women who are coming forward now. But is the summary execution of the accused offender the right way to respond?

Some of the accused attempted to suppress the stories by paying off women who complained. These women accepted the payments and signed non-disclosure agreements. Was it fair compensation? Has something changed  forty years later to make them go public? Initially, I considered the payoffs as clear evidence of guilt. But then, I started thinking about context.

The women involved could have been so angry that they refused to be paid off. But they weren’t. They took the money and signed on the dotted line. Or maybe they lied and were paid off by the alledged abuser to avoid the suffering caused by false public revelations.

The accusers’ rationalization for taking the money and now speaking up is that at the time they were too frightened or intimidated to do anything else. And, of course, the money is gone.  So why is it no longer intimidating or frightening to speak up? The reason, of course, is that many others are speaking up. The silence that was bought and paid for is now finished. The mania washes over us like a tsunami taking its toll in destroyed lives.

The men have no way to defend themselves. Denial is seen as further evidence of their evil natures. Silence is admitting guilt. The companies that employ these men are more interested in how the public perceives them than they are about guilt or innocence. The court of public opinion has never had any interest in facts or proof. Companies know this. The rule is to get as much distance as possiblefrom any hint of impropriety.

My concern isn’t so much that innocent men are being persecuted as it is that one voice is sufficient to destroy a man. There is no attempt to see if that voice is telling the truth or has some other agenda for making accusations. Couldn’t a woman who didn’t get a part or a job come forward claiming that she refused to give sexual favors and for that reason didn’t get the job? Are men inherently guilty and any accusing female voice to be believed without question?

That’s the dilemma. How do we know what happened? Do we accept accusations if a number of women make them? Do we have any test to determine whether it is just to end a man’s career based on descriptions of alleged long-past inappropriate sexual activity? I’m troubled by these questions. I’m very concerned about how easy it is to destroy a pubic figure.

An even bigger question is what activity is sufficient to earn the punishment of public humiliation and loss of a career? Our outrage and willingness to execute anyone labeled sexually abusive feels a lot like Salem to me. It’s mass hysteria.


  1. Author

    Will you consider the possibility that you are wrong about this? That there are different ways to come at what’s happening right now around sexual abuse?

    If so, I have a few things for you to consider.

    Mr. Keillor. That’s the one that’s been hardest to take for people. “All he did was try and comfort a woman!” All we have is his side of the story. There is another side, and we likely won’t ever hear it. Check, and consider this: “MPR’s director of communications, Angie Andresen, said Friday that her organization would like to share more information, but to do so would be a breach of confidentiality that might deter potential victims or witnesses of abuse from coming forward.”

    I LOVE A Prairie Home Companion. I also have to consider that MPR probably wouldn’t react this harshly if there weren’t another side to the story.

    With Mr. Keillor out of the way, let me respond to a few of your other statements.

    > Based on recent events, it seems that male sexual behavior is assumed to be inappropriate unless explicitly agreed to in advance.

    Yes. Let’s go one further: All touching and sexual behavior, regardless of gender, can be assumed to be inappropriate unless explicitly agreed to in advance. That’s the basis of consent. The goal with consent should be an “enthusiastic yes”.

    “You look down. Would you like a hug?”
    “I guess, I mean, sure”

    In that case, don’t hug. You can say “If you ever REALLY feel like one, the offer remains open”.

    Can you even ask for a hug? Not in a professional setting. Can you ask someone to see your penis or watch you masturbate? Never in a professional setting. Never with strangers. You can with someone you are dating romantically, sure. Or someone you are meeting in the context of casual sex. A lot of this will be fairly common sense. It’s really not a minefield.

    > The men have no way to defend themselves.

    But they do. George Takei was accused of sexually inappropriate behavior. He said “I don’t know my accuser, I’ve never met my accuser”. Those are statements that are easily fact-checked by the media, and you can be sure they were fact-checked. And that’s the last we heard of it, likely because the accuser’s story didn’t check out.

    The Washington Post recently had a woman come forward and say “Roy Moore assaulted me”. They did their due diligence checking and as a result found that this woman was lying about that, in fact was trying to catch the Post in a sting operation. Their journalistic diligence saved them.

    That’s not to say all women accusing Roy Moore have been discredited. Most of these stories are credible. There was one woman in particular, who tried to cast doubt on all these allegations, that lied about what happened to her.

    So there is a way to defend, by telling the truth.

    > Our outrage and willingness to execute anyone labeled sexually abusive feels a lot like Salem to me. It’s mass hysteria.

    Funny you should say that. Who went on witch hunts? That’s right, men. And they were hunting? Women. Who had done what? Nothing at all. And how were confessions obtained? Through torture.

    That’s a wholly different animal. What’s happening now may be the beginning of a long-overdue awakening. I am under no illusion that society at large will change overnight. And, I hope this does lead to change.

    Talk to the women in your life and just listen. Don’t argue, don’t judge, just listen. What examples of men behaving as if they had a right to their attention, their affection, their bodies, have they experienced? The sheer amount of this stuff is staggering, mind-numbing, really.

    I’ll leave you with this: The article on abuse in massage parlors. This has been going on for a long time, and the corporate office basically said “not our problem”, and the franchises tried to protect their business, and let the abusers go free, instead of protecting the women. This is harrowing stuff. And just one example.

    1. Author

      This is a difficult subject. There’s no right or wrong answer to any of the issues. Human interaction is complex. Any attempt, including mine, is easily disproved. My only point is that the current environment assumes that almost anything can be construed as an unwelcome sexual advance. There’s no question that in many cases the actions by the man are inappropriate at some level. My point is that we should consider the threshold for destroying a man’s life. Is a touch to a woman’s back, made accidently, constitute sufficient grounds for loss of income and reputation? Are all claims from women automatically considered correct without substantiation?

      1. Author

        > Is a touch to a woman’s back, made accidently, constitute sufficient grounds for loss of income and reputation?

        Probably not. I’m thinking there’s more to that story. We’ve only heard his side. Here I’ll just have to trust that MRP had good reason, and that when they say they’re keeping the details private, that’s true.

        I can understand someone having doubts about that.

        > Are all claims from women automatically considered correct without substantiation?

        Clearly not. I gave you some examples of claims that were discounted. There are more. Trump was accused of raping a child; that accusation didn’t make the major media outlets exactly because it couldn’t be substantiated. When you look, you’ll find there is a lot of effort done to make sure claims are at least believable and survive a first fact-check and investigation.

        The reality is that the burden is the other way around, and has been for a very long time. The common reaction is to disbelieve the woman. It’s heartening to see that shift around a little.

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