David Letterman's awkward, yet warmly received admission that he had sex with women who worked on his staff has resulted in appropriate denigration of his blackmailer and a wave of support for our Comedian in Chief. After all, there's no question that the man we invite into our bedrooms every night--on TV--has a well-deserved reputation as a likable, roguish charmer. Who could resist a playful overture from Dashing Dave? And, like many men who have reached the pinnacles of their fields, why should he resist the no doubt frequent invitations from infatuated female "fans", right? A perk of his position, so to speak, n'est-ce pas?
Well, um, not exactly. I am not going to join the legions of prudes who may rail against his affairs. His personal choices and his sex life should properly be a topic for concern only for himself and his wife. Consensual relations between adults should remain private and respected as such. Except--
These alleged relations occurred in the workplace, between a "boss" and his employees. And that's no laughing matter.
As a young woman in the 1970s, I launched a career in broadcasting, starting out as a pioneer female top 40 DJ and then moving to television news and features. I was beautiful, educated, bright, and talented, and, having built up a respected portfolio of writing and on-air work, was competitive for a multitude of professional opportunities. The majority of jobs offered to me, at "legitimate" respected radio and TV outlets, unfortunately came with unacceptable propositions. For example, I lost one radio gig when I refused an S and M activity with the 400-pound brother-in-law of the station manager. At another radio station, my request for a well-deserved raise to equal a less qualified female colleague's salary was met with "you want to know how she makes ten bucks more a week?"--sits on desk and leans toward my lips--"I'll show you." (I was 19 and a virgin and declined--and was soon again out of a job.) Moving up, I learned by watching my peers, was a lot more likely if one was willing to engage in sexual relations with the men in power or control. Appalled, I sought refuge in pre-med, only to have my interviewer for one medical school to which I applied, move in for a tongue kiss instead of a handshake at interview's end. (Despite my conservative outfit and exam-cramming 25 pound weight gain at the time.)
No, not every broadcasting or medical research job ended up being an adventure in sexual harassment. I chose a different medical school for my studies, and continued my parallel career track in broadcasting, retaining fond memories of many of the outstanding mentors I had the pleasure of working with and learning from. And, I began my own sexual adulthood with a few memorable relationships with peers in both media and medicine, leading to a passionate, but ultimately unsuccessful first marriage. No harm, no fowl. But, in both fields, especially once newly single, I still kept running into "offers" that crossed the boundaries of professional expectations. Like most women of my era, and of the generations that preceded me as women entered into the workforce, I handled these invitations as diplomatically as I could--avoiding accepting the offer and offending the gentleman at the same time.
Younger women might ask why I didn't complain to the Human Resource offices of my workplaces. Women my age would simply laugh. In those days, if you chose to be out playing on the hockey rinks of the "co-ed" workplace, you were expected to be able to handle a puck. I certainly did--but was frustrated to see that my refusal to go in for the "play" often left me scoreless relative to my women peers who opted to "play ball". My outstanding performances, valued expertise, my acknowledged talents, and even my pleasing professional appearance did not carry as much weight as my decision to avoid mixing work and pleasure. Reporting sexual harassment in that era would quickly land you in the "penalty box", as in "you'll never work in this field/town again".
With an impressive audition reel by my thirties, I had no difficulty getting a crusty, assertive female agent to promote my TV career, and I soon ended up in Los Angeles hosting several television shows on a national cable network. My work on a broadcast network pilot (that unfortunately didn't sell) was also praised. Again, I found myself enjoying the platonic company of a growing number of women colleagues, a new circle of gay male colleagues and friends, and some kind and honorable straight male colleagues. And dating men I'd met OUTSIDE my professional circle. Unfortunately, my boss, whose wife and children I very much liked, was interested in a personal relationship with me, and half the women in the office. After I declined, even my excellent ratings were not enough to assure the renewal of my contract. Choosing to avoid the streetwalker's compromise, I was back out on the street.
I have been happily and monogamously married for over 20 years now, and, have managed to carve out a career in medicine and writing that affords me some stability in these challenging times. I have no regrets about my choice never to give in to a relationship in the workplace to advance my career, but I do regret seeing some others who did choose to drive down that road in positions that are far more successful and lucrative than mine. Finally, I am sad for so many others who gambled that a relationship would bring them professional advancement, and who ended up "out of the game".
And that is why I am not chuckling along with Dave's story. I acknowledge the immense talents that resulted in his well-deserved professional stature. I decry the environment that makes it much more difficult for equally talented women to mimic his path without sacrificing their ethics, or yielding to the temptation of "hitching a ride". Work is work, and sex is sex. They're both rewarding, but the rewards shouldn't come from their integration.