A leading voice on sexual harassment, Caroline Heldman ’93 has had a busy year. She coauthored the 2018 book Sex and Gender in the 2016 Presidential Election, and the 2017 book Women, Power, and Politics: The Fight for Gender Equality in the United States. And the associate professor of politics—who specializes in the presidency, media, gender, and race at Occidental College in Los Angeles—frequently appears in documentaries and on news programs to speak about the #MeToo movement and harassment—partly because of her own experience.
Heldman, who had been a regular guest of host Bill O’Reilly on The O’Reilly Factor, alleged in 2017 that O’Reilly years earlier stopped inviting her onto the Fox News talk show after she accused him of making a sexist remark to her during one of the shows. Also in 2017, she accused Fox News host Eric Bolling and former Major League Baseball player Lenny Dykstra of sexual harassment.
We asked Heldman why stories of sexual harassment have come to the fore (including as part of the #MeToo movement on social media), why the allegations remained in the shadows for so many years, and what the future may hold.
What led to the wave of sexual harassment revelations in recent months?
I think what’s new about #MeToo is that it’s celebrity survivors. So, not only is it getting more media reach, but also we believe them more: Moderately attractive white women who we feel like we’ve known on the screen, we feel like we know them as people. I think really that has caused people to believe survivors more.
And it’s really the power of social media that enables survivors to frame their experience, in a way that they control, to reach a wider audience and also to push back against the backlash that is always at hand. Social media and technology have been crucial in this.
Why, in many cases, did it take years for the stories to come out?
We know that if we come forward, we’re going to probably not be believed by a lot of people; that if we come forward in a public way, then we’re trolled, we’ll receive death threats and everything that comes with being a public survivor. But also in the workplace, if you blow the whistle on what’s happening to you or other women around you, then you won’t work in that industry. At the end of the day, people don’t like to hire troublemakers, and that’s what we get labeled. And I think we stay quiet because sexual violence is the only crime where we put the victim on trial.
Have the more recent disclosures led to any changes?
I think the lasting effect won’t be necessarily legal or policy. I think the lasting effect will be an entire generation of young women growing up being believed when they report sexual harassment and sexual violence. I think that’s something that can’t be undone.
But at the end of the day, raising awareness, which is where we are right now, is simply not enough. It has to translate into new and better laws, it has to translate into better enforcement of existing laws, and at the present time, there’s no clear movement to make that happen. So, as with other social movements that raise awareness and empower the people who are involved, without campaigns to implement accountability measures, the only effect of the #MeToo movement will really be the empowerment piece. It won’t actually have a lasting effect on policies.