OPINION: Draining The Sexual Harassment Swamp

By Annette Jordan
The Courier-Tribune, Asheboro, N.C.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Columnist Annette Jordan shares her thoughts on how the reporting of sexual assault allegations is changing too.

The Courier-Tribune, Asheboro, N.C.

Delilah Warner called me out of the blue one day.

I well remembered her from my days as a young reporter. In the ’80s, she was a fixture around town, strikingly beautiful, intelligent, outspoken, a rising star in local and state Democratic party circles, the first African-American woman assigned to Probation & Parole in Randolph County, a ground-breaker.

But I hadn’t talked to her in years.

After chatting for a few moments, Delilah got around to the purpose of her call.

She wanted to tell her story of sexual harassment, feelings that had been stirred up by the accusers of Bill Cosby who had found the courage to come out of the shadows and confront the famous actor.

“I want to get it out of my head,” is how she phrased it. And she wanted to name names.

The latter part concerned me and I gave her my honest opinion. I was reluctant to print allegations against someone, with no charges, no court case and no due process of law. And then there was the whole issue of libel.
We left it at that.

Then came Harvey Weinstein. And Roy Moore. And Charlie Rose. And John Conyers. And Al Franken. And Matt Lauer.

And the #MeToo campaign began to gather steam, woman after woman stepping forth to expose the ugliness of sexual harassment, of powerful men in positions of authority using that power to hurt women, and that it would not, could not, be tolerated any more, and women should not only be encouraged to come forward but be believed as well.

And Delilah Warner contacted me again, this time bypassing the phone and coming directly into the office.
“I have to get it out of my head,” she repeated. “I want to share my story.”

So we sat down in the conference room. She talked. I listened.

She talked about being sexually abused as a youngster and keeping quiet, afraid she would be accused of “being a fast young lady and it’s your fault.”

She talked about the early years of her career, in the late ’70s, challenging for any woman at that time but especially a young black woman and daughter of tenant farmers who naively believed that hard work and determination were enough to climb the ladder, only to find there was a darker, seedier side to success. She talked about many instances of sexual harassment on the job, but the most egregious, the one that haunts her the most, coming at the hands of a much older man high in management in state government.

“I got you this job,” he would tell her. “You know what to do.”

She felt trapped, ashamed, helpless.

She didn’t dare risk exposing him — he was part of the “good ol’ boys” network — and she would not have been believed. She would have been the one destroyed.

And so she buried her feelings, using them and her brash intelligence to fuel a career path and political ambitions, at one time serving as an officer in the Randolph County Democratic Party and winning the Kate Hammer award for outstanding service to that organization.

While she enjoyed great success, everything began to unravel as the post-trauma stress of buried feelings, the images in her mind that wouldn’t go away, and life’s tragedies happened. There was a car wreck, an emotional roller coaster of medications and anti-depressants, termination of jobs, court battles over employment, a family member’s brush with drug arrests.

“I could write a book,” she jokes, but she’s also serious. You can tell that from the scrapbook she carries around, filled with photographs, paperwork, court documents and such. Yes, she intends to write a book — to encourage others to work hard and be respectful and to speak out, she says, but also to right some wrongs, to name some names.

I see the pain in Delilah’s eyes and I sympathize. I want to help her find peace, but I also have to confess the naming-names part still worries the old-school journalist in me that believes cases should be tried in court, not on the front page of a newspaper or a TV show, that allegations should be backed up with facts. The #MeToo insistence, that every woman should be believed no matter what, bothers me, too. Women can lie — remember the Duke lacrosse players? They can destroy lives and reputations for reasons that have nothing to do with guilt.

And yet here’s the conundrum. How does a woman find justice if court is not an option?

For Delilah it may not be. At least one attorney has advised her to put that long-ago sexual harassment “in the rear-view mirror” and find peace in her faith.

While she agrees faith is a component, healing will only come by speaking openly and encouraging other women to do so.

“If you are young and attractive, this can happen to you,” she says, then corrects herself quickly. “No, you don’t have to be young and attractive. It’s a power thing with men.”

Yes, it’s a power thing. But woman by woman, we’re witnessing a cultural shift in this country in which the power of predators is being taken away, the “good ol’ boys” network shaken by women who will no longer remain silent and be bullied, who demand consequences for actions. They are draining the sexual harassment swamp.

And if they have to break a few rules to find justice, then so be it.

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