What Does Consent Mean When Saying "No" Has Consequences?

Well, that was fast.
Early Wednesday, when the NBC morning news team shakily announced on-air that Matt Lauer had been terminated from his post — the result of a damning sexual harassment allegation — it was unclear how long it would take for the skeletons to start tumbling out of his closet. Turns out: eight hours.
By mid-afternoon, Variety had published its months-long investigation into the big name anchor’s alleged history of on-the-job predatory behavior. The list of accusations is long and gross, and includes details like how he once purchased a sex toy for a colleague and gave it to her along with a note describing what he wanted to do with it. Atop other anecdotes and disturbing revelations, the Variety reportage aired the fact that Lauer was granted a button under the desk in his office, which made it possible for him to lock the door without ever having to rise from his seat. Fancy that.
But while the NBC team — including Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb, who were put in the position of breaking disturbing news about a colleague on TODAY with little notice — did their best to temper their obvious shock with journalistic integrity and empathy for the “brave colleague” who came forward with her story, it didn’t take long for other members of the media to start speaking out on Lauer’s behalf. (Lauer himself has not yet publicly commented on his split with NBC, or the accusations, as of time of publishing.). One such media man was Geraldo Rivera, who apparently turned to a 1950s-era playbook for how to make light of misogyny; in fact, his rationale was so retro-ridiculous that it almost seems as though it was crafted expressly for refutation. Let’s live in reality here, though: Probably not.
Shortly after Variety’s story broke, the former talk show host and FOX News commentator took to Twitter with the following statement: “Sad about @MLauer great guy, highly skilled & empathetic w guests & a real gentleman to my family & me. News is a flirty business & it seems like the current epidemic of #SexualHarassmentAllegations may be criminalizing courtship & conflating it w predation. What about #GarrisonKeiller?”
I know what you’re thinking: “Wow! Geraldo is really abusing the extended character limit!” But more to the point … What a load of bullshit. (FOX News disowned the comments: In a statement shared with Refinery29, the outlet said that "Geraldo's tweets do not reflect the views of FOX News or its management. We were troubled by his comments and are addressing them with him.")
Fox example: Rivera kicked things off by leaping into a sexist sand trap, presuming that just because someone has shown you the best side of themselves means that you know who they are all the time. Like Louis C.K., Harvey Weinstein, and Charlie Rose, Lauer is now known to have purposefully exposed his penis to female colleagues: Remembering his “great guy” moments by no means mitigates that fact. And yet, that defense keeps coming up, as though if it’s said often enough history will be rewound and the dick will retreat back inside the pants. Furthermore, offering up your singular experience as a refutation to the dozens of women who shared their harassment stories does nothing except make you look like someone who chooses not to believe women, who have more to lose than gain by coming forward. It also ignores the basic fact that when many women speak out, the sheer volume of those experiences should make you question your own: Are you the rule, or the exception?
Second: If you’re someone who thinks that news is an inherently “flirty business” — (not) sorry to be the one to break it to you, but you’re doing news wrong. Though let’s assume, for a moment, that by “flirty” Rivera meant that news is a business where you wind up spending a lot of time in close quarters with colleagues, sometimes late into the night, often on subjects that bring up emotional responses or surges of adrenaline, and that, taken altogether, those circumstances can translate into an environment that is less buttoned up than, say, working in a science lab.
Even then, there is no excuse to summon a female colleague to your (button door locking) office for sex and then, when she refuses, punish her professionally, as Lauer allegedly did. Nor does it give you carte blanche to harass colleagues over text or email, or compare their bedroom “performance” to their job performance, as Lauer was reported to have done. What all this constitutes is not flirtation: It’s abuse, of the women themselves, as well as the kind of work environment that necessarily requires mutable boundaries and a sense of community and puts faith in its employees to respect one another.
Which bring us to the heart of the problem in this situation, and many others like it. Explicitly or not, Matt Lauer used his power to intimidate women into submitting to his advances or keeping quiet. He was reportedly “paranoid” about being followed by tabloid reporters, an anxiety that might also have been a ruse to justify his need for discretion and privacy.
But because of his public profile, and the advantages, and the connections, it afforded him; because of his value to the network as a personality that drew in loyal viewers; because of his money, and fame; and because acquiescing to his advances could have the potential to make or break a career: The scale was always tipped in his direction. The dynamics were abused. And, yes, as Variety reported, some of the relationships Lauer (who, by the way, has been married for nearly two decades, and has three school-age children) participated in were consensual. But what does it mean to “consent” when you might suffer a penalty for saying no?
Women seem to have a pretty good sense of when they’re being wooed and when they’re being preyed upon, despite how confusing some men claim to find that territory. To assert that, in our current era, “courtship” is being mislabeled as “predation” is not only a misreading of what’s happening at NBC and in all the other hotel rooms and offices with locked doors where women have been “pursued”: It’s a transparently sexist invalidation. As for that Garrison Keillor hashtag afterthought? I suspect that Rivera was speculating about a quote the recently disgraced radio host gave to the National Press Club way back in 1994: “A world in which there is no sexual harassment at all is a world in which there will not be any flirtation.”
In reality, that's a flawed equation Keillor is setting up: the idea that sexual harassment and flirtation can sometimes be viewed as the same thing — that it’s all just a matter of perspective. He got it wrong. Even when flirting really is just flirting, that doesn’t mean it belongs in the workplace. Furthermore, it is possible to be close to a colleague without ever stepping over the line. Women always seem to be able to decipher where it falls. What’s nefarious is that men usually can, too. But sometimes, they choose to pretend otherwise and expect us to believe them.
This post was updated after it was publish to include an official statement from FOX News Channel.