"Sex, Power, & Hysteria"

NOTE: MY APOLOGIES!! Due to operator error and a very efficient list server, I re-sent last week's blog by Bruce Boesky under a title I was considering for this week's offering. Here is the correct post for this week.  As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/.

Now That I Have Your Attention
I have been observing a significant and long overdue social change coming about since Harvey Weinstein was outed in October as being a sexual predator and has been at least for two decades. I think that all of the news and subsequent outings of other predators has served to empower all people that have been affected by a predator, male and female, to come forward and state, "Me, too." I say, "Bravo!"

"She's a Witch!"
In 1975 the genius British comedy troupe, Monty Python, released the first of many hilarious and controversial movies,
'Monty Python and The Holy Grail.' There is a scene in the film where a group of medieval villagers is clustered around an officious looking person on a platform leading a mock trial of a woman who has been accused of being a witch. One gent steps forward and screams, "She turned me into a newt!" The crowd grows quiet and sheepishly, the same gent (obviously now not a newt) states, "Well, I got better." The crowd immediately roars out, "She's a witch!" She is then summarily dunked into a pond and drowned as a witch.

Historically, this same type of sordid event happened in Europe as well as in the colonies of New England. The Salem Witch Trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. The trials resulted in the executions of twenty people, fourteen of them women, and all but one by hanging. Five others (including two infant children) died in prison.

Twelve other women had previously been executed in Massachusetts and Connecticut during the 17th century. Despite being generally known as the Salem Witch Trials, the preliminary hearings in 1692 were conducted in several towns: Salem Village (now Danvers), Salem Town, Ipswich, and Andover. The most infamous trials were conducted by the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692 in Salem Town.

The episode is one of Colonial America's most notorious cases of mass hysteria. It has been used in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, and lapses in due process.

My Story
From 1987 to 1990 I was the CEO of a statewide medical society. Walking into my first role as the titled leader of an organization, I was very enthusiastic about all of the challenges facing me; shortage of revenue, a dysfunctional Board, and staff morale problems. What I wasn't prepared for was what my predecessor warned me about as he walked out the door; "Be careful about the Program Director, she's a black widow and poisonous to the entire organization."  Incredulous, I asked him why he didn't address this personnel issue in the seven years he had been there. He responded that he feared a lawsuit and wished me "good luck" on his way out the door. WOW!

Over the next several months his parting remarks became all too true and, according to the terms of the personnel policies, I was forced to put her into a 90-day probationary status. This was after I had issued countless verbal and written warnings about her lack of professionalism and her propensity to foment toxic office politics, as well as not doing her job! At the end of the 90-day period, I terminated her employment, but I had to escort her to the office door since she refused to leave.

Within two weeks, a lawsuit arrived on my desk from her lawyer, claiming that I had wrongfully terminated her, sexually harassed her and that her dismissal was due to racial discrimination. Consulting with our lawyer, he stated that, "in the vernacular, this is called a kitchen sink lawsuit; throw everything at the wall and see what sticks." Upon informing the Board, there was a mixed reaction to this news; half of them wanted to accede to her demands, the other half wanted to fight it. I weighed in and said I wanted to go forth and take this issue to the wall - I was not in the wrong. They agreed, but I could already see that their confidence in me had ebbed a bit.

Over the next 18 months, both sides' lawyers started the discovery process of trading letters, performed depositions,
and prepared for a point when we could make a reasonable judgment of whether we wanted to go to trial or settle. Finally, it was my turn to be deposed by her lawyer, an all-day affair in a room with hot lights and no AC. At the end of the day, her lawyer looked deflated, and when my attorney and I returned to his office, there was an urgent message for a return call to her lawyer. I stayed for that call and listened in a while her attorney offered an enormous reduction from $500,000 in her client's demands for restitution and other items. My attorney looked at me, and I said emphatically, "Hell, no."

The next day completed my deposition, and then it was her turn. My attorney systematically took her claims apart to where it became clear to everyone in the room that she was lying and at the end of the day, her attorney slumped forward on her elbows and asked my attorney if she could call him again. This time she offered to throw out everything but a face-saving amount for $10,000 and a hold harmless document which we would both sign and then get on with our lives. Initially, I said no again, but my attorney reminded me that it could be two more years before we went to trial and didn't I want to be rid of this whole mess? At that, I agreed, and we all walked away.

Here is My Point
I am not trying to straddle the divide between the sexes; I fall squarely on one side of the chasm and, as a result of the preceding two-year hell of my own experience, I virtually sweat when I sniff sex panic. But here is where I pull it all together, from Monty Python to the Salem witch trials and all of the way to today's news. I am concerned about two fundamental things - moral panic and context.


A moral panic is always a reaction to something that has been there all along but has evaded attention—until a particular crime captures the public imagination. Sex panics in the past have begun with actual crimes but led to outsize penalties and, more importantly, to a generalized sense of danger. The object of fear in America’s recent sex panics is the sexual predator, a concept that took hold in the nineteen-nineties. The sexual predator is characterized by his qualities perhaps more than his actions—hence the need for preventive detention and sex-offender registries. The word “predator” is once again, unnervingly, becoming central to the conversation.

What has also been missing for me in the last three months of news has been context. The moral outrage and the
response have been very similar to the cry, "She's a witch!" I would like to see the latest sex panic news not just spit out almost in real-time, but very similar to a legal proceeding, have both sides present the context of the alleged transgressions so that we can make our own judgment versus the defendant being tried in absentia by the mainstream media.

The Bad News
The current balance of power favors men so much that it’s more than likely that the guilty will get away with it than the innocent will suffer. Still, we would do well to be aware of the risks to our perception of sex, and to this culture, as it grows ever more divided.