Many news stories have been written about the scandal enveloping Harrisburg — you know, the one about the hundreds of raunchy, sexist and degrading pornographic emails that circulated among a group of state prosecutors, at least one Supreme Court judge, and others.
When it comes to opinion pieces, though, the conversation hasn’t been satisfying. Here’s the TL;DR version: Uh oh, it’s the prude patrol! Also, everybody knows men are dumb. Now move along, nothing to see here!
The editorial board of the York Daily Record summed it up thusly: “As scandals go, it seems fairly ridiculous. … It is a big deal because of four letters — P-O-R-N.”
I’ve been on a few editorial boards myself, so I’ll respond with the type of word we editorial writers love: Balderdash.
Allow me to womansplain.
MYTH #1: People are prudes, and this is really about how we love to judge each others’ sexual proclivities.
Let’s start with a statement of fact: People dig porn, and that’s OK.
But it doesn’t belong in most workplaces. Pornography is a $12 billion industry in this country, and 20 percent of men and 13 percent of women admit to accessing pornographic material at work. And that’s only the people who cop to it.
Most workplaces, my own included, have rules about appropriate use of electronic equipment both owned by the company and used while on the job. The state attorney general’s office has had a policy since 2006 that bars “viewing or storing ‘any sexually suggestive, pornographic or obscene materials’ on state computers,” Pennlive.com reported.
Bottom line: If you wouldn’t feel comfortable hanging a naked pinup on the wall of your cubicle, it shouldn’t be on your computer screen.
But maybe you like to be Ms. Prim or Mr. Button-down at work and then go home and act out Fifty Shades of Grey. Hey, God bless!
Or maybe you nip out to your car at lunchtime and interact with your, uh, devices. Get your freak on!
But do it on your own time and with your own equipment. Pun intended.
MYTH #2: Perhaps if there were more women in government in Pennsylvania, this wouldn’t happen.
In other words, it’s your own fault, ladies!
Will Bunch helpfully declared, there’s a “very simple solution” to the boyz club culture of Harrisburg.
Just get elected — it’s that easy! Let’s flip the script: Perhaps there aren’t more women in government in Pennsylvania because things like this happen.
This document, put together by the Philadelphia chapter of NOW and City Commissioner Stephanie Singer, was designed to convince women to run for the most entry-level of entry-level political jobs, that of local committee person.
It doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the reality of female participation in government.
At the macro level: Pennsylvania has never had a female governor (unless you count Hannah Callowhill Penn sitting in for ol’ Billy when he took sick in 1712), or U.S. Senator. Philadelphia has never had a female mayor. You already knew that.
At the micro level: Just one of Pennsylvania’s 18 members of Congress is a woman, eight of its 50 state senators are female, and of 69 Democratic city ward leaders, 26 are women. For Republicans, it’s just eight female ward leaders out of 66.
If you’re not in the room, you can’t take a seat at the table.
MYTH #3: They weren’t sexually harassing any one female, just being gross and clueless. So no harm, no foul.
My colleague Dave Davies laid down a perfectly-rendered mansplanation of this myth in a blog post last week titled, “The porno email scandal: Wake me when it’s over.”
“If any of them were sending the porn to engage in sexual harassment, it would be different. But there’s no evidence of that.”
Well, cock-a-doodle doo, Dave, because here’s your wake-up call.
The issue is not one of sexual harassment of one or even several females, but of unmitigated, unquestioned male privilege at every level of state government.
Not every one of the men ensnared in this scandal is some powerful big mahoff — many of them were working stiffs in the state attorney general’s office — but those implicated include: Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan, Environmental Protection Secretary E. Christopher Abruzzo, and a former press secretary for Governor Tom Corbett.
They all seemingly felt perfectly secure in, say, leering at an emailed image of a woman servicing her male boss, labeled “Dedication.” At least one of them felt perfectly entitled to respond with chops-licking comments like “YUM.”
That’s bad enough. Now imagine you’re a male manager sitting in your office indulging your fantasies of a female subordinate showing “Courage” and “Resourcefulness” — those were some of the other “motivational” images the men swapped. Nobody can see your computer screen, so no biggie.
Your female administrative assistant knocks on your door — and your administrative assistant is almost definitely a female — to ask for a raise.
So what was already an unequal power relationship is worsened by the dominant male having a head full of images of a particularly degrading notion of female work ethic. These men can’t compartmentalize their sexuality enough to rein it in during working hours.
Guys: This isn’t Beetle Bailey and your female co-workers aren’t Miss Buxley, there to make the workplace more attractive.
MYTH #4: ‘Cool’ women are OK with this. What’s wrong with all you feminists, trying to ruin these good mens’ careers?
I’ve been known to drop a few F-bombs in the office. Hell, more than a few. My late grandmother used to tell me I had “a mouth like a fishwife.” I can tell a filthy joke with the best of them, Mae West is been my spirit guide, and my personal social media feeds can be their own special brand of inappropriate.
But let me tell you about us “cool” chicks: We’re not OK with this. Because what this scandal has rendered is a digital version of the Old Boys Club so precise it could have been spit out of a 3D printer.
MYTH #5: Women be shoppin’, so fair’s fair!
Here’s a snippet of the conversation we had here in the newsroom when I pitched the idea of this piece:
Male manager: “People use their work computers for non-work stuff all the time. I know I’ve walked through this place and seen the Coldwater Creek website going full blast.”
Me: “First of all, my condolences to whomever is buying her clothes at Coldwater Creek. And I’m sure you’ve used your computer to do things like, say, buy Phillies tickets. That’s not what this is about.”
Honestly, fellas, you really can’t see the difference between checking a benign, if extracurricular, website and trading pornography on the job?
MYTH #6: This is really just about men being stupid. Boys are so dumb!
Ah yes, boys will be boys, and don’t expect too much from them because they’re so stooopid!
It’s the one-size-fits all hall pass, excusing men from every kind of behavior from pulling a classmate’s pigtails on the playground to gang rape.
Here’s why that’s offensive: Because it ultimately excuses men from negative behaviors by placing artificially low expectations on them.
Try harder, gentlemen. Expect better of yourselves, and your sons. Because we do.
MYTH #7: This is about the Kathleen Kane–Frank Fina rivalry, and the Ron Castille–Seamus McCaffrey blood feud.
Whatever bad feelings exist between Pennsylvania’s female attorney general and a male state prosecutor, these emails emerged as an offshoot of a legitimate investigation into the Jerry Sandusky child rape case at Penn State. It’s far larger than the two of them.
As for the long-running dislike between Castille and McCaffrey, yes, it’s a Philly neighborhood dispute that has simultaneously evolved and devolved into a frathouse competition to see which one has the biggest gavel, taking place in the halls of the highest court in the state.
All of that can be true, but it does not render irrelevant a workplace culture of institutionalized sexism and privilege.
MYTH #8: This whole non-issue is taking precious attention and news coverage away from important things, like the governor’s race.
Whatever coverage this scandal has earned, it has done so because it is a substantial issue of significant public interest on it own merits, not in comparison to some other issue of greater perceived importance.
News isn’t a binary, one-or-the-other proposition. If you want to be mad at something frivolous taking attention away from important topics, let me suggest Renee Zellweger’s new face.
Still, though, news coverage of this scandal could stick with voters long enough that they’re thinking about the entrenched institutional sexism within our state government even as they step into the voting booth next week.
Maybe that’s a good thing.