Last week, investigative journalist Ronan Farrow, one of a group of reporters awarded the Pulitzer Prize for prompting a cultural reckoning of workplace behavior through the Me Too movement, released “Catch and Kill,” an in-depth exploration of workplace abuses committed by men in positions of power.
“Catch and Kill” contains previously unreleased details from Today Show veteran Matt Lauer’s primary accuser, Brooke Nevils, including an account of rape which allegedly took place in Sochi, Russia, when he was covering the 2014 Winter Olympics for the NBC network. Mr. Lauer denies the allegations and released a letter through his lawyer that acknowledges engaging in a consensual sexual encounter, stating: “I had an extramarital affair with Brooke Nevils in 2014. It began when she came to my hotel room very late one night in Sochi, Russia.”
Ms. Nevils describes Mr. Lauer’s letter as “a case study in victim blaming.”
By focusing on the fact Nevils came to his hotel room late at night, Lauer was, in fact, “victim blaming.” While it has taken decades to pull back the curtain on gender-based discrimination in the workplace, society still excuses the sexual assault of women who placed themselves in “compromising” situations. In reality, whether or not a woman is alone with a man in a hotel room is immaterial to whether or not she was sexual assaulted. If a woman said “No”, then those words should be respected.
Society must endorse the idea that a woman must consent prior to being touched. And when there is a power differential, consent may not meet the necessary criteria to avoid allegations of sexual assault. In fact, it might be equally plausible that Mr. Lauer “lured” Nevils to his hotel room as it is that she showed up of her own volition.
I ask this question because of my own experience of having been lured by a physician colleague to his home in the evening under false pretenses. It is a mistake I have never made again.
At the time, I was heading to a medical meeting and a colleague phoned to ask for a ride because his car was in the shop. When I arrived, he asked me to come in for a few minutes while he gathered his things. Feeling fatigued after 24 hours of hospital call, in hindsight, my guard was down.
I was leaning up against a wall in the entry hall when this man suddenly pushed me up against a wall, used his body weight to confine me, restrained my arms, and began kissing me. Exhaustion mixed with shock dulled my response. I struggled to break free yet was not able to push his body off of my small frame. Fear quickly gave way to panic and the skills acquired while growing up with three brothers came in handy. Somehow, I landed a solid blow to his groin and used my elbow to jab at his throat. Caught off guard, he stumbled back and allowed my escape. I ran out of the house with tears streaming down my face.
For years afterward, I wondered what I had done wrong. Even now, I kick myself for not turning around and walking out the door as soon as I realized his wife and children were not home that night. But those are the musings of an experienced woman in her mid-forties rather than the thoughts of the trusting and naive woman I once was at 27, having recently returned to my hometown.
I do remember feeling ashamed and wanting to pretend the assault never happened. After sharing my story with two trusted confidants, they informed me that being alone in a married man’s house “didn’t look good.” I chose to remain silent. The day that man left our community remains one of the happiest of my life. I could finally breathe again.
Lauers’ response triggered me. His statement that Nevils came to his hotel room “very late” is being used to support the notion that any sexual interaction was consensual or implying that she should have known his intentions. The only way to communicate consent is by being asked and then saying “yes”. Not having the opportunity to say “No” is not the same thing.
Writing about his very personal experience still rattles me today. Even worse, this physician systematically spread salacious rumors about me amongst hospital administration and staff. I will never know if it was in retaliation for rejecting his advances or an attempt to assuage his guilt by telling himself I “deserved” it. And while most of the nursery staff who were convinced by his lies have long since retired or passed away, the fact remains many inadvertently supported a physician assailant over a physician victim.
Today, stories about women being harassed or assaulted in work-related settings have finally become part of our national narrative. Maybe it is time to acknowledge that when a woman goes up to a man’s hotel room, she is not “asking for it” and does not “deserve” to be assaulted or raped. In fact, there is no reason ever to excuse the sexual assault of a woman. Period.