The Atlanta murders have drawn long overdue attention to the problems Asian women face with racist and heteropatriarchal violence. Because this broader subject has been a focus of my intersectional scholarship over the past three decades, I will have more to say about these matters. The following article, written before the Atlanta murders, addresses the problem of gaslighting that has become a central concern of Asian American women as the police, politicians and media have questioned whether the murders were racially motivated.
Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, is facing calls to resign and an impeachment inquiry after multiple women have come forward with complaints of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior.
Since 2016, we have watched Donald Trump rise to the presidency and command loyalty from leading Republican Party figures despite a long record of misogynistic and racist statements on top of numerous allegations of sexual assault and harassment. Getting Trump out of the White House was thus a necessary and important step. For all who care about social justice, however, we know that the struggle is far from over. We can’t let a focus on Trump’s horrific conduct preclude us from seeing the systemic problems we must address. Indeed, institutions with a liberal reputation often use rhetorical commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion as a smokescreen for deep, structural problems with how they handle sexual misconduct, including retaliation against complainants and survivors.
Earlier this academic year, I accepted a request from the United Asian American Organizations to serve as a faculty ally and advocate for student survivors of sexual assault and harassment. In carrying out this work, I do so as part of my general public advocacy against discrimination and harassment and without singling out any person or entity as the sole example.
Our advocacy for survivors must address the central problem of retaliation. For instance, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has reported that “75% of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation.” We need to recognize that lawyers, administrators and behind-the-scenes officials who claim to care about survivors are frequently acting to uphold the status quo that protects offenders and perpetuates rape culture.
Individuals and institutions facing charges of sexual assault and harassment often deliberately hire women defense attorneys to give the appearance of sympathy with survivors. Indeed, there is a perverse form of marketing and branding within corporate law firms to present white women and people of color as gender and race experts to help wealthy and powerful clients fight off sexual misconduct or civil rights complaints.
One of the most notorious examples in recent history was Lisa Bloom’s work on behalf of Harvey Weinstein. The daughter of the prominent feminist attorney Gloria Allred, Bloom built her own national reputation as a media figure and attorney advocating for survivors of sexual harassment and abuse. Bloom offered all of that expertise, including intimate knowledge of how to prey on the vulnerabilities of survivors, in the service of helping Weinstein destroy his accusers at the rate of $895 an hour.
Bloom’s retaliation strategy memo to Weinstein, uncovered by New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, provides what a Quartz article called “a roadmap for how accused predators stay in power.” It should be studied by anyone seeking a better understanding of any institution that has covered up rampant problems with sexual assault.
Bloom began by telling Weinstein, “I feel equipped to help you against the Roses of the world, because I have represented so many of them.”
Although “(t)hey start out as impressive, bold women,” Bloom knew how to expose their “weaknesses.” The step-by-step process begins with “friendly contact” with the survivor to discern what she wants, while simultaneously carrying out a “(c)ounterops online campaign” to seed “well placed articles” that “push back and call her out as a pathological liar.”
Bloom also proposed using hardball legal tactics to intimidate survivors, while offering to partner with Weinstein on a “pre-emptive interview” that would make him appear “the hero” of his story by demonstrating his professed empathy. The “headline-grabbing” hero stories would go even further with the next step: starting a charitable organization dedicated to gender equity or pledging to increase the representation of women in film.
Although Bloom has since apologized, Rose McGowan, one of the Weinstein survivors, responded, “The evil that was perpetrated on me and others was mind bending and illegal. Lisa Bloom should be disbarred.” Sadly, disbarring Bloom would only lead to someone just like her filling that void.
Famed liberal attorney David Boies, who represented Al Gore in Bush v. Gore and successfully brought the issue of marriage equality to the Supreme Court, had a longer business and legal relationship with Weinstein that has led him to be viewed as a key “enabler.” Boies arranged for ex-military intelligence operatives to run “an undercover surveillance operation targeting journalists and alleged Weinstein victims.”
These are the types of memos the public rarely sees because they are generally shielded by attorney-client privilege. But we’ve witnessed more than enough examples of institutional misconduct to be skeptical of all internal investigations and PR statements of reform.
Larry Nassar’s survivors were gaslit by a sham Title IX investigation that was followed by the investigator being promoted to work in the Michigan State University Office of General Counsel. Thus, the ostensibly neutral Title IX investigator was put in a position where her inside knowledge of survivors and their complaints could be deployed to aid MSU’s defense against expected lawsuits. The Nassar case should raise alarms about the prospect of purportedly neutral “institutional equity” offices directly or indirectly collaborating with the attorneys representing the broader institution.
At the University of Oregon, at least two students who went to the campus counseling center for assistance dealing with reported rapes later discovered that university defense attorneys accessed their patient records. Citing a loophole in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act or Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act privacy laws, the university lawyers compelled the counseling center to turn over private clinical records — all without the knowledge or consent of the survivors.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., stated, “The last thing sexual assault victims should have to think about is whether their own words could be used against them when they seek help.” These incidents raised red flag warnings for survivors of sexual assault, racism and other protected class violations to be wary of what they tell any employee of an institution in which they have been harmed.
As a faculty member who has focused on race and gender equity throughout my 21-year career at the University of Michigan, I am committed to promoting truly independent methods of investigation that get to the root cause of problems without the conflicts of interest we have seen in the examples above and too many other cases nationwide. For example, GRACE provides third-party investigations into patterns of abuse within churches, employing professionally trained staff who address both individual and institutional accountability. At my alma mater, the University of California, Los Angeles, multiple civil rights complaints led to the formation of a systemic investigation led by a retired federal judge followed by an implementation agreement for structural reform with then-Attorney General Kamala Harris.
While this is just a start, it is the type of work that must take precedence over performative acts and token measures in order to hold those wielding power accountable. It is the least we owe survivors and our ancestors who never received justice.
Emily P. Lawsin is a Lecturer IV in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, the Department of American Culture, and the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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