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When the Boss is a Letch

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What do the revelations of David Letterman's workplace sexcapades tell us about the new era of sexual harassment?

When Letterman confessed on-air to having bedded Late Show staffers, thereby exposing himself to a sordid extortion attempt -- "creepy stuff", by his own admission -- the inevitable media shitshow that ensued painted the don of late night chatfests as either hapless horndog or office lothario. There was, of course, the delicious, tabloid-ready irony of it all: the man who so relentlessly skewered other famous men for not keeping it zipped up, now on the receiving end of the punchline. No doubt Hillary Clinton savored a hearty last laugh as she scanned the headlines the next day.

But glaringly absent from the near-biblical deluge of press coverage: any real, substantive discussion of whether Letterman's behavior actually constituted sexual harassment. He was, after all, the boss. Two of his conquests were twentysomething interns. (There were, at last count, four on-the-job paramours, including Letterman's current wife, former Late Show production manager Regina Lasko.) Imagine the CEO of, say, Sears or Wells Fargo bagging a series of underlings, quite possibly in an office that doubles as a nightcap suite, without so much as an HR inquiry. Yeah, right. Yet according to a rep from Worldwide Pants, Letterman's production outfit, he hasn't violated any of the company's codes of conduct, nor has anyone filed a complaint against him. (CBS, which effectively rents airtime to Worldwide Pants for the Late Show, won't comment on the matter.) The speculation so far: the junior leaguers liked the attention and were consensual partners--white-shoe lingo for 'they wanted it.'

Presuming that's true, then Letterman didn't technically break any laws. But that doesn't mean his actions didn't create a polarizing workplace that may, in fact, have been hostile to women--namely the women on staff who didn't sleep with him. Case in point: Letterman's dalliance with intern Stephanie Birkitt earned her precious face-time with the big boss, no small thing when you consider the general landscape for women at the Ed Sullivan Theatre. There are scant few on the Late Show's production team, and among the 14 writers nominated for Emmys last year, not a single gal in the lot. Clearly positions on the Late Show staff are hard to come by, and ostensibly that much more so for women. So it must have rankled when an assistant scored the kind of perks--rides home with the boss, indulgent cameos in Late Show sketches, even a vacation at Letterman's Montana ranch--that just don't come with the standard job description.

There are aftershocks when a boss clocks on-the-job notches, and everyone feels them: The hint of cattiness it inspires among women especially; the inevitable once-over new female hires get from suspicious colleagues; the simmering resentment that comes from knowing one colleague is the boss' bedtime favorite; near-paranoid worries that the boss is dishing about you during pillow talk. Actionable sexual harassment requires an overt quid-pro-quo (sex for status) or a hostile work environment that is both "severe" and "pervasive". What went down for the last 20 years at the Late Show may qualify as neither, but its effect seems insidious all the same.

That's the problem with current law, which views harassment at work the way it did back in the Seventies, when the cigar-chomping boss chasing his jiggling secretary around her desk was a favorite Hollywood cliché. Of course, it rarely ever happens like that these days. There's the Facebook friend request, the winking text message, the ostensibly harmless invitation for an after-hours drink. Subtle advances like these pose a challenge to HR departments. But they're downright clueless about how to deal with the other women in the office, left to wonder how to compete against a piece of ass without actually becoming one. There's no chapter in the employee handbook for that.