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What's Happened To Women And Men Who Made Accusations Of Sexual Harassment

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When a powerful man is accused of sexual misconduct, there's always a lot of interest in his next steps.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: 50-48, Brett Kavanaugh has been confirmed.

LINSEY DAVIS: Bill Cosby is spending his first night behind bars after emerging...

CONAN O'BRIEN: You were, in the opinion of many people, including myself, a really effective, hardworking senator. Now you're on the sidelines.

AZIZ ANSARI: Wow, what a nice welcome. Wow, wow, wow.

REBECCA TRAISTER: But one of the things that I've often found to be missing is the stories of the people who come forward to challenge power to begin with. What happens to them after?

CORNISH: That's Rebecca Traister. She and a team of reporters at New York Magazine wanted to know about the ways the accusers' lives changed, so they talked to more than 20 people - men and women - about what happened to them after they came forward. Traister says the stories they heard were very different from the ones traditionally told by the media.

TRAISTER: The coverage of women who have come - and men - who have come forward in such huge numbers tends to cast them either critically as a mob or even positively as a kind of exciting and thrilling sisterhood. And people also tend to say that they just want their 15 minutes of fame. And one of the things that we found to be universally true, almost, is that there's not professional gain on the table when you challenge a power structure.

CORNISH: No. In your essay, you write what you found generally was, quote, "not uplifting." So...

TRAISTER: No.

CORNISH: Yeah. Let's dig into it because we actually reached out to some of the women featured in the piece, and I want to play some tape from them. One is Paula Coughlin. She was assaulted in a hallway at the Tailhook naval aviation conference in 1991. And she reported it up the chain of command and ultimately said that believing in the military justice system was a mistake.

PAULA COUGHLIN: I kept getting the same answer from everyone all the way up the chain of command. I used to refer to it as getting beaten with the courage stick, and that means they said, we appreciate you coming forward. And it took a lot of courage, but we're not going to do anything. And that's pretty much what I'm referring to when the system failed me, and the system fails almost every victim in one way or another.

CORNISH: Two ideas to pick apart there - one, the idea of the system failing. Now, in this case, it was the military, and that's been talked about even - there have been congressional hearings. What are the some - some of the other ways that these accusers found the system failed them?

TRAISTER: Many of them did speak about job loss, about the fact that colleagues not only, in some cases, weren't willing to corroborate their stories, but were angry at them because what it produced was trouble for a whole company where multiple people lost jobs.

There is an incredibly moving story from a woman in Mississippi who worked at a food processing plant, and she complained of sexual harassment. Many people in the plant had experienced sexual harassment, and retaliation was promised, including ICE raids. And many of the people who she was working with were very angry at her because what they saw her doing was actually imperiling them, not empowering them. And in fact, a year later, there were ICE raids.

CORNISH: Right. We should say this is at a Koch Foods plant in Morton, Miss. And those complaints actually ended up going to the Office of Equal Opportunity, and there was a settlement with Koch Foods - right? - for more than $3 million. And this was just in 2018.

TRAISTER: Yes.

CORNISH: I want to focus a little more on some of the aftermath. Another woman, Linda Vester, came forward just last year with allegations against Tom Brokaw from when she was working back at NBC. She says the revelations about Matt Lauer helped her feel confident that something would be done in this case. And so she thought coming forward would be empowering. She also thought it would be quick and relatively painless.

Here she is.

LINDA VESTER: Coming forward was so much harder than I thought it would be. Telling the story was bad enough because it was dredging up painful episodes from my past, but I didn't know that it would cost me tens of thousands of dollars in attorney's fees and trauma therapy and crisis PR. I was able to pay for that. But how many women can do that? It's very limiting, and most victims I know are afraid they'll lose their jobs or get blackballed.

CORNISH: Now, NBC Universal says they reached out to Linda Vester to discuss the allegations. She did not accept the offer. But Tom Brokaw himself issued a lengthy denial. But can you talk about this idea of the legal fight and the PR fight?

TRAISTER: That's exactly right. The legal fees are tremendous. Many people told us about the enormous debt that they'd gone into fighting these battles. And as Linda Vester is saying, think about who that kind of cost limits. What about some of the other people we went to? - the Ford factory employees, the McDonald's employees, those at the Koch Food plant.

CORNISH: We've talked about the kind of economic loss, the legal troubles. I want to talk about another aspect. There was one woman, Reah Bravo, who was a former intern of the "Charlie Rose" show. And she said a little bit after she had come public, her father said something to her, which was this - was that when you stopped being ambitious?

TRAISTER: Yeah, I found that incredibly gutting, and it mirrored so much of what we heard during the #MeToo movement. So many of the stories were of how harassment simply dampened the drive of people who suddenly felt, wait a minute; why did I feel like I could achieve here when I'm being treated as a sexual object?

CORNISH: I want to play one more clip from naval aviator Paula Coughlin, who lost her career. She says people still refer to her as the woman who ruined the Navy and that there are websites up dedicated to destroying her reputation. And this is decades after the Tailhook scandal. And yet, here's how she thought about it in the end.

COUGHLIN: There was no question I did the right thing. Anybody who has been wronged in a way that changes their life has to understand the perpetrators are going to do it again until they're stopped. And I used to say, what happened to me - I was in the wrong place at the wrong time - until I realized I was really the only one who stood up. I was the only one who really had a chance to make a difference.

CORNISH: That is not the only point of view from the men and women in this article. There are lots of people who - honestly, it looks like they have a fair amount of regret.

TRAISTER: There are a couple people who say, I wouldn't do it again. The stories we're telling feel very hard and very depressing, and I understand that. But I do think that the majority of the people that we talked to did speak, as Paula Coughlin did, about how the personal tolls were worth it for a better and more equal future.

CORNISH: But can I jump in here because...

TRAISTER: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...What I read is that everything that especially women fear happens - that it will cost you both professionally, economically and will take a toll on you emotionally, that essentially, women have been proven right that they'll be the ones under scrutiny if they come forward, and they may not survive it.

TRAISTER: The acknowledgement of those difficulties, penalties and tolls does not always equal, it's not worth it. And the questions, I think, are very long-lasting. My colleague Irin Carmon, who was one of the reporters on this package, said to me at some point that these women and men who come forward are like the frontline soldiers and that they're aware of that from the start. They know that they individually are very likely to be sacrificed for a future in which this kind of behavior and this kind of power abuse is not ubiquitous.

CORNISH: That's Rebecca Traister with New York Magazine. Her latest book is "Good And Mad: The Revolutionary Power Of Women's Anger."

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

TRAISTER: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.