08.07.134:45 AM ET

Same Old Sexism, New Repercussions

What do San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, Miami professor Colin McGinn, and right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh have in common? They’re all older white men who’ve learned the hard way that sexist ‘jokes’ have serious consequences, says Amanda Marcotte.

Is the social price of being an overt sexist finally becoming too much to pay? Sure, no one likes to be called a sexist, but beyond the sting of being labeled as a known sexual harasser or misogynist loudmouth, it surprisingly often leads to not much else beyond having a few people dislike you. Recent news stories, however, suggest that perhaps the tide is changing. Older white men who’ve engaged in some troubling behavior toward women are finding the same old excuses don’t work anymore. Shrugging and claiming that you didn’t know any better or that women overreact to “jokes” simply doesn’t offer the protection that it used to.

Bob Filner, the mayor of San Diego, stands accused of sexually harassing 10 women, and it seems that this behavior has been going on for years without any social or career repercussions. Now, however, he’s not shrugging it off as easily as he clearly thinks he should be able to do. Pulling a sad face, claiming he couldn’t have known any better because he didn’t get any training not to sexually harass women, and committing to two weeks of therapy—as if profound misogyny can be cured like it’s a minor bad habit—might have been strategies that worked in the past, but currently, Filner’s strategies to evade accountability are being met with derision. Stephen Colbert particularly had fun with Filner’s empty excuses, suggesting the only real thing that you need to do when you have an urge to sexually harass someone is one word: “Don’t.”

More importantly, Filner is losing allies at record speed. Most Democrats are calling on him to resign, and efforts to recall the mayor have begun. Filner’s strategy of acting remorseful while admitting little and getting just enough “help” to try to convince people he’s reformed is clearly not working as well as he’d hoped. The old strategies of paying lip service about respecting women while having no actual desire to give up your sexist ways isn’t effective anymore.

Colin McGinn is learning that lesson the hard way, too. The renowned philosopher who works as a professor at the University of Miami stands accused of sexually harassing a graduate student, mostly by email, and it seems he’s choosing to resign his position rather than let the ugly details see the light of day. McGinn reportedly made unwelcome masturbation jokes in email. Sadly, it seems that this kind of behavior is all too often ignored or dismissed in male-dominated philosophical circles, and the blog What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy has a stunningly long series of posts of women detailing their experiences with sexual harassment. As Jennifer Schuessler writes in The New York Times, sexism is an endemic problem in philosophy: “Today, many in the field say, gender bias and outright sexual harassment are endemic in philosophy, where women make up less than 20 percent of university faculty members, lower than in any other humanities field, and account for a tiny fraction of citations in top scholarly journals.”

McGinn, like Filner, clearly thought he could hand-wave his way out of this situation and rely on the old good ol’ boys network that so often keeps men, especially older men, from having to pay any kind of penalty for mistreating women. For a short time, that did seem possible, with defenders coming out of the woodwork, as always happens when a man stands accused of sexism. But at least one prominent defender, Steven Pinker, has backed off and admitted that it’s starting to look like McGinn—gasp—actually acted out of line.

It is customary in these situations for the accused sexual harasser, especially if he’s guilty, to try to come up with a bunch of baffling explanations for why what he did wasn’t really harassment, a tactic that all too often works even if the reasons offered make no kind of sense at all. McGinn, true to his profession, did not disappoint, claiming that his email saying he “had a hand job imagining you giving me a hand job” was an attempt to teach a philosophical lesson about the difference between “logical implication and conversational implicature.” Apparently there’s no way to teach that lesson outside of using crude double entendres that even seventh-graders can understand. Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan was appropriately skeptical, joking, “We can only imagine how sexy his sexts must have been.” BS-ing your way out of a sexual harassment scandal just isn’t as easy as it used to be.

These two examples hail from the world of the Democratic Party and the halls of academia, where there’s assumed to be a formal consensus in favor of women’s equality, adding more pressure to do something to hold sexists accountable, even if it’s been far too long coming. What’s even more fascinating is this new fervor to actually do something about sexism instead of simply nod our heads in disapproval is beginning to affect the political right. For decades now, conservatives have mostly seen sexism as something that’s only a problem if the “other side” does it, often even trying to equate consensual sexual acts with sexual harassment to create a pretext to, say, impeach a president. Their own folks, however, get to be belligerently misogynist without losing broad conservative support, money, or ratings. That, however, might be changing, with the big man himself, Rush Limbaugh, getting caught up in the changing tides.

For most of his career, Limbaugh could count on being able to be boldly misogynist without worrying about a dent in his ratings or his advertising dollars, doing things like coining the term “feminazi” to equate demanding equal rights for women with genocidal fascism. Indeed, Limbaugh had every reason to believe that when he went on a three-day on-air rampage against activist Sandra Fluke for her birth control advocacy, it would have no more consequences than his other routine vicious disparagement of other feminists over the years.

He was wrong, very wrong. The environment around him had shifted gradually. Limbaugh, no doubt, thought it was business as usual to go on air to insinuate that a woman is a “prostitute” and a “slut” because she believes insurance should cover birth control as the preventive medicine it is. When public outcry started to make Limbaugh sweat, however, he issued an insincere apology that minimized his public haranguing and shaming of Fluke, pretending it had been one slip of the tongue when in reality he went on 46 separate tirades against her over the course of three days in 2012.

These kind of avoidance techniques have always worked well enough for Limbaugh in the past, but this time, the social cost of being an overt sexist had gotten so high that advertisers started to get nervous. While it’s hard to calculate exactly how much revenue Limbaugh lost as advertisers pulled out, it was enough that Cumulus Media, one of the largest talk-radio conglomerates in the country, started to threaten to dump Limbaugh and pull him from 40 markets. Limbaugh is still in negotiations with Cumulus, trying to find a way to stay on-air even though his show has lost a lot of profitability. But as Eric Boehlert of Media Matters notes, even if he stays with Cumulus, the humiliation of having to go through public negotiations will demonstrate that Limbaugh, whose ratings have also been on the decline, is losing prestige. All because he thought you could still call a woman a “slut” for supporting birth control in a world that is increasingly retracting the older white male license to treat women however you want.

Maybe it’s shifting demographics, with the more liberal younger generation’s numbers giving them a bigger voice in the political conversation. Maybe it’s the explosion of online women’s media that gives plenty of space to pieces denouncing the kind of sexism that used to be casually shrugged off in years before. Maybe it’s just that the feminist consensus has finally reached a tipping point. Whatever it is, tides are definitely shifting. Men may still dominate most institutions and hold far more wealth than women, but their ability to leverage this power into the ability to treat women however they want is changing. Basic respect for women is becoming a minimum entrance requirement, which suggests better things to come down the road.