Why “She Said” Bombed

Lauri Hennessey was one of 20 women harassed—and retaliated against—by Senator Bob Packwood. She says the film’s failure shows we’re still uncomfortable talking about sexual harassment.

  • February 10, 2023
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  • Editorial
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  • By Lauri Hennessey

Recently, I attended a viewing of the movie She Said. I joined other women in my community of Vashon Island in the experience, meeting for dinner and then going to the theater together as we all relived our own memories. Critics say it may be one of the best journalism movies in years, on par with the revered Spotlight and All the President’s Men—but it bombed at the box office.  I believe this movie’s financial failure was less due to the quality of acting or writing than our culture’s continued discomfort in thinking about—let alone talking about—sexual harassment.

Of course, the pandemic has not helped. Movie critics were quick to point out the movies that succeed in 2023 are those that offer escape. We have enough bad news; we don’t want it while we munch on popcorn. But I believe the movie’s failure highlights the profound discomfort many still have around this issue. And that discomfort is the root of a continued problem in our workplace. As long as people are uncomfortable talking about this issue, we will continue to see a world in which people won’t be comfortable reporting sexual harassment.

I was harassed more than 30 years ago. I was the press secretary to U.S. Senator Bob Packwood, a very powerful senator from Oregon. I was loyal to him and loved my job. At one point, it became clear he had developed feelings for me, sending me gifts and notes. One night after a staff function, he kissed me. I ran out of the room quickly and talked to my manager the next day, asking her to let him know I wasn’t interested in him romantically. Crazy as it now seems, I worked for him for another year or so, remaining close to him, with no further problems. In fact, as the press secretary, I had heard about the Washington Post doing a story on Senator Packwood. I went to him and warned him about the story.

Isn’t it all part of the culture of silence, to not talk about it? Doesn’t that contribute towards this continued problem?

Soon after, I left the office to move to the Pacific Northwest, thinking it was all behind me. But Senator Packwood and his staff decided to stop the Washington Post from publishing a story about his exploits, at least until after he had won re-election. And those efforts are what I have never been able to forget.

Packwood was asked about various women, people he had been known to be close to, or people who had been rumored targets for his affection. I was one of those people. Packwood and his staff initiated a war room mentality against the more than 20 women in the story, including me. Their campaign included everything from Packwood lying about me to the reporter, saying I was mentally unstable, to employees making up stories, saying I pursued married men, that I was an alcoholic. The Senator himself even called former employers of mine, trying to find any bad information about me. Several of those employers called me, concerned about what Packwood was willing to do to silence me.

Ironically, these efforts are what led to his downfall. He went through his diary and changed every entry about the women involved, including me (when will elected officials learn to stop keeping these diaries, anyway?). He presented the falsified diaries to the Ethics Committee. Yet Packwood’s staff assistant didn’t want to be part of the fraud, and submitted the real diaries to the committee. Suddenly, an entry that said I had a drinking problem was changed to an entry saying I was a fantastic press secretary. Suffice to it say, Packwood’s colleagues didn’t mind more than 20 women being harassed, but they didn’t care for being lied to. He resigned before they could throw him out.

This culture of closing the ranks and attacking women is at the heart of harassment. After all, shaming is the crux of the problem and what many of us are afraid of: why complain? It will destroy you if you do.

How many times have we seen this play out? How many elected officials—of both parties—call in their friends and flex their powerful muscles to discredit women when harassment happens? It is this fear that, for many, continues the culture of silence.

In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found in 2020 that more than half of those who complained about sexual harassment were retaliated against. This is not an archaic leftover of the past. This is an active threat that continues today for those who face harassment. The first thing companies, governments, and organizations do when threatened is to respond with force—often this means grilling the complainants or questioning their character.

For the most part, this tactic works. When faced with the attack, the victims become silent. When the story happened in the early 1990s, I insisted that I go unnamed in the Washington Post. I was scared about my career, and about how I would be seen.

A 2020 Harvard Business Review article pointed out the main problem with harassment training is that men are actually more likely to blame the victims if they have taken training.

In fact, it was 15 years after my experience on Capitol Hill before I was finally able to talk about it. I was visiting my daughter’s middle school humanities class and some young boy asked me the hardest part of working on Capitol Hill. To the shock of the students (and horror of my daughter), I found myself talking about what happened to me. I was mortified. But as the years went on, I often thought of this story. Why is it so shocking to talk about sexual harassment to middle-school boys and girls? Shouldn’t we talk about the realities of the life they face? Isn’t it all part of the culture of silence, to not talk about it? Doesn’t that contribute towards this continued problem?

In my Humanities Washington presentation, I review some of the retaliation tactics and how they were used against me and more than 20 women who complained against Senator Packwood. Many of those tactics still exist today, though it may be behind the scenes. Our culture has focused on fixing our dysfunctional workplaces by offering trainings, but how do the sexual harassment trainings help? What do we do to move beyond the trainings and create real change?

A 2020 Harvard Business Review article pointed out the main problem with harassment training is that men are actually more likely to blame the victims if they have taken training. In essence, many men feel defensive about training.  More than 30% of men say false claims of harassment are a “major problem,” and 58 % of women who have been harassed say not being believed is a major problem. These statistics show us our current approach to training is backfiring.

So how do we work together towards a better workplace?

One thing we could all do is to create safe places for true conversation. This includes looking deeply at our lack of comfort. Research shows us nearly half of women have been harassed at some point in their lives. Yet conversation remains awkward, much of the issue area forbidden in polite conversation.

I remember giving an interview to KUOW a few years ago on this issue as I grappled with what I had done wrong to deserve what happened to me. What responsibility was on me? This soul-searching is unnecessary. I had less power. The elected official, three times my age, had much more power. That puts the onus on him, rather than on the employee. Senator Packwood attempted, as elected officials often do, to deflect and blame his accusers.

In some ways, I feel we have come a long way in 30 years. In other ways, I feel we have miles to go. I keep thinking of the old adage about how sunlight is the best disinfectant. How do we rid ourselves of corrosive and destructive sexual harassment challenges in our workplaces unless we are able to truly discuss them?

Which brings us back to She Said. People are uncomfortable talking about sex and about sexual power in the workplace. Yet we are drawn to these conversations, too. Look at the Anita Hill testimony of long ago, or Dr. Blasey Ford. In both these instances, the country was transfixed. Many women felt the need to watch, to be supportive, to share their stories. There was safety in numbers.

Maybe that’s where #metoo came in. With Tarana Burke’s movement, women found comfort in saying a simple “me, too.” Today, we are left with a world in which women can go to movies with one another, bond together, share our stories, talk about our own experiences. And that is beautiful indeed.

But is that the pathway to long-term change? Let’s create workplaces that host these conversations, where people of all genders, ages, and experiences are involved in those conversations, and those conversations are safe. And, it may be uncomfortable. But isn’t that what the true change will require?

So let’s talk about it—no matter how squeamish it may make us.

Check out Lauri’s Speakers Bureau talk, What I Learned from My #MeToo Journey, online and in-person around the state.

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