Matt Lauer's response to Brooke Nevils and Ronan Farrow proves he's learned nothing

Society cannot litigate Lauer's alleged crimes. But his latest excuse reveals how little he still understands about workplace power dynamics, sex and consent.
Image: Matt Lauer on the TODAY show Nov. 2, 2016.
Men like Matt Lauer need to understand how their power shapes their relationshipsNathan Congleton / Today
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By Jill Filipovic, Author, "The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness"

A new book by journalist Ronan Farrow detailing his investigation into Harvey Weinstein makes a number of damning allegations. But one of the most explosive isn’t about Weinstein at all. Farrow includes an extensive interview with former NBC News employee Brooke Nevils, who says Matt Lauer raped her when the two were covering the Sochi Olympics together in 2014.

Lauer’s response reveals the almost impressive extent to which he and his lawyers have missed the biggest lessons of #MeToo. In particular, it reveals how little he still understands about workplace power dynamics, sex and consent.

Lauer’s response reveals the almost impressive extent to which he and his lawyers have missed the biggest lessons of #MeToo.

In an angry letter published by Variety, Lauer said there was no rape, but there was a vengeful ex. He and Nevils had an extramarital affair, he said (he was married; she wasn’t). She came to his hotel room, he said. They engaged in a variety of consensual sex acts. They spent the next few months sleeping together and communicating often; at no point, Lauer said, did Nevils express discomfort, nor did she work for him. He cut off the affair by essentially ghosting her. She tried to continue it. Now, Lauer says, she’s just a spurned lover looking for a payout. And he suggests she isn’t the only one.

“For two years, the women with whom I had extramarital relationships have abandoned shared responsibility, and instead, shielded themselves from blame behind false allegations,” he wrote. “They have avoided having to look a boyfriend, husband, or a child in the eye and say, ‘I cheated.’ They have done enormous damage in the process. And I will no longer provide them the shelter of my silence.”

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It is of course impossible to know exactly what happened between two people in a hotel room five years ago. But we do know that the realities of workplace sex and power are more complicated than Lauer allows. We also know that people who have been sexually assaulted can behave exactly as he describes.

Lauer argues that he wasn’t Nevils’s boss and thus had no control over her career. How, he asks, could she have felt professionally pressured by him? It’s a faux innocence that defies credulity. He’s Matt Lauer. He was one of the most important people at NBC. Just because he wasn’t directly supervising someone doesn’t mean he lacked power over them. Nevils certainly knew that Lauer could open doors for her if he chose — and that he could slam them shut. He was more than capable of tarnishing her reputation, making life more difficult for her at their mutual company, or even trying to blacklist her. And he was also capable of recommending her, of boosting her professionally, and of potentially making her career. That is the power that men like Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose once held.

It’s that power, not the sex, that should be at the center of these discussions. According to Farrow’s book, Weinstein lobbied NBC to quash reporting about him — allegedly using the yet-to-be-aired accusations against Lauer as leverage. NBC denies that allegation, and says that it told Farrow his story needed more reporting. NBC also denies knowing about Lauer’s behavior while it employed him. (NBC News Chairman Andy Lack noted on Wednesday that following Lauer's termination, NBC reached agreements with two women who "have always been free to share their stories.”)

Either way, there’s no question that Lauer wielded incredible power at both NBC and in the journalism industry more generally. Lauer knew this, and Nevils knew it, too.

Instead of grappling with that reality, Lauer paints himself as the real victim here, and the only one who has taken on his fair portion of what is a “shared responsibility.”

Instead of grappling with that reality, Lauer paints himself as the real victim here, and the only one who has taken on his fair portion of what is a “shared responsibility.”

He and his lawyers are also missing the realities of sexual assault. No, there is not evidence beyond Nevils’s statement that Lauer is a rapist (in cases like this, there rarely is). But the specificity of her accusation is striking. She says that yes, she did have consensual sex with Lauer multiple times (although that consent was, of course, shaded by his power relative to her). But she points to one particular interaction in Sochi when she was drunk, said multiple times she didn’t want to have anal sex, and Lauer anally penetrated her anyway.

This is a difficult kind of accusation to make — at least one court of law has held that sexual consent can’t be withdrawn once it’s given, a misogynist view that, taken one step further, suggests if you consent to one sex act, you’re consenting to everything else. (One also wonders if this same standard would ever apply to men — if a man consents to vaginal sex with a woman, does he also consent to her anally penetrating him?) The idea that women even get to draw lines around which sex acts we consent to and which we don’t is relatively new, and not widely accepted. How many times have accused rapists defended themselves with “she came to my hotel room?” How many times have we heard women’s stories doubted because they voluntarily went home with a man — as if entering a man’s domain is the same as saying he can enter your body?

We also know that, in acquaintance sexual assaults, many women leave feeling ashamed and confused, and often do have friendly relationships with their assailants afterward. Some have consensual sex with them afterward. We know that women are sometimes raped by their husbands, boyfriends and men they love, the same way women are sometimes beaten by their husbands, boyfriends and men they love. Having consensual sex with a man who has forced himself on you doesn’t invalidate an assault, any more than staying married to a man who hit you means the beating never happened.

That is, of course, not proof that Lauer raped Nevils. And, of course, he is entitled to publicly defend himself — even obligated to defend himself. But how we read the accusations and Lauer’s defense matters. That Nevils went to his hotel room is not exonerating for Lauer. That they had consensual sex later is not exonerating. That she didn’t work directly for him is not in any universe exonerating, nor does it diminish the imbalance of power in their relationship.

Society ultimately cannot litigate the question of whether Lauer raped Nevils, nor should we. But we do need to look straight on at this question of power: who has it, how they use it, how we collectively understand it. Lauer wants us to think it is a “he said/she said” situation. But it’s really about who had the upper hand: who was protected, and who knew they’d be hung out to dry if they ever spoke out.

And when we think about how to move forward and incorporate the lessons of #MeToo in the workplace, this is it: Men need to understand how their power shapes their relationships and act accordingly. And workplaces need to be clear that no one is so big, so important or so valuable that their continued employment outweighs someone else’s professional opportunities — or their physical safety.