Skip to navigationSkip to content
Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
John Oliver wasn’t always so ready to speak out about sexual harassment.
A PRIMARY SOURCE

John Oliver asked Anita Hill how to deal with creepy men at work. Her advice is priceless

By Leah Fessler

In 1991, law professor Anita Hill publicly accused a US Supreme Court nominee of lewd behavior in the workplace. The hours of testimony she offered at Clarence Thomas’ Senate confirmation hearings brought the term “sexual harassment” into public discourse, giving millions of women the ability to name the abuse they experienced.

Hill endured deeply dehumanizing critiques during and after the testimony, as the all-male Senate judiciary committee and the American public doubted her judgment and motivations. Today, she’s a law professor at Brandeis University, an expert on sexual harassment, and one of the most respected feminist activists of all time—in other words, the perfect person to help John Oliver clear up the somehow ongoing confusion about what the rules are when it comes to workplace harassment.

In an interview the July 29 episode of his HBO show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the comedian and his guest reflected on the Me Too movement’s progress and the role for men in the fight for gender equality. Cutting as her responses were, Hill remains hopeful.

Sexual harassment may not be any less pervasive than it was 27 years ago, when Hill testified against Thomas, her former boss at the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but ”there’s been a change in public attitude, and there’s been a change in amount of information that we have about sexual harassment,” she said. “There’s certainly more awareness after the Me Too Movement. Even a few years ago, people were ambivalent about what the consequences should be if someone is behaving incredibly badly and abusing people they work with.”

That said, there are a few areas where she sees room for societal improvement.

We need to stop putting all of the burden on women

“One of the questions I’ve gotten that sticks out to me is, ‘How do we raise our daughter to make sure that she doesn’t set herself up to be a victim of sexual harassment?'” Hill said to Oliver. “These are the kinds of things we’re thinking—if we fix her, then she won’t encounter this problem. And in reality, she is not the problem.”

We need more “bystander” training

“So, let’s talk about men’s role in trying to fix sexual harassment,” said Oliver. “Do men have a role in this mission?”

“Yes, you are needed. We need you to step up, and realize that at this point in time, there are no innocent bystanders,” Hill replied. “If you are aware of something, you acknowledge it, you know it’s wrong, but you don’t do anything about it, then it’s the same as if you participate in it.”

The high cost of reporting, or not reporting, harassment makes it critical that companies arm their employees with information. ”We need to inform people—this is what happens if you file a complaint, here are the things that you will do, here are the questions that you will face, here is the process,” she said. ”We also need bystander training. I think some people are still saying, ‘I don’t know what to do [if I see sexual harassment].'”

We need to focus less on intent

“[O]ne of the refrains that you hear a lot,” Oliver said, “is ‘where’s the line?’ But it seems like that’s often in search of an answer that will identify exactly how close to the line one can possibly get. So if an eight-second hug is unacceptable, I say great, I’m doing a 7.5-second hug, and filling it with as much creepiness as I can.”

That would be an abusive form of compliance for sure. But what about an overly long hug in which the hugger meant nothing sexual by it?

“One of the things that so often happens is that the law around discrimination relies on intent—did they intend to harm you?” Hill acknowledged. “Well, if you’re a victim, it doesn’t matter much [what the other person] intended.”

“You might not have intended to hit me with your car, but you hit me,” Oliver replied, metaphorically speaking.

“Yes, you hit me, and that means there are repercussions and consequences—regardless of what your intent was,” said Hill. 

Part of the change, she said, “has to be with the law.”

We need to talk to our colleagues

In one of the most powerful moments of the interview, Oliver told Hill that thinking back on his own workplace behavior, he cannot honestly say he consistently spoke up when he saw creepy behavior, especially as a young man on the lower rungs of the ladder.

“I didn’t necessarily feel empowered to speak out and say, ‘That’s wrong,'” he said. “That’s a pretty poor excuse, but it’s probably how I felt at the time. How should I feel about myself looking back, other than slightly ashamed?” he asked Hill.

“Slightly ashamed is a good start,” Hill replied. “Sometimes shame is very helpful, [but] sometimes shaming is not helpful—it just makes people feel guilty, and maybe even resentful.”

Change demands that men feel not only embarrassed or ashamed, but also empathetic, she added. “If you were to go back to one of those moments, what would you do now?” she asked, turning the tables on Oliver.

“I think probably just say, ‘That was a pretty creepy thing to do,'” he replied.

“That’s a really, sort of manly thing to do,” Hill said. “Might you also say to the person who is getting the brunt of this” —the victim of sexual harassment— “you know, how are you? How does this feel to you? Would you like for me to say something?”

“Yeah, it’s kind of sad that that’s not an instinctive reaction,” Oliver replied, emulating the very sort of vulnerability and active ally-ship that will be needed from men—regardless of their industry, seniority, or comfort—to truly end workplace sexism.