A Salem Witch Hunt of Modern Times

by Kevin Kelton

I have a feeling this is going to be a very loud week and month in the world of public sexual harassment claims. With the latest allegation against Sen. Al Franken over a photo taken with a stranger at a state fair, the dam has now broken and we are on the other side of the looking glass. Credible reports of sexual misconduct must always be taken seriously and evaluated with fairness to the accuser as well as the accused, and true victims must be believed and the evidence judged fairly.

But if this becomes a runaway train of spurious accusations and half-baked claims (“He pulled me close” for the Franken photo) based on memories of where a hand was momentarily placed while posing for a photo or how aggressive a comedy sketch kiss was, we are in trouble as a society.

Any photo op could be turned into a harassment charge, with only the person’s vague (and often politically motivated) memory as evidence.

Any kiss — from a date’s goodnight kiss to a single person attempting to seduce another single person — can be given the Scarlet Letter of “U” for unwanted. I don’t want to go on dates and have to wonder if my attempt to make the relationship a romantic one is going to years later be turned into sexual assault charges. Any open mouthed kiss can be re-told as “he thrust his tongue in my mouth.” Men, do you really want to be held publicly, socially and criminally responsible for every awkward goodnight kiss you ever gave?

And if you love the first amendment, you’d better tread very cautiously before condemning comedy bits as criminal activity. I certainly don’t want every joke I wrote or pitched on every show I worked on to be subjected to scrutiny about my mental state and sexual criminality. If we are giving a pass to locker room talk, you better extend it to TV writers’ rooms and film sets. Because if you don’t, get ready for a future of Muppet movies and G-rated comedies. Even Three’s Company and Mork & Mindy would not survive today’s burgeoning puritanical standards.

Last week in my employment as a TV comedy writing instructor at a local college, I told a student I found a joke of hers funny. Another student, who felt the joke was racist, took offense that I laughed at it and withdrew from the course. That led to me getting called on the carpet by the school’s program director for being culturally insensitive to the student. Not because of a joke I wrote – because of a joke someone else wrote that I said I thought was funny. I told him, I get 8-14 scene submissions every week and every single one of them has some joke that someone else might find offensive. I can’t be held responsible for other students being offended by edgy jokes. He disagreed, saying it was my job to point out when a gag might be culturally insensitive (or racist, or homophobic, or sexist, or fat shaming, or whatever). Dare I miss flagging one, in which case I will be held accountable.

So that’s where we are heading. Joke police and guilt by association. “Oh, you SAW his hand drop to her butt and didn’t say anything? Then YOU should be FIRED from your job.” “Oh, he mad a joke and YOU smiled? Letter of resignation, please.”

Is that the society you really want to live in? Where celebrities can no longer take selfies with fans because any one of them might later claim sexual harassment? “He pulled me in so tight?” THAT’S WHAT YOU DO IN A SELFIE TO STAY IN FRAME! “His hand touched my butt.” Guess what, it happens! It’s happened to me. Hands have a way of not always going where you mean them to go. That doesn’t mean you groped the person. If it does, lock us all up now.

Those of you who are jumping on this runaway train and feeding this hysteria are guilty of a worse sin: piousness. We are all imperfect souls. Mistakes happen. Accidents happen. Innocent misunderstandings happen. Let’s not stigmatize and criminalize them.

Turning common misunderstandings into sexual harassment charges is a very dangerous slippery slope. Speed down it at your own peril and everyone else’s, too.

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