You can’t break a badass. That’s what I thought when I read Kimberly Latta’s allegations against retired Stanford professor Franco Moretti. Though I don’t know Kimberly, I was a Stanford undergraduate in 1985, the year she alleges Moretti stalked, harassed, and raped her while she was in graduate school at UC Berkeley. 30 years later, “encouraged to report in the wake of the Weinstein and #MeToo movements,” she found the strength to tell her story. Reading her account in Stanford Politics, I was moved by her insight and intellect — and also by the photos of her as a smiling young woman in the 1980s. I know that smile. Every woman does. It’s the smile we’ve collectively and historically put on in order to survive in the face of harassment and assault.
With the tsunami of women now coming forward, the gloves — and those smiles — are coming off. From state houses to police stations to emergency rooms to classrooms, the status quo is disappearing. In its place, we see good consequences for survivors and bad consequences for predators. Finally.
It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of this cultural shift. Just 19 months ago, when my complaint against my boss at Fox News went public, it felt like I’d jumped off a cliff all alone. There was no #metoo, no Golden Globes protests, no daily revelations about powerful men and their crimes. I’m not sure why — maybe because I was a familiar face from TV — but once I told my story, thousands of women from every state, income bracket, and walk of life told me theirs.
Their stories became the foundation of my book Be Fierce. I’m proud to have kicked off this movement and thrilled to see the strides forward we’re already making. But this progress is new, and driving it will fall to the next generation in the workforce — you.
I will never forget the sense of independence and freedom I felt when I arrived at Stanford in 1984. I’d grown up in the small, tight-knit town of Anoka, Minnesota. One of my grandfathers was the local minister, the other ran the town’s biggest car dealership. (It still exists today with my 77-year-old mom at the helm.) My family knew everyone, which meant I couldn’t get away with anything! I was a confident little girl, focused on playing violin competitively and making good grades at school. I pushed myself hard and tried to live up to my mom’s daily reminder that “God gave you talents and he expects you to use them!” For me, college was the first time I could just be myself, away from my parents, and I relished it. I tested my limits and did things they didn’t condone. It was a critical time in my development — because, like most undergraduates, it was the start of my independent life.
We all know college carries risks and rewards. With so many stories today about student homelessness, hazing parties that end in death, and social media shaming campaigns, I believe college students today face bigger challenges than my generation did.
Sexual assault may be the exception. As the stories of Kimberly Latta and many women I interviewed for Be Fierce show, students have long struggled to get support. The Department of Justice released data in 2016 showing 20 percent of undergraduate women experience sexual assault, but only 12.5 percent report it. If these statistics are true at Stanford, it would mean 684 of the 3412 undergraduate women enrolled last Autumn were assaulted. That’s 684 women whose well-being and studies would have been impacted and likely damaged. Moreover, only 85 students would have reported the crime, compared to 599 who would’ve stayed silent.
***I was a Stanford undergraduate the first time I was sexually assaulted. I’d taken time off school to serve as Miss America before returning to finish my degree. The assault happened after I was crowned, in New York City, in the back seat of a car service with a successful television executive. He’d said he could help me get into television journalism, my dream job. I spent a day with him, taking meetings and feeling lucky that he believed in me. His demeanor was almost fatherly. I didn’t realize getting help with a new television career also meant him getting into my pants. Suddenly, without warning, he attacked me — groping my breasts, forcing himself on top of me, pushing his tongue down my throat. I fled from the car, ran to my Stanford friend’s apartment, and sobbed for hours. I felt stupid and asked myself, “What the hell just happened? Why would he do that? How had I believed he was interested in my talent and my smarts?”
Soon after, I was assaulted again — this time in Los Angeles by a top PR executive. He said he wanted to help me leverage my Miss America title to kick off a media career. We had a great meeting, and I didn’t think twice when he suggested we have dinner. But when I got in his car, he grabbed the back of my head and pushed it into his crotch with so much force that I couldn’t breathe. I somehow pushed him away and escaped from the car.
These events happened in 1989. I didn’t tell anyone until 2015, while writing my first book and memoir Getting Real. Only then did I confront the fact that I’d been assaulted and actually used that word. For 26 years, I’d felt shame and embarrassment — but I never called it assault. Why? Like so many other women, I bought into the myth that somehow I’d asked for it, and I thought I wouldn’t be believed. The idea that women invite assault by pursuing public life is one of the most insidious myths out there. Also, because I was young, empowered, and full of dreams, predatory behavior wasn’t on my radar. Young women aren’t always on the lookout in what seem to be benign situations; they have a high self-confidence, and they believe others do too.
Stanford’s sexual violence and support webpage says, “if you’ve experienced sexual and/or relationship violence, what happened is not your fault. You always deserve to be safe and respected.” It’s a message that even an older and wiser me still needs to hear. Hindsight is 20/20, and looking back, I see the signs that the jerks who assaulted me didn’t have great intentions. At the time, it felt like the assaults came out of the blue. And surviving didn’t insulate me from workplace harassment later on. It took a long time to let go of the feeling that I had some responsibility for what happened.
That said, there are important things college students can do to protect themselves. Even though my children are still a few years away from university, I’m already teaching them that everyone has a responsibility to change the mindsets and actions that create victimizers, victims, and bystanders. If my kids were leaving for college today, here’s the advice I’d give them:
Know who your friends are. Don’t assume college is one big happy family full of trustworthy people. I have as much Cardinal pride as the next alumna, but let’s be real: Universities are a group of randomly affiliated students. It’s okay to keep your guard up, and build a few good friendships with a smaller circle that will have your back in every situation.
Take steps to protect yourself. Alcohol and drugs are obviously part of college life, and they play a major role in sexual assault. So make rules and stick to them: Don’t take drinks from strangers. Don’t leave drinks unattended. Know your limits. Establish a “safe word” with friends and family, who can help you get out of a bad situation. Say it or text it if you need help. Even if your family is far away, it’s okay to let them know something isn’t right.
Stay in touch. For many, college is the first time away from home for any length of time. Nobody’s going to make sure you get home every night! Hopefully, you have a close relationship with your parents and can reach out to them regularly — but if you don’t, find an adult who can be your touch point. As much as you want to be independent, keep in touch with your roots. Make that weekly phone call. Email regularly. Use your family as a sounding board, and let them help you problem-solve. There’s something about talking to Mom or Dad that reminds us of our values.
If you’re rolling your eyes because this sounds clichéd, let me offer this perspective: We never stop being our parents’ children. I’m 51 years old, and I still call my mother for advice. It was especially crucial for me in 2016, when my sexual harassment case went public. I’ll never forget my parents calling to say they supported me no matter what. I recognize how fortunate I am to have them, but make no mistake, we’ve worked on our relationship over the years. It’s funny how struggle and crisis can crystallize the important child/parent bond, and I urge you to let university be a catalyst for growth.
Finally, find a passion beyond partying. There’s more to life than the next beer pong competition. Volunteer to help the homeless. Join cross-country. Try out your acting chops. Advocate for sexual harassment classes on campus and clubs to bring young women and men together to tackle this issue. College is one of the few times in life when you can try out a huge variety of activities — so get to it! Just make sure to choose groups that empower you and give you a forum for your authentic, best self.
These are things you can do on a personal level to protect yourself. But it’s not enough to keep yourself safe — it’s vitally important to learn how to step in and speak up, to stop harassment when you see it.
Why does it matter? Experts say that sexual harassment on campus is a gateway crime to assault. Research by Cornell’s ILR School shows that public harassment has an emotional impact on girls similar to sexual assault. And a survey by Hollaback!, an organization devoted to ending public sexual harassment, found that 20 percent of college students feel harassment hurts their ability to concentrate in class, and it keeps 23 percent from attending class at all. In other words, those off-handed comments that are so frequently dismissed as harmless are, in fact, the opposite.
Each of us has the power to stop harassment and assault. One of the most important things we can do is stop being bystanders and start being allies.
Statistics from corporate America show why this is so important. A full 98 percent of U.S. companies have sexual harassment policies, and 70 percent have prevention programs. Yet, at least one-third of women experience harassment at work, and employees who witness sexual harassment overwhelmingly don’t report it. In 2016, the Harvard Business Review identified this as the bystander effect, which means the more people who witness harassment, the less likely anyone will take action. But what did we all learn after 9-11? You’ve heard it a million times: “If you see something, say something.” Imagine if we had the same approach to sexual harassment training! Instead of teaching people what not to do, this training teaches what to do: Safely interrupt harassment, challenge perpetrators, and support victims.
There is also the work our country must do to enact real change. It’s not enough for a few powerful men to lose their jobs. We must take measures to ensure students and workers alike aren’t subjected to sexual harassment and assault in the future. An important step is lifting the veil of secrecy created by arbitration. Over the past decade, institutions and companies have increasingly made arbitration a condition of employment and settlement in workplace contracts. An estimated 60 million Americans are under forced arbitration clauses in our workforce today, and that number is growing. (It’s doubled since just 2000.) Forced arbitration takes away a victim’s constitutional right to a fair and open trial process and protects harassers by keeping allegations and settlements secret. It’s unjust and unconstitutional.
I spent much of 2017 walking the halls of Congress, pushing legislators to take real, meaningful action to help harassment victims. In December, I proudly joined legislators from both parties to introduce the “Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act,” which restores victims’ constitutional Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial. Under the act, harassment victims can choose arbitration or court. It’s the only way to ensure their claims are made public. While it’s a narrow bill, it’s an important start to undoing the systemic silencing of harassment and assault victims. But it doesn’t take an act of Congress for institutions and companies to step up — we’ve already seen Microsoft end forced arbitration in employee contracts. That’s an incredible evolution by one of America’s biggest and most important employers, and I’m hoping many more institutions and companies will follow Microsoft’s lead.
When one survivor speaks out, she gives the gift of courage to the next survivor.
We’ve made a lot of progress. To paraphrase Churchill, this isn’t the end or the beginning of the end — but it just might be the end of the beginning. When one survivor speaks out, she gives the gift of courage to the next survivor. Over 19 months, we have progressed from one titan falling to an avalanche of survivors saying “enough.” Now it’s time to change our institutions from within. I’m confident that this progress is possible. When I look at photos from my childhood, I see a bold, little girl grinning with confidence. When I look at my photos after the assaults, I see a young woman smiling through pain. Today, I look in the mirror and see a true badass who won’t be intimidated ever again. It’s amazing. And it’s an evolution each and every one of us can make to always be fierce.
Gretchen Carlson ’90 is a former television anchor, an author, and an advocate for workplace equality and the empowerment of women. Also, she was crowned the 1989 Miss America and was recently elected chair of the board of directors of the Miss America organization.
This op-ed appears in the January 2018 issue of Stanford Politics Magazine.