A Culture of Sexual Harassment: A Proposal for the Examination of Accounts of Popular Media Figures

By Elyse Gessler


American culture, which is comprised of the beliefs, habits, moral and symbols that establish meaning and context for everyday life. One of these such symbols is the American media figure, viewed as an emblem of entertainment and information, pop culture figures live their lives on pedestals being adored by their audiences below. This stratification occurs between media figures, such as people in Hollywood or political actors, and those ordinary people that they portray or represent. This elevates these individuals into positions of power, creating a further distance between them and the American public and also providing them with an unbridled sense of hubris. This does not, however, lessen the public’s interest in their intangible lifestyles and dynamic nature –that is, perhaps, until recently. This blog will focus on the sexual abuse and harassment allegations against male media figures, beginning in 2014, and their responses to their accusers and the public.


Historical Context

In 2005, Bill Cosby, a notable and previously beloved American television actor was accused of sexually assault. His accuser, Andrea Constand, was largely dismissed, and Cosby responded to the allegations in an article written by The National Enquirer stating that he was not “going to give in to people who try to exploit me because of celebrity status” (Weisensee Egan, Corinthios, Gomez, Green, Helling, Leonard & Truesdell, 2014, p. 60) . It wasn’t until almost ten years later in the late months of 2014 that an influx of women with strikingly similar stories, involving being drugged and groped, were brought to light by the American public. Francescani and Fisher (2017) explain that the victims came forward after a viral video clip of Hannibal Buress, a comedian, stated that Cosby was a rapist. Since that time, more than 50 women have come forward supporting the claims that Bill Cosby had committed some type of sexual assault against them. Gessler2

Read More: Cosby Accusers Speak Up

Fast forwarding to October 2017, another notable media figure’s alleged sexual transgressions were brought to light. Harvey Weinstein, a notable Hollywood film producer, was accused of sexual harassment against Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd who revealed that his misconduct was a well-known issue amongst Hollywood peers (Kantor & Twohey, 2017).


Since the beginning of October, these women were joined by dozens of other women filing charges, or making statements against Weinstein. However, in the wake of these growing voices, Weinstein is not the only media figure to face accusation of sexual harassment or assault. Since October 2014 other notable media figures have faced allegations including Rep. Trent Franks, Bryan Singer, Danny Masterson, George Takei, Louis C.K., Steven Segal, Kevin Spacey and President Donald J. Trump (Cooney, 2017). With so many prominent American media figures being accused of sexual harassment and violation, the American public is closely watching, not just the statements of the accusers, but also the responses of the accused.

Read More: Allegations of Harvey Weinstein

Theoretical Context

Sexual Harassment as a Culture

Hershcovis and Barling (2010) explain that sexual harassment contains three distinct categories:

  1. Gender harassment
  2. Quid pro quo
  3. Unwanted sexual attention

These categories are portrayed through various acts and language by the harasser. More specifically, within organizations and cultures such as the ones being explored in this blog, they explain that these acts can include “a variety of offensive, unwanted, and unreciprocated sexual behaviors, whereas quid pro quo harassment reflects the extortion of sexual cooperation in return for job-related considerations” (Hershcovis, & Barling, 2010, p. 875). The idea of job-related expectations has been at the forefront of the recent sexual harassment allegations, as many of the accusers insinuate that the harassment took place while working for male superiors during job interviews, or during job related tasks.

Specifically, consider Hollywood. Hollywood, which has adopted an environmental culture that thrives on extreme commitment from its employees, may have facilitated a culture that is conducive to quid pro quo attitudes and actions amongst its various members. Kampmark (2017) implies that Hollywood is the source of its own issues, because of the nature and goals of its industry –to create dreams and spark imagination, living slightly outside of everyday realities. Because of this, the researcher suggests that its employees pay a great personal price in order to produce its miraculous products.

Many of the accusers involved within the recent sexual harassment allegations have considerable personal means themselves, or positions of power, but this is not surprising as Hershcovis & Barling (2010) find that sexual harassment, which occurs mostly in organizations dominated by men, is projected onto women who tend to demonstrate most masculine personality characteristics. By reinforcing a power status within the organization, men are able to separate themselves and establish dominance over women who demonstrate the personality or characteristics to hold similar power. This finding rejects the notion that more subservient women are necessarily more likely to explain sexual harassment in their workplace environment. Sexual harassment research is not a new phenomenon, nor is the issue of harassment itself. However, the practice seems to have integrated itself into organizational practice.

McLaughlin, Uggen & Blackstone (2012) explain that sexual harassment policies are actively put into place within organizations, but the manner in which workers are protected, or must file complaints leads to more issues. By making a formal grievance, employees may experience a certain level of criticism from fellow employees or superiors who may retract or withhold support or active engagement within the situation. Benavides Espinoza & Cunningham (2010) that only 13% of individual who experience sexual harassment actually report the incident. The researchers imply that part of this issue is the observational knowledge that previously sexual harassment incidents have occurred, and have gone unacknowledged, but also because individuals who observe sexual harassment occurring within the workplace do not report the incident

Only 13% of individuals report sexual harassment

 Kuehner-Herbert (2017) suggests that this type of pattern will continue until organizations recognize the severity of sexual harassment. The researcher remarks that an organization must create, implement and follow a “zero-tolerance culture from the top-down –and not just quietly dispatching harassment claims using confidentiality agreements, or keeping potential accusers quiet with non-disclosure agreements” (p. 1).  These types of agreements can be personified in financial payoffs from the accused to the accuser, and unfortunately, can be habitual. These acts can also become shared social experiences, thus establishing themselves as part of the organizational process and culture (Doughterty & Smythe, 2004). Sexual harassment, and the acts to placate its victims are morally and ethical wrong, however, Folkes and Whang (2003) explain that individuals within organizations sometimes spin the truth involving the content of their account, thus eliminating the degree of severity, positioning themselves to repeat an action which creates an organization that is conducive to social wrongdoing.

So what does America think about all of the sexual harassment allegations? A recent study by the Pew Research Center shows that Americans are frustrated with sexual harassment as a culture. Only 28% of Americans feel that these reported allegations are acts of an individual motive, whereas 66% reflect that these acts are a reflection of a much bigger, cultural issue (Oliphant, 2017). For this reason, this blog will explain the theoretical concepts behind these statistics, including sexual harassment as a culture, and the justifications and excuses of the individuals facing the sexual harassment allegations.

Excuses, Justifications & Accounts

Now that we have explored sexual harassment, the types of sexual harassment and how it can become part of a culture, it is important to take a closer look at how individuals accused of sexual harassment may utilize justifications and excuses, or known by scholars as “accounts”, in order to address their social wrongdoing.Gessler4

Scott and Lyman (1968) were the first two scholars to explain the idea of an account or a “statement made by a social actor to explain unanticipated or untoward behavior –whether that behavior is his own or that of others, and whether the proximate cause for the statement arises from the actor himself or from someone else” (p. 48). This means that an account is comprised of the excuses or justifications established by an individual that behaves in a manner that falls outside of social norms and expectations. Deviant behavior, or behavior that violates social expectations can be something simple, like sitting too close to a stranger in public or staying stationary on an escalator. However, it can also have more severe implications such as not meeting job related expectations, causing physical harm to others or breaking other types of criminal law. Scott and Lyman explore how everyday people engage in response and dialogue about these transgressions, and whether they excuse or justify their behavior.

It is important to note that excuses are different from justifications. Greenawalt (1986) explains that a justification is an action that has some type of moral value or foundation, something that can be explained and is not blameworthy. Excuses, however, suggest that an individual did not have the ability to choose the right or socially acceptable action, thus pardoning themselves from the action or the repercussions of the action. Scott and Lyman (1968) further explain that there are four subcategories within the giving of excuses:

  1. Appeal to accidents
  2. Appeal to defeasibility
  3. Appeal to biological drives
  4. Scapegoating

All four of these subcategories provide the individual an opportunity to place blame on the action, rather than on themselves, due to some type of environmental, psychological, physiological or external influence that was not within their personal control. Schönbach (1980) extends Scott and Lyman’s categories within accounts, which includes concession, excuses, justifications and refusals. Concession and refusals, the two additional categories includes the individual who committed the act either fully or partially conceding the action, or partially or fully denying that the action has occurred (p. 197). This particular model acknowledges that social actors also have the capability to concede and deny their actions, as well as making excuses or trying to justify them. This particular style is helpful in the actors attempt to either sustain their credibility, or sustain the relationship with the other party involved within the act (Fritsche, 2002). Now that we have a better understanding of the different types of accounts, it is equally important to discuss the different types of acts that create the need for justifications and excuses.

Accounts Vary by Act

Accounts, which are comprised of justifications and excuses, are utilized when an individual is acting against established social norms, thus, demonstrating some type of deviant behavior. Deviant behavior can fall within a range of severe activities, such as forgetting to cover one’s nose while sneezing or committing murder. Considering more extreme ends of behavior that have an adverse effect on individuals as a result of social actors act, Felson & Ribner (1981) examine accounts of individuals who have committed homicide, or assault. Felson & Ribner (1981) suggest that individuals who demonstrate violent may exhibit more justifications, depending on their level of violence. The researchers suggest that if an individual commits a homicidal act, they are less likely to try and excuse their behavior, but rather justify the action itself. Additionally, if the victim of the act suffered fewer repercussions from the act, the individual who committed the act may be less likely to accept responsibility, or acknowledge any type of guilt associated with the act (p. 141). In comparison, Azarian & Alaehto (2014) suggest that the violation of social norms in settings of white collar workers involve different types of account than violent offenders. For example, the researchers suggest that white collar accounts include “verbally more sophisticated motivations”, and are less likely to take responsibility for the action or demonstrate guilt (p. 112). This can include specific types of justification including the concept of victim blaming, where the individual who violated the norm projects blame onto the individual who initially condemned the violator. Additionally, white collar violators are more likely to identify certain environmental or social injustices which led them astray in their acts, thus, enabling them and justifying their violation of social norms (Azarian & Alalehto, 2014, p. 112). To conclude these two different areas of research, white collar individuals are less likely to own their mistakes or social norm violations, and are much more likely to try and pass the blame onto their social situation and environment, or other people in their lives than more violent transgressors.

Accepting Accounts

Considering the foundational literature, and the historical context of this blog post, it begs the question: What type of accounts do people actually believe? Azarian & Alalehto (2014) explained that white collar social norm violates utilize justifications that blame culture or social factors that led them to their wrongdoing. Riordan, Marlin & Kellogg (1983) explain that when an individual identifies with a particular inappropriate personae or demonstrates a type of culture violation, the perpetrator is not taking responsibility for the harmful action or violating behavior. However, those who are presented with the excuse may have fewer negative feelings or perceptions regarding the wrongdoer and their actions. When considering sexual harassment as a form of social norm violation, individuals may justify that sexual harassment is an element of their social culture. This may explain why inappropriate social behaviors have perpetuated in Hollywood and other media environments. Additionally, individuals who maintain their average “presentation of self” whilst committing social violations, or expressing accounts of their behavior may be able to convince others within their organizational or social environments that the action was “atypical” to their normal behavior (Pogrebin, Stretesky, Prabha Unnithan & Venor, 2006, p. 482). This idea of presentation is critical, especially for white collar individuals, as their demeanor and personal mannerism whilst conveying their accounts can maintain credibility amongst their internal community. Additionally, Dunn and Cody (2010) suggest that people are significantly more likely to forgive or confirm a person’s credibility, despite a social norm violation, if they are apologetic while presenting their account. However, they also explain that when victim blaming or denial of the act is included in their statements, people are less likely to view them as “credible” individuals. Hareli (2005) builds off of this idea, suggesting that individuals actively evaluate other people’s accounts, gauging to various levels of personal acceptance, accountability and truth within them. These evaluations will serve as a determination as to whether the individual maintains their credibility, or will be forgiven by larger social standards.

Below are two different links. The first link leads to Louis C.K.’s admission of guilt regarding the sexual harassment allegations. The second is Harvey Weinstein’s rejection of Selma Hayek’s sexual harassment allegations. Given the information above, do you think that the way they addressed these situations alters their credibility?


Current Application & Uses For Future Research

This blog discussed the current exposure of sexual harassment and deviance claims involving male media figures, all of which have been exposed over the last two months. Additionally, we discussed what sexual harassment is, how people utilize accounts to excuse or justify their behavior, and how Americans are feeling about the allegations.

But what next?

In order to examine whether or not these media figures will maintain their credibility, or lose their lustrous position within media culture, it will be vital to examine their accounts regarding the sexual harassment allegations. In fact, many have already responded.

Harvey Weinstein himself has responded to the allegations by various women by placing blame on the culture of Hollywood, stating that he “just didn’t know any better, this is just how we did things in the old days” (Zacharek, 2017).

Notable actor, Dustin Hoffman, responded to the media explaining that he has “the utmost respect for women and feel terrible that anything I might have done could have put her in an uncomfortable situation. I am sorry. It is not reflective of who I am.” (Rothman, 2017).


Tavis Smiley, a PBS late night show host, is now being investigated, and his show temporarily suspended. He commented on his own investigation, stating that “It is clear that this has gone too far. And I for one intend to fight back. PBS overreacted and they launched a sloppy investigation. It’s time for a real conversation in this country about where the lines are, about how men and women can engage each other in the workplace. And I look forward to actively participating in that conversation.” (Schmidt, 2017).

Donald Trump, our own President, faces accusations of sexual misconduct which date back across multiple decades.  Below is a clip that features three of these women on the “Megyn Kelly Today” show

Read More: Trump Accusers Say It Was Heartbreaking To See Him Elected

The White House released a response to these allegations during the live show which stated:

“These false claims, totally disputed in most cases by eyewitness accounts, were addressed at length during last year’s campaign, and the American people voiced their judgment by delivering a decisive victory,” the White House said in a statement Monday. “The timing and absurdity of these false claims speaks volumes, and the publicity tour that has begun only further confirms the political motives behind them.”

These responses are a small sample of what has been communicated through the media, and what is yet to come. Analyzing these accounts may provide insight into the various types of justifications and excuses the public will be presented with. But perhaps even more importantly, which accounts the public will be willing to accept. These official and popular media figures may face a diminished sense of credibility or renewed opportunity to perform as an actor in our American media cultural landscape. These decisions will be left to people like you and me. It will be up to the American public to decide whether or not we can continue to support subcultures that enable sexual misconduct and harassment activities. More stories such as the ones mentioned above are being exposed each and every day. Below is a compilation of notable media figures who are currently facing allegations. Take a look, and you decide.

Read More: Who Is Being Accused Of Sexual Misconduct


Azarian, R., & Alalehto, T. (2014). Patterns in Account-Giving among White Collar Criminals. Deviant Behavior, 35(2), 101-115

Benavides Espinoza, C., & Cunningham, G. B. (2010). Observers’ Reporting of Sexual Harassment: The Influence of Harassment Type, Organizational Culture, and Political Orientation. Public Organization Review, 10(4), 323-337.

Cooney, S. (2017). Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, More Accused of Assault. (2017). Retrieved December 1, 2017, from http://time.com/5015204/harvey-weinstein-scandal/

Dougherty, D. S., & Smythe, M. J. (2004). Sensemaking, organizational culture, and sexual harassment. Journal Of Applied Communication Research, 32(4), 293-317.

Dunn, D., & Cody, M. J. (2000). Account Credibility and Public Image: Excuses, Justifications, Denials, and Sexual Harassment. Communication Monographs, 67(4), 372.

Felson, R. B., & Ribner, S. A. (1981). An Attributional Approach to Accounts and Sanctions for Criminal Violence. Social Psychology Quarterly, 44(2), 137-142.

Folkes, V. S., & Whang, Y. (2003). Account-Giving for a corporate transgression influences moral judgment: When those who “spin” condone harm-doing. Journal Of Applied Psychology, 88(1), 79-86.

Francescani, C., & Fisher, L. (2017). Bill Cosby trial: A timeline of what’s happened since 2004. Retrieved December 2, 2017, from http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/bill-cosby-trial-complete-timeline-happened-2004/story?id=47799458


Fritsche, I. (2002). Account Strategies for the Violation of Social Norms: Integration and Extension of Sociological and Social Psychological Typologies. Journal For The Theory Of Social Behaviour, 32(4), 371-394.


FULL EPISODE: The Cosby Accusers Speak. (2017, October). Retrieved December 2, 2017, from https://www.nbcnews.com/dateline/video/full-episode-the-cosby-accusers-speak-543502915620

Greenawalt, K. (1986). Distinguishing Justifications from Excuses. Law & Contemporary Problems, 49(3), 89-108.

Hareli, S. (2005). Accounting for one’s behavior—What really determines its effectiveness? Its type or its content?. Journal For The Theory Of Social Behaviour, 35(4), 359-372

Hershcovis, M. S., & Barling, J. (2010). Comparing Victim Attributions and Outcomes for Workplace Aggression and Sexual Harassment. Journal Of Applied Psychology, 95(5), 874-888.

Hibberd, J. (2017). “ENOUGH, ENOUGH, ENOUGH!”. (Cover story). Entertainment Weekly, (1489), 24-29.

Itzkoff, D. (2017, November 10). Louis C.K. Admits to Sexual Misconduct as Media Companies Cut Ties. Retrieved December 11, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/10/movies/louis-ck-i-love-you-daddy-release-is-canceled.html

Kampmark, B. (2017). Hollywood’s Weinstein complicity. Eureka Street, 27(21), 79-81.

Kantor, J., & Twohey, M. (2017, October 05). Harvey Weinstein paid off sexual harassment accusers for decades. Retrieved November 01, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/05/us/harvey-weinstein-harassment-allegations.html?_r=0

Kaye, A. (2012). OBJECTIFYING AND IDENTIFYING IN THE THEORY OF EXCUSE. American Journal Of Criminal Law, 39(2), 175-229.

Kuehner-Hebert, K. (2017). Harvey Weinstein scandal: Lessons for HR departments. Benefitspro, 1.

McLaughlin, H., Uggen, C., & Blackstone, A. (2012). Sexual Harassment, Workplace Authority, and the Paradox of Power. American Sociological Review, 77(4), 625-647.

My Monster:’ Harvey Weinstein Denies Salma Hayek’s Claims of Sexual Harassment. (2017). Retrieved December 13, 2017, from http://fortune.com/2017/12/14/salma-hayek-weinstein-frida-denies/

Oliphant, B. (2017). Women and men in both parties say sexual harassment allegations reflect ‘widespread problems in society’. Retrieved December 10, 2017, from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/12/07/americans-views-of-sexual-harassment-allegations/


Pogrebin, M., Stretesky, P., Prabha Unnithan, N., & Venor, G. (2006). Retrospective Accounts of Violent Events by Gun Offenders. Deviant Behavior, 27(4), 479-501.

Riordan, C. A., Marlin, N. A., & Kellogg, R. T. (1983). The effectiveness of accounts following transgression. Social Psychology Quarterly, 46(3), 213-219.

Rothman, M. (2017). John Oliver challenges Dustin Hoffman on his response to sexual harassment allegations. Retrieved December 13, 2017, from http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/john-oliver-challenges-dustin-hoffman-response-sexual-harassment/story?id=51588121

Schmidt, S. (2017). ‘This has gone too far,’ says defiant Tavis Smiley after PBS suspends his show for ‘misconduct’. Retrieved December 14, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/12/13/tavis-smiley-talk-show-suspended-by-pbs-amid-misconduct-allegations/?utm_term=.b921aae32fa7

Schönbach, P. (1980). A category system for account phases. European Journal Of Social Psychology, 10(2), 195-200.

Scott, Marvin B. & Lyman, Stanford M. 1968. “Accounts.” American Sociological Review 33: 46-62.

Weisensee Egan, N., Corinthios, A., Gomez, P., Green, M., Helling, S., Leonard, E., & Truesdell, J. (2014). The Fall of Bill Cosby. (Cover story). People, 82(24), 58-62.

Winder, B., & Gough, B. (2010). “I never touched anybody—that’s my defence”: A qualitative analysis of internet sex offender accounts. Journal Of Sexual Aggression, 16(2), 125-141.

Zacharek, S. (2017). How Do You Solve a Problem Like Harvey Weinstein? (Cover story). Time, 190(16/17), 27-31.


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