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Regardless of Sex, Harassment on the Job is About Power, It’s Always About Power

Emergency Fire Services chiclet

by Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Disclaimer: This [article] is not about politics.

A man is being publicly grilled about why he was alone in a room with someone he felt was threatening him. Why didn’t he simply resign if he felt uncomfortable with what his boss was asking him to do? Why did he keep taking calls from that boss, even if he thought they were inappropriate? Why didn’t he just come out and say he would not do what the boss was asking for? (Women Say to Comey: Welcome to Our World, New York Times, June 8, 2017)

Maybe, just maybe, we’ve all started taking a much different view of claims of sexual harassment–and all other forms of harassment in the workplace for that matter—and especially those brought forth by women. If we have, we need to thank the #MeToo movement and the brave women who have stepped forward and continue to step forward and speak up.

Former FBI Director James Comey’s experience—described in his testimony under oath before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee last year—clearly illustrates that power being exerted by a boss over a subordinate is harassment. It shows that harassment is about having power and abusing that power. And it shows that it’s not limited to women in the workplace.

It’s this imbalance of power which is often the basis for sexual harassment or assault cases, the latest examples being those of Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K. and George Takei. By now, we all know they have something in common — they have each been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior.

Mr. Comey’s testimony also serves to illustrate that power can rattle and silence men as well as women. Mr. Comey is a large man in physical stature and powerful in his own right having served an extensive career with the FBI that included service under two previous Presidents of the United States.

Yet, Comey admits he froze when he found himself alone with the current President of the United States—his ultimate boss—and that boss allegedly telling Comey, “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.” For the uninitiated, the President is laying out the quid pro quo: You make me happy, I’ll make you happy (By letting you keep your job).

The conversation resumes. You speak of other things. You think the worst is over. Think again. The powerful man has an agenda for this dinner. He wants to break down your defenses—even just a crack. He’ll insist Mike Flynn [fired National Security Advisor] “is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” [drop the FBI’s investigation of Flynn and alleged involvement with Russia prior to the U.S. Presidential Election].

And for some reason, instead of saying, “You’re crossing a line,” you’ll agree that Mike Flynn is a good guy. Now your boss can smile. You just told him that someone under criminal investigation was “a good guy.” You played along. You two just shared an intimacy—one might even say “a thing.” (WMagazine,June 8, 2017).

Sexual Harassment in the Fire Service

And that’s how abuse of power and sexual harassment of women in the fire service “goes down.” The person in power doesn’t have to hold official rank over a woman firefighter, though frequently that is the case. No, just being a male firefighter is enough informal power over a female firefighter for the aggressor to get what they want.

And why is that? First, because male privilege is a driving force is fire departments large and small. Career and volunteer and combination. Male privilege gives abusers the power to do what they want without fear of repercussions.

Secondly, when an allegation of sexual harassment arises, they know—and case histories bear them out—that their version of what happened will be believed by their brothers. For their male counterparts to believe the female firefighter’s accusations is to betray “the code”, the code of male privilege.

Then the victim shaming or blaming begins. It even did for Comey as we see in a couple of Twitter messages after his testimony:

Sen Blunt: If you told Sessions you didn’t want to be alone with Trump again, why did you continue to take his calls?
#Comey claiming #Trump obstructed justice over #flynn AFTER he got fired, is like a chick claiming Sexual Harassment AFTER she got fired.

All you must do is change a few words

Does this paragraph look familiar?

A female firefighter who’s filed a complaint of sexual harassment against her supervising captain is being “interviewed” as part of an investigation of her complaint. She’s asked why she was alone in a room with someone she felt was threatening her. Why didn’t she simply resign if she felt uncomfortable with what her boss was asking her to do? Why did she keep taking calls from that boss, even if she thought they were inappropriate? Why didn’t she just come out and say she would not do what the boss was asking for?

See, it’s all about the power. Always is.

About the Author

Batt. Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy's EFO Program. Contact Robert at

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