Christine O’Donnell’s walk-off

You can watch the video of Christine O’Donnell walking off Piers Morgan’s show, or you can read a transcript of it here. The short version is: he asked her about her stance on gay marriage, which was covered in the book this interview was meant to promote, and she said she was being called off by a handler and left the studio. International Business Times says she’s just trying to stir up sales for the book – and she’s failing.

But what I want to talk about is her claim that Morgan was sexually harassing her. Because a lot of privileged people believe that most (that’s the word they’ve used in my presence) claims women make of being sexually harassed, raped or anything in between are lies designed to torment some poor man. Even self-proclaimed feminists will even engage in this bullshit when their beloved candidate (ahem*BillClinton*ahem) is the one in the hot seat.

This, however, is a rare occasion. We can all be witnesses to the incident in which O’Donnell claims she was sexually harassed. Let’s examine it and see what we find. Is this a truly sexually harassed woman, or something else? If you follow the links above, you’ll see or read everything leading up to the part in question, and there is quite a lot. But I would sum it up like this:

  • They play video clips of her talking about dating witches and dabbling in witchcraft herself. They play another clip where she’s telling kids that masturbation is wrong because you can’t masturbate without lust (not true, actually), and it’s wrong to lust in your heart.
  • All Morgan’s questions of a sexual nature clearly derive from these clips (“Do you lust in your heart?”) and the content of her book, in which she discusses her position on gay sex.
  • Her reason for not wanting to discuss her views on gay marriage: “I’m not running for office. I’m not promoting a legislative agenda. I’m promoting the policies that I lay out in the book that are mostly fiscal, that are mostly constitutional.”
  • And yet her answer to the gay marriage question is, “It’s in the book.”

This leads to O’Donnell’s claim of sexual harassment. From the LA Times link above:

“It was not about the questions of gay marriages, as the producer very dishonestly tried to portray it. It was … the very inappropriate, creepy line of questioning leading up to that. And I think that I was a very good sport for the first 20 minutes,” she said. But it was questions that he’d asked just moments before the gay rights issues — including one about masturbation — that unnerved her. “Do you still think masturbation is wrong?” he asked, followed by “Have you committed lust in your heart?”

That doesn’t work. Even if we generously assume it wasn’t the gay marriage question, but the other questions that bothered her, there’s nothing “creepy” or “inappropriate” about asking an author about the content of the book she’s promoting. In fact, that’s generally what book promotion is all about. She seems to feel he should have only asked her about the parts of the book she wanted to talk about. If her handlers worked out a deal like that and Morgan reneged on it, then we have a case of ugly journalism – but not sexual harassment.

I will grant that journalists probably see women as more vulnerable to their digging and mud slinging tactics, though I don’t see that either of those apply here in particular. Women are more vulnerable to most anything when it comes to being seen and heard in public, because we’re put up on pedestals and then shot at, like a carnival game. Step right up, shoot the lady down, win a giant bunny. It’s fun!

But while that’s a privilege issue involving gender, it’s not sexual harassment. It’s frightening, but not surprising, that a woman who doesn’t know the difference would attempt to run for offices where she would have some say over gender-related policies.

There’s more to her claim of sexual harassment.

O’Donnell said the book discusses the context of her positions on abstinence and masturbation, and comments she made while being interviewed back in the 1990s, “I addressed the questions [in the book] and I put it in context that, ‘No, I would not do that interview again.'” Morgan, she said, took it one step beyond, and started making the queries personal — and in the present tense, with questions that “[go] into a personal nature and start prying.” The same would never happen with a man, she said.

“Imagine if Bill Clinton were there,” O’Donnell told the “Today Show.” “Would he ask him, ‘Do you still hang out with Monica Lewinsky? Come on, we talked about it in the ’90s. Come on, do you still have that fascination with cigars, Bill?'”

The comparison with Clinton doesn’t work well because of the huge disparity in their relative power in this culture. It works better if you try to imagine a male O’Donnell who, having recently lost a bid for office, wrote a book discussing his thoughts on masturbation and gay marriage, among other things. Would the press target his sensational topics, or zero in on his fiscal ideas? I don’t think the interview would have been any different had O’Donnell been male. And I think Christine O’Donnell has done a thoughtless, privileged disservice to all the women who have actually been sexually harassed as they tried to make a living, and shame on her for it.

That said, it must be pointed out that the press – like every other entity in this culture – does treat women differently than it treats men, and some of the ways it does this certainly function like sexual harassment, in terms of alienating women and making it clear to them they are in a very unsafe space if they continue:

  • It casts doubt on the allegations of rape and harassment victims, and hunts down ways to discredit them, or even just muzz the picture enough for misogynists to be able to convince themselves discrediting has taken place.
  • It emphasizes irrelevant sexual aspects of women’s stories and work (as opposed to asking their positions on these topics which they’ve raised in their own books). Want an example of a great walk-off? Jodie Foster went quiet for years after John Hinkley, Jr., allegedly shot Ronald Reagan to impress her. When she went on the Today show with the understanding she would not be asked about that event (what could she say about it, really, anyway?), and she saw something about it coming up on the teleprompter, she walked out and left Bryant Gumble alone on set. (And even that doesn’t constitute sexual harassment, per se – though it does take advantage of her being unwillingly cast in a sexual role in someone else’s psychodrama.)
  • It focuses on women’s appearances whether it’s relevant to their work (Condoleezza Rice and Hilary Clinton know all about this), and even when appearance is relevant, women receive a lot more press brutality for not looking like airbrushed anime characters than do their male counterparts.

It’s just that’s not what happened here. My guess is that O’Donnell intentionally set up a situation she thought would resemble mistreatment at the press’ hands. Perhaps she or her handlers thought Morgan would overstep the bounds of what’s in the book – it certainly sounds like she was reading from a scripted response to that situation. But that wasn’t what happened. Morgan stuck to the book, and I can’t really imagine him opting to leave those topics alone if a male O’Donnell wanted to shy away from them and insist on discussing fiscal policy.


  1. sbg says

    I am pretty sure that if a man had authored that book and talked about masturbation being wrong because lust in the heart is wrong (eh, doubtful!), Piers Morgan would have issued those same questions because, well, he was probably trying to highlight how ridiculous those things sound.

    It’s possible she felt harassed, as it seems she was only expecting an interviewer to ask her things she wanted to answer, but I don’t see how she reads it as sexual in nature…

    Disclaimer: I am about as far from O’Donnell on the political spectrum as is possible.

  2. Ebb says


    Exactly. I could see how anyone would be uncomfortable with being asked a question about their own “lust in the heart”. HOWEVER he only asked that question because it was in the book and she certainly has no qualms actually writing such a judging statement in a book.

    This really is a rare case. I mean Morgan was asking her about something she had put in a book. When sexual harassment happens, it’s because there is an assumption on the harasser’s part that the harassed owes them their body for their own gratification. That’s not even the case here.

  3. says

    I agree that neither she wass harassed nor was Piers rude (and certainly NOT creepy). If she’s so prudish and so picky about what can be asked to her and so defensive before an interviewer who obviously doesn’t share her views, she should’ve declined the interview. But even if Piers had made inappropriate questions, I believe she did a VERY POOR job at not answering them. She could’ve said in more assertive terms that she didn’t wish to answer those questions. She could have said she would not spoil things that were well explained in the book. She could have said that she regretted the MTV interview and that she no longer wanted to make public her views on sexuality*. Then we could argue, if Piers had still insisted in those questions, whether he was rude. But since she could not reject the questions properly, she chooses to accuse the interviewer of harassing.
    BTW, the woman in the Today show asked her some similar questions and O’Donnel doesn’t seem to be nearly as uncomfortable as she wass in Piers’ show. It could be that she was more prepared, but poses the question whether she would’ve reacted like that had she been interviewed not by Piers but by Pierina.

    *I haven’t read the book

  4. says

    sbg: Piers Morgan would have issued those same questions because, well, he was probably trying to highlight how ridiculous those things sound.

    Plus, they’re ratings grabbers – much more sensational and buzz-inspiring than somebody’s views on the economy. We’re all sophisticated enough to realize that if the press can zero in on a sexy aspect of a story, they will – it shouldn’t come as a shock to her, either.

    Ebb: I could see how anyone would be uncomfortable with being asked a question about their own “lust in the heart”. HOWEVER he only asked that question because it was in the book and she certainly has no qualms actually writing such a judging statement in a book.

    That’s a good point – I can almost understand her taking offense at this. Except when I put it in the context of Jimmy Carter volunteering in an interview in the ’70s that he’d “lusted in his heart.” Christianity has a long history of its pillars and leaders confessing their sins to demonstrate to other (and potential) followers: it’s okay you’re not perfect, neither are we, but I have been redeemed and so will you. O’Donnell takes a somewhat confessional tone in talking about how masturbation led her astray in the video clip, so it’s not unreasonable for Morgan to assume she’s open to such a question, and might even welcome it as an opportunity to demonstrate how Christianity redeems.

    Nuria: She could’ve said in more assertive terms that she didn’t wish to answer those questions. She could have said she would not spoil things that were well explained in the book.

    That struck me, too. In fact, I wondered if she was deliberately trying to bait him, because had she said something to imply that people would need to read the book to learn more about topic X, Morgan would have understood that as a promotion strategy and figured “fair enough.” It feels like a reasonable outcome was not what she wanted, because she was attempting to orchestrate something else.

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