American Apparel and the Politics of Consent

It's not the first time that American Apparel founder and CEO Dov Charney has been accused of sexual harassment, but the latest case raises the stakes considerably. The five plaintiffs are seeking $260 million in damages for sexual harassment and assault they suffered under Charney's employ.

The testimony that’s made it past the company’s famously strict confidentiality policy seems fairly incriminating. A lead plaintiff, 19-year-old Kimbra Lo, said she was forced into sex after visiting 41-year-old Charney’s New York apartment, lured with promises of employment as a model and photographer. The others, according to their lawyer, have similar complaints about inappropriate touching and a hostile, sexualized work environment.

So far, American Apparel corporate is standing behind Charney. They call the lawsuit an attempted “shakedown.” They repeat Charney’s claim that the company fosters a uniquely (and uniquely productive) “sexually charged atmosphere" – the plaintiffs either weren't in on that corporate culture or have wildly exaggerated their consensual sexual contact. In a classic move, Charney’s lawyers have pursued a smear campaign intended to undermine the plaintiffs’ credibility. So far the media is playing along.

GawkerNBC News, and other outlets have publicized or published the "damning" photos, sext messages, and "love letters." Charney's lawyers claim they show that the accusers were equal and willing participants in lascivious affairs – not only were they "asking for it" but they “wanted it.”

It's shocking, but not surprising that the media is so eager to cynically re-imagine the meaning of "consensual." American women have made significant gains in public life, but culture and media continue to minimize and naturalize the sexual violence that remains so rampant. In early March, for instance, the New York Times earned serious criticism for its story on the horrific gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Texas. The reporter deferred to nervous residents who wanted to explain away the rape by claiming that the victim “dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s”; like the American Apparel plaintiffs she was “asking for it.” 

No sexting, no love letters, and no sex can be properly consensual between male employers and female employees. Pretending otherwise actively disappears the unequal power relationships that are the bread and butter of gender oppression. Do the plaintiffs deserve a $260 million settlement? That's for the judge to decide. But the media (and the public) ought to resist making invisible the sexist coercion that equates sexual acts (and even desires) with consent.

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