Kevin Riley, the editor-in-chief of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, recently came to the defense of the late reporter Kathy Scruggs, calling her portrayal in Clint Eastwood’s historical drama Richard Jewell — in which she offers to have sex with an FBI agent played by Jon Hamm in exchange for information about the bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics — “deeply troubling.” “There is no evidence that this ever happened,” he told IndieWire, calling the film’s suggestion that Scruggs traded sex for information “offensive and deeply troubling in the #MeToo era.”
The FBI agent’s response to Scruggs’ proposal in the film — “Kathy, you couldn’t fuck it out of them. What makes you think you could fuck it out of me?” — is doubly insulting, implying that Scruggs routinely offered sex for scoops as a reporting tactic. “Perpetuating false tropes about female reporters and journalism itself shouldn’t go unchallenged in a time when our profession finds itself under almost constant attack,” Riley continued, noting that Scruggs, who died in 2001 at the age of 42, “was the AJC reporter who got the initial information that law enforcement was pursuing Jewell” and that she “was known as an aggressive reporter and committed journalist who sought always to beat her competition.”
That women wield sex as a tool for professional advancement is a sexist myth stale enough to warrant its own entry on TV Tropes. “Fucking your way to the top” describes the way women supposedly use sex to gain scoops, promotions, professional favor, connections, jobs, roles and/or opportunities — or even just their “charms and sex appeal,” implying women don’t even have to fuck to be accused of fucking their way to the top. The idea receives continual airplay in movies, TV shows, music and magazines and serves as padding for career advice hubs, women’s websites, conservative newspapers and content mills.
Famous women especially have to contend with the idea that they fucked their way to the top. Nicki Minaj denied rumors that she slept with her Young Money colleagues in “Only,” and Lana Del Rey’s “Fucked My Way Up to the Top” was a direct response to the same narrative surrounding her. “It’s commentary, like, ‘I know what you think of me,’ and I’m alluding to that,” she told Complex. “You know, I have slept with a lot of guys in the industry, but none of them helped me get my record deals, which is annoying.”
Men are almost entirely exempt from the narrative of fucking your way to the top, and it’s not because they don’t sometimes sleep with their bosses, managers and other higher-ups — and gain some benefit for doing so.
John, 40, from Florida, tells me that he slept with his boss when he worked at a preschool in his early 20s. “My boss was about 40 years old and made progressively more suggestive comments to me,” he says. “I was never bothered by it, and never told her to stop. Eventually the comments became a proposition.”
John and his boss only slept together a few times, always at work, but when another employee nearly walked in on them, the liaison finished. “That scared her enough to end it,” he tells me. “She did give me a raise though, which was nice.” Despite this moderate advancement, he was, of course, never accused of fucking his way to the top. “The assistant director did know that I’d gotten the raise, but it wasn’t some absurd raise that would’ve raised any suspicions,” he explains. “If anything, I fucked my way to the middle.”
Neil, 30, from the U.K., also tells me he that he slept with his boss around 11 years ago while working as crew on the show she produced. They had a fling for around four months, which ended when she found a boyfriend. “Work was never strange; we separated church and state pretty successfully,” he says. “I was learning how to run shows, manage a big event, deal with artists and so on, so I was happy in the subordinate role at work. When she called to tell me she’d met someone, I was really happy for her, and we worked together really well afterward. I carried on working for her as her assistant/right-hand man for about five or six years on various productions, events and shows.”
Even though his colleagues were aware of the fling — “we kind of accidentally debuted when we went to a workmate’s birthday bash together and got caught holding hands like rubes,” he says — and even though he got some professional benefit from fucking the boss, Neil, like John, was never aware of any rumors that he was “fucking his way to the top.” Any such rumors would have been ridiculous.
But that doesn’t stop them from being constantly lobbied at women, eight of whom tell me they’ve been accused of fucking their way to the top, even though most of them haven’t had so much as a flirty encounter with their bosses. “In my last month at my previous job, I found out that I hadn’t been promoted for two years because one of the direct managers had a crush on me, so upper management thought I was ‘fucking my way to the top,’” says Becca, 27, from New Zealand, who was working in a bar at the time.
Becca says that she heard this news through another manager at her going away party. “Apparently he acted very differently to me than to everyone else, so all of management caught on quickly and asked him about it. It was assumed that I was flirting with him at work and fucking him outside of work.” Because of this impression, and despite having “a ton of bartending experience and having been a manager” in her previous workplaces, Becca was never promoted.
Katie, 23, from Florida, works in the film industry and had a colleague who spread rumors of this nature behind her back. “They were mostly just generally shitty things about me, but included that my boss and I were ‘dating’ and that this must have something to do with all the extra jobs I was getting,” she tells me. “This was untrue in multiple respects: I wasn’t getting any more jobs than he was — he was actually working more than me — and most importantly, I wasn’t dating my boss, sleeping with him or even flirting with him.”
The experience of being accused of fucking your way to the top can be devastating. “It was super emotionally traumatizing, especially because this is a relationship-based business, and to a degree, what other people think of you matters,” Katie continues. “I was worried it was going to affect me financially, and the truth is, I don’t know if it did or not, because there’s no way to find out who heard and listened to the rumors. It certainly affected my relationship with my boss, and we were constantly checking our behavior (however innocent it was) because of what people might perceive.”
The cruel irony in the myth that women fuck their way to the top is that sleeping with the boss is more likely to lead to career blocks than career advancement, as the revelations from the #MeToo movement make clear. Rather than women using their sexual prowess to work their way up the career ladder en masse, powerful men have been using their position of dominance to sexually harass and coerce women, and this has had an unambiguously negative effect on women’s careers, causing them to be blacklisted and drop out of chosen industries to avoid their abusers. “Women weren’t fucking their way up or into anything,” as Erin Gloria Ryan wrote in the Daily Beast. “Ultimately, we were getting fucked out.”
With so much evidence that women are almost always punished, not rewarded, for sexual contact with their superiors at work — even when that sexual contact has been coerced — the persistence of the myth that women “fuck their way to the top” is barefaced sexism. One of the founding tenets of misogyny is that women’s sexuality needs to be controlled to avoid it destabilizing the social order — the “social order” at risk being one in which men are permitted to use their positions of power to extract sexual favors from women, but women are harshly punished for autonomous sexual behavior, especially when it comes at the (perceived) expense of men and especially if those women are poor and otherwise marginalized. This explains the demonization of sex workers throughout history and the adjacent contempt for women who are perceived as trying to sleep with more powerful men to get ahead.
Also at play is a basic refusal to see women as talented, dogged and hard-working. This was particularly hurtful to several of my sources, including Kate, a 25-year-old photographer in Canada who gained a coveted internship with a renowned mentor. “I was stunned when a male classmate of mine suggested at one point that I was only interning with him because I was attracted to him, and that he may be attracted to me,” she says. “I immediately told him that I was offended at the insinuation, but he truly didn’t understand how demeaning and patronizing it was.”
Unfortunately for Kate, it wasn’t a one-off. “A year and a half later, I’m sadly realizing how normal this impulse is to so many people,” she says. “It’s happened so many times that I’ve begun to dread talking about what I do. I don’t know if it’s because men can’t get past the ‘hot assistant’ porn trope or maybe the misconceptions people have about professional photographers, but it really seems to be the conclusion everyone jumps to.
“It’s really hurtful,” she adds, “to think that these men, some of whom are good friends of mine, would suggest I’m not capable of getting this position on my own ambition and merits.”