Howard Stern, the Riddle

cmm live guests and microphone image

On Howard Stern Over the last few weeks I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time wrestling with my relationship with Howard Stern. I don’t have any personal connection to him, but I’ve been a listener over the years as I find him to be a great interviewer. And so, like many others, I check out his channel while driving to see who he has on. If it’s someone interesting, I listen; if it’s one of his antics, I typically move along.

Over the years his antics have included having hundreds, if not thousands, of young women as guests on his show performing all types of sexual acts and competitions. Many times, these women would compete to receive breast implants, a spot in an adult film, or for the privilege of having sex with a listener or a staff member. The competitions have included butt bongos, anal ring toss, who could ride an electronic sex toy the longest before having an orgasm, nude women smearing cream cheese on their rear ends and having staff members throw bagels at them (with the most that stick winning), etc. Most of these women were either already in the adult industry or looking to enter it, and their appearance on the show would likely help them advance their careers. But it’s a fair question whether these women performed sex acts on the show “voluntarily,” or whether they felt pressured to perform because they knew it would help their careers – or, more importantly, ruin their careers if they had a change of heart.

If these acts were truly voluntary, then there’s no issue – while pornographic movies and strip clubs are certainly controversial, such venues and activities are legal entertainment and within the purview of the First Amendment. Arguably, all Howard has done with these guests is take protected behavior that had previously appeared only in films and clubs and broadcast it on the radio. But if these acts weren’t truly voluntary, meaning these women felt pressured to participate in exchange for a reward or notoriety (or to avoid criticism and being ostracized), then isn’t that suspect?

Even more confusing are some of the female guests on Howard’s show that are not in the adult industry. Howard routinely pressures most of these women (a roster that includes sophisticated businesswomen and Academy and Emmy Award-winning performers) to discuss very personal and sensitive sexual matters. And while many openly and willingly discuss these issues with him, others seem very uncomfortable and seem to engage only because of the pressure they feel at that moment – namely, that they are on the show to promote something to Howard’s millions of listeners, and they don’t want to turn anyone off. What I find most interesting is that many of these women are very strong supporters and advocates for #MeToo, and some even speak on the show about their direct experiences being bullied or harassed, yet set themselves up for what can be viewed as a similar dynamic by being on his show – enduring uncomfortable harassment about sexual matters to further their careers.

To be clear, this is not an indictment or judgment of anyone; while I’ve chosen Howard Stern as an example of my observations, there are certainly others I could use. I am a firm supporter of the First Amendment and believe that consenting adults should be able to do and talk about anything. I also fully support the rights of women to determine their own levels of comfort with how they choose to dress, speak, and share intimate details of their lives, and for those women to be safe from physical and sexual abuse in all forms. A woman’s sexuality is hers, and she is free to use it however she voluntarily chooses to do so.  The challenge, I believe, lies in the dichotomy I have attempted to demonstrate here about how society evaluates consent – namely, that American society will accept (and in Howard’s example, embrace) a man pressuring a woman to perform sexual acts and engage in uncomfortable sexual dialogue (knowing that man has a direct impact on that woman’s career) in one venue but finds those behaviors abhorrent in every other venue. Compounding the confusion, many women who champion the #MeToo movement seem comfortable with that contradiction and appear on Howard’s show to promote themselves and/or a product or service they have created (recently Gwyneth Paltrow appeared as a guest on his show to promote various things and engaged in sexual dialogue).

I can’t easily reconcile these contradictions. Many people may point to the difference between entertainment and reality, but that someone was merely joking is not a defense under the laws governing sexual harassment. Some would argue that an entertainer is not personally receiving the benefit, but I can’t see a difference between someone who sexually harasses a woman for physical gratification and one who does so to promote his own brand and make money. There is clearly a likeability factor with Howard that doesn’t exist with many others, but that’s subjective, as many of the celebrities that have been accused of inappropriate behavior were well liked. The argument that women appear on the Stern show voluntarily is undercut by the notion that consent to certain behaviors is questionable when there’s such a disparity in power and so much is at stake for that woman regarding money and career advancement. Interestingly, there have been no challenges or protests to Howard’s behavior (past or present) the way there have been against so many others in the entertainment industry, and prominent stars continue to flock to his studio.

Perhaps Howard’s genius lies in his uncanny ability to predict society’s line of tolerance on an issue, walk on the razor’s edge, and come away unscathed – the same way Warren Buffett has been able to predict the growth of various markets and Bill Gates has been able to predict the growth of technology. In fairness to Howard, he has been noticeably trying to clean up his act now that he is in the twilight of his career, which I understand and applaud (as I get older, I too am trying to change immature behaviors from my past). My purpose here is not to imply that Howard Stern has engaged in any improper or unlawful conduct; instead, it is to use him as an example to demonstrate how complex and complicated human relationships and sexuality can be, and to help us all make sure, as we evaluate and ascertain behavior that can destroy reputations and careers (on both sides), that we have truly thought through the issues.

I hope that Howard, who appears to be incredibly emotionally in tune with himself and society, will help us all by using his stories, experiences, and platform in a more serious manner to help us better understand the nuances of human behavior and sexuality that have made him a fortune, so we can all better understand consent, voluntary behavior, pressure, and how those factors relate to the human desire for success, achievement, love, and acceptance. Doing so would be an invaluable contribution to society, and perhaps Howard’s most memorable antic of all.

WINE OF THE WEEK

This week’s selection is the 2014 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir (Sonoma). I discovered this gem on the extensive wine list offered by Insignia Steak & Sushi in Smithtown. Its mellow tannins combined with its fruity and spicy finish made it an excellent bridge between the oysters and the porterhouse for two (rare plus of course). Enjoy it there on a Wednesday when they have half-off pricing on all bottled wine and you can get it for just about retail ($49.99).

AROUND TOWN

Le Coucou – I was excited to check out the lavish Le Coucou, Stephen Starr’s beautiful French restaurant in Soho featuring internationally acclaimed chef Daniel Rose, and it couldn’t have been more wonderful. A scheduling snafu almost had us showing up for a 7:30 a.m. breakfast instead of a 7:30 p.m. dinner, but everything fell into place for a delightful meal. We enjoyed a rustic French dinner complete with veal tongue, sweetbreads, rabbit, and duck, with the highlight being the 2004 Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva White (Rioja).

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy – CMM’s 2018 Summer Associate program kicked off just after Memorial Day and I was happy to welcome two hard-working, talented law students to the team – Rebecca Stein of Hofstra Law School and John Eyerman of Brooklyn Law School. Our program offers a great blend of learning experiences and opportunities to network and socialize. I look forward to getting to know them this summer.

CMM Live – With its vibrant startup community and universities, Long Island is home to incredible technological innovation – and I was thrilled to spotlight some of its gems on our most recent episode of CMM Live. Dr. James Hayward, President & CEO of Applied DNA Sciences, is the rare scientist who understands business and how to commercialize inventions. With Applied DNA, he’s cleaning up and securing the supply chain, protecting both brands and consumers. His story of rising from helping out at his parents’ deli in Queens as a kid to leading a groundbreaking public company was incredibly inspiring. I also learned a lot from guests Marty Schmitt and Kevin Edwards of Flexible Systems, who spoke about the darker side of technology with their focus on keeping the business community safe from cyber criminals. Check out the full episode here.

Coffee break – Now that tax season is over, I caught up with my good friend Tom Terry of Markowitz, Fenelon & Bank over coffee at his office in Riverhead earlier this week. I always enjoy my time with the MFB team.

Catch up lunch – While in Riverhead I headed over to PeraBell Food Bar for a great lunch with my friend Kevin O’Connell of Hampton Pest Management. No pesticides at this lunch spot with many organic items on the menu, but if you need pest control services on the East End, Kevin is your guy – a true professional.

Keeping pace – I met my friend and client Len Polonsky of Medstock for a long overdue lunch at Pace’s Steakhouse yesterday. Great food and great company talking about all the changes in the healthcare industry and the disruptive impact it is having on all vendors in the ecosystem.

Golf buddies – Wednesday was a beautiful day for golf at St. George’s Golf & Country Club where I caught up with my friend Mark Legaspi of Legaspi Associates and learned more about his advanced insurance offerings.

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