From Hollywood To This Power Plant, Men Who Report Sexual Harassment Are Asked Why They Didn’t Fight Back
Until just 20 years ago, federal law didn't even accept that men could be harassed by other men. These men’s stories show we still have a long way to go.
Even before the butt-grabbing incident, James Tepperwien said his colleague Vito Messina had come onto him at least three times. Usually it happened during target practice at the Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York, where they worked in security. Tepperwien considers himself a "man's man," but as much as he wanted to hit Messina, he assumed any physical fight between men holding loaded guns would make the situation far worse.
Then on Nov. 10, 2004, Tepperwien said, Messina came up from behind and aggressively grabbed his buttocks, driving his fingernails into Tepperwien's rear end. Tepperwien confided in another colleague, who told him that Messina had once tried to mount him on a desk. That prompted Tepperwien to speak to human resources the next day, he said in a 2007 deposition.
"All I'd like to do is come in here and do my job and go home safe every day," Tepperwien told HR, according to deposition transcripts. "I know I'm not the only guy he assaulted. I want to be the last guy." But the following year, Tepperwien said Messina made yet another unwanted sexual advance, and in the years since, at least eight more men have alleged that Messina groped and harassed them as recently as 2016.
Several others told Tepperwien that despite Messina groping them, grabbing their crotches, and telling them they looked “sexy,” they didn’t report him because they didn’t think they’d be believed. They also figured nobody would do anything to stop Messina, who'd been at Indian Point since 1989.
Tepperwien quit in 2006, citing a “hostile work environment” and the “potential for further harassment and assault,” and the next year he sued Entergy Corporation, which owns the nuclear site. Last year, three more men filed lawsuits against Entergy alleging that Indian Point management brushed off complaints against Messina because the company didn't take the sexual harassment of men seriously. Entergy has denied wrongdoing, and while Tepperwien ultimately lost his case after a five-year battle — an appellate court ruled Entergy met the minimum requirements under the law in its response — the three recent cases against the nuclear facility remain pending.
As proof of gender bias in the Entergy cases, the lawsuits state, a male security guard was quickly fired after he made sexually inappropriate comments to two female employees in June 2017, even though the women didn't file a complaint. Messina, by comparison, was put on 10 weeks’ paid leave in 2005 after Tepperwien’s second complaint against him and was issued a letter of reprimand that warned he could be fired if misconduct continued. Even as complaints piled up, though, Messina kept his job and was viewed as “untouchable” because of management’s failure to take action, the lawsuits filed in 2017 allege. In 2015, Entergy officials assigned him to frisk about 150 men before a drill testing security officers on their preparedness for a terrorist attack on the plant. Messina's behavior was so widely known at that time, according to civil complaints, that a contractor joked everyone would have to "go see 'Happy Hands Vito' to be patted down," and commented after his own physical screening that he "didn’t know whether to light a cigarette or call the rape hotline."
When the company moved to fire Messina in March 2016, an Entergy official gave Messina a heads-up and allowed him to retire, according to the men's attorney, Amy Bellantoni.
All told, the lawsuits say that at least nine men have been victims of Messina's harassment over the years, most of them among the unionized security staff at the nuclear facility, which sits on the Hudson River about 35 miles north of Manhattan. But Entergy staff frequently dismissed these allegations and told Messina's victims, "That's just Vito," the suits say. At least two supervisors told these men they should threaten Messina with physical violence to stop their torment, lawsuits allege.
Entergy insisted in a brief statement that it "acted appropriately at all times in this matter," and said it "will continue to vigorously defend itself in this matter and expects to prevail on the merits." Messina has denied all allegations of harassment in court filings, and through his attorney he declined to comment.
The response to Messina's behavior at Indian Point by Entergy officials, as described in lawsuits, deposition transcripts, and complaints to federal offices, points to the unique problems men face when dealing with sexual harassment, especially among blue-collar workers. Because Messina was married to a woman, as were several of the men who said he harassed them, it was easy for managers to dismiss the complaints as just guys horsing around. Some of the victims seemed to think this too. Patrick O'Hara, who worked at Indian Point at the same time as Tepperwien, said in a deposition that he didn't consider his encounter with Messina sexual harassment, although Messina "tried to grab me in my testicles."
"I think it's all changed because of Kevin Spacey."
"We have a culture that does not really want to deal with the victimizations of men," said Chris Kilmartin, a psychologist who consults workplaces on preventing sexual harassment.
There were at least 63 federal lawsuits filed around the country in 2017 by men who said employers mishandled their cases of sexual harassment, according to a BuzzFeed News review of court records. Those cases are only a tiny sample of the problem, since the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission averages around 2,000 complaints from men of sex-based harassment annually, and it costs money to elevate a complaint to a lawsuit. Men are typically the perpetrators in these complaints, just as they are when women bring complaints of sexual harassment. And women and LGBT individuals face far more harassment in the workplace than straight men. Yet, even in a climate that has prompted female workers in a variety of fields to take a stand against sexual harassment, male victims largely remain in the shadows, held back by a mix of societal myths, legal challenges, and workplaces that take complaints from men less seriously.
There have been few studies looking at sexual harassment suffered by men, and because few men want to publicly admit they've been victimized, there is little insight into what happens when they do come forward. But advocates point to evidence that it's not uncommon. An activist organization, Stop Street Harassment, said in February that its survey indicated 43% of men said they’d been sexually harassed, and one out of every six sex harassment complaints filed to the EEOC comes from men.
"It's not just mom-and-pop stores, it's big corporations, big companies," Anna Park, a regional attorney for the EEOC, told BuzzFeed News. "Everyone talks about the #MeToo movement, but this stuff has been going on for a very long time, and it's disheartening that it continues to happen."
While it has mostly been women speaking out since the #MeToo movement began, men in country music, modeling, and acting have revealed their own stories in recent months. More than a dozen men alleged misconduct by Kevin Spacey after actor Anthony Rapp came forward to say Spacey made a sexual advance toward him when he was 14. But frequently, when men alleged harassment, they said people would ask why they didn't just beat up their perpetrator. They include 49-year-old actor Terry Crews, a 6-foot-3, 245-pound former NFL linebacker with a reputation for challenging stereotypes about masculinity. Crews said that talent agent Adam Venit "viciously grabbed [his] penis and testicles" in 2016. When one Twitter user challenged Crews, "Can't beat his ass? Come on man," Crews responded, "Broke people — fight in the street. Rich people — sue each other. I'm rich."
Tepperwien, an Air Force veteran who worked in medical imaging for most of his career, said he received similar comments after he complained in August 2005 that Messina again had made unwanted advances toward him during a car ride. A supervisor named John Cherubini asked Tepperwien why he didn't "punch him out,” Tepperwien said in his deposition. Tepperwien had thought Cherubini was "on the up and up," but at that point, he told BuzzFeed News, he asked himself, Are they all stupid?
"Two wrongs don't make a right," Tepperwien said.
The Entergy Corporation bought Indian Point just prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and soon after ordered an internal review of security at the facility, whose proximity to New York City has the power to create a radiation crisis in the Big Apple. Security staff told investigators at the time that substantiated claims of sexual harassment "brought little apparent disciplinary action and certainly did not result in termination." Investigators couldn't review records relating to sexual harassment because a security manager at the time said he didn't maintain a central log and couldn't find the relevant documents. Nearly a third of security staff said in a 2003 internal review they feared raising a security concern with management because of possible retaliation. (More recent federal inspections concluded that personnel were willing to raise concerns with management, though not specific to harassment.)
Experts see a connection between how a company deals with sexual harassment issues and how well it adheres to other laws and regulations. "The good news is that nuclear plants are not a house of cards; a whole bunch of things have to happen for a disaster to occur," said Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear safety expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group. "But when you have people reluctant to raise issues, you're shortening that string."
The three federal lawsuits filed since Tepperwien’s confirm the fears employees faced as they debated whether to take complaints about Messina to their bosses. In late October 2015, Messina bolted into an Indian Point bunker and began "hugging on and tickling" Ted Gordon, one lawsuit says. Gordon, a security officer, said he shook Messina off, grabbed his lunch, and sat down, but Messina came over, pulled Gordon's face up against Messina's crotch, and said,"I'm going to stick your head in the freezer and fuck your ass until it hemorrhages."
That episode with Messina was not isolated, Gordon said, but he worried he'd face retaliation by the company if he reported it. After he finally did file suit against Entergy in July 2017, Gordon was reassigned to work in an 8-by-8-foot enclosure, which he viewed as a punishment, and said that colleagues began making sexually offensive comments to him.
Tepperwien had also been fearful a decade earlier. He thought he might get fired or face harassment in other ways for ratting on a fellow union member. "I didn't want my tires cut, I didn't want my wife getting obscene phone calls," he told BuzzFeed News. It wasn't out of the question, he said, that someone might defecate on his personal items. And when he did work up the courage to complain about the unwanted advances, Tepperwien said he received pushback, not support. Following the second incident, in August 2005, Messina was moved to a different shift. Tepperwien complained that wasn't good enough, because he might still encounter Messina while he was armed. A security manager, Terrence Barry, warned Tepperwien that he might be removed from duty for being "over-emotional," according to a complaint Tepperwien later filed to the EEOC.
Tepperwien takes comfort in the fact that he did report Messina, because he said if more people would take action from day one, there would be fewer men allowed to attack people for years without consequences. "Unfortunately," Tepperwien said of his case, "the company didn't do a damn thing about it."
A jury awarded Tepperwien $500,000 in punitive damages in 2009, only to have a district court overrule the decision and an appeals court uphold that court's ruling. Tepperwien can't help but think his treatment by the company and the courts was due to low regard for sexual harassment of men in the workplace. But now, Tepperwien told BuzzFeed News, "I think it's all changed because of Kevin Spacey."
Until just 20 years ago, federal law didn't even accept that men could be harassed by other men.
That changed with Joseph Oncale, who worked on a Louisiana offshore oil rig in 1991. For years, Oncale told BuzzFeed News, he felt ashamed that he didn’t stand up for himself when several male coworkers, including his supervisors, tormented him. They routinely made sexual comments, including telling Oncale, who was 21 at the time, he had a "cute little ass," he said in a lawsuit filed in 1995. They threatened to rape him, placed their bare genitals against his neck, and forced a bar of soap into his anus, he said. The men worked and slept on the rig for seven days at a time, so there was no escape. The company, Sundowner Offshore Services, declined to intervene, telling Oncale that the guys were just roughhousing, his lawsuit said. Within a few months, Oncale quit. "I felt that if I didn't leave my job, that I would be raped," he said in a deposition after filing his lawsuit.
"I consider myself a man's man," Oncale, who’s now 48, told BuzzFeed News. "My daddy raised me to be a man, to be honest, to be hardworkin'." But Oncale was also afraid of how the rest of the world might look at him if he went public about the harassment. “You know, because I felt like they're going to look at me like I allowed this to happen," he said. "That's what holds a lot of people back — men, women, it doesn't matter. Because if you hadn't ever been put in that situation, then the people don't understand."
At the time, federal courts insisted that male-on-male sexual harassment was not illegal. During one deposition, Oncale recalled, the attorney for Sundowner "props his feet up on the table and says, 'Yeah, they done it, but there's no law against it.' I never want to feel that small again. I felt like I was not even human. That vision haunts me still to this day."
The case made it to the US Supreme Court, which in 1998 ruled unanimously that it is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to sexually harass members of the same sex. It didn't matter that Oncale and his tormentors were all heterosexual, the high court ruled, because harassment did not have to be "motivated by sexual desire.” In the opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that “common sense and an appropriate sensitivity” would enable courts to tell the difference between “simple teasing or roughhousing among members of the same sex” and behavior that was “hostile or abusive.”
Oncale was too anxious to attend the Supreme Court hearings, but he was elated when he heard Scalia's opinion. "I felt like everybody else that was out there that didn't have a voice had a voice now," Oncale said. "Hey, we don't have to take this, there's a law now."
Oncale still lives in southern Louisiana, and still works in the oil industry. He's now a foreman with three dozen guys working under him.
"I've always told myself, if I ever get put in a supervisor's position, I would never ever make people feel the way I had to feel," Oncale said. "And I would never accept it if somebody had to go through what I had to."
Men still face a cultural bias that says they can't be victims. More than 200 women and girls spoke about abuse from former gymnastics physician Larry Nassar before a single male victim came forward this month. That victim, Jacob Moore, said he wanted to share his story so that other guys will not "be scared to come out because of stigma that guys can't be sexually abused or taken advantage of."
"I felt like I was not even human. That vision haunts me still to this day."
The EEOC receives about 12,500 sex-based harassment complaints each year. The portion of complaints to the commission and similar state agencies by men grew from 9.1% in 1992 to 16.5% last year. The EEOC secured $345,000 for six men in 2009 who were harassed and assaulted by male kitchen staff at a Cheesecake Factory in Chandler, Arizona, while managers laughed about it. The Pitre car dealership in New Mexico agreed in 2014 to pay $2 million to over 50 men who were subjected to frequent solicitations for oral sex, and regular touching, grabbing, and biting of their buttocks and genitals by male managers, and some victims received death threats when they complained. The EEOC is currently suing Discover Hawaii Tours, alleging that the sightseeing company's male president sexually harassed young men for more than a decade by inviting them to sex parties, showing them porn, and requiring them to show him their genitals to be considered for employment.
Two recent national surveys, one released by the advocacy group Stop Street Harassment in February, and the other by Quinnipiac University, both found 17% of men said that someone touched them in an inappropriate sexual manner without their consent, compared to around half of women. Most victims never report these instances, but a December survey from Suffolk University showed that of people who did report harassment, men were less likely than women to see their perpetrator held accountable.
Almost routinely, men who sued other men alleging sexual harassment say that they had their genitals grabbed, but companies frequently write this off as hazing or horseplay. When one Missouri man complained about it, he said in a lawsuit, he was told "you should be used to guys grabbing your balls like that," and that he had "to have thick skin to work here." At a sand and gravel supplier in New York, a male mechanic said he was fired after complaining that his male supervisor would hold him by his waist and rub his genitals on his buttocks. Another man said he was fired from a railroad company in Pennsylvania after telling police that a male supervisor groped his crotch and told him, "I am going to break you, you are going to come." A man at a California drilling company said his male supervisor pushed tools into his buttocks and grabbed his penis, while a second male colleague put his penis on him in the locker room. Just this week, a jury in California awarded $2.6 million to a truck driver who was harassed by a fellow male driver who sent him sexual photos, placed him in a headlock, and inappropriately touched his buttocks.
As Terry Crews tweeted, "One mans 'horseplay' is another man’s humiliation."
In the aftermath of Tepperwien's lawsuit, Entergy appointed Messina to the position of firing range instructor, a lateral move, where he continued harassing male colleagues, according to civil complaints filed last year. In one instance that occurred in front of a manager, Messina allegedly came up behind another male security officer and shoved his hand into the back of the officer's pants, touching his buttocks. Messina pressed a male employee against the wall of an elevator, and at different times whispered in the guy's ear and grabbed his leg, according to the lawsuits. "Go ahead and tell," Messina allegedly told this male employee when he objected to Messina's behavior. "They aren't going to fire me. They'll fire you before they'll fire me."
"You don't need to be a lawyer to understand sexual harassment is wrong," said J. Evan Gibbs, an employment attorney. "And if employees feel like something that obvious is being ignored then, yeah, employees are going to think if they aren't going to comply with this obvious law, then they'll skimp on other areas as well."
At some point, Messina was reassigned to the gun armory, where he had limited to no contact with male security force members, which lawsuits contend was done to "hide him" from everyone. Multiple lawsuits describe a number of personnel problems at Indian Point around the same time. A former security lieutenant claimed in a 2013 lawsuit that management allowed security department employees to return to their jobs after taking leaves — "voluntarily or not" — for "serious personal and psychological problems," including drug use on the job, failing drug tests, arrests for domestic violence, and driving under the influence. Another suit filed in 2013 alleged that Dan Gagnon, Indian Point's security manager, allowed records to be altered to cover up staff working overtime without breaks, in violation of federal regulations. Entergy settled both of those cases, and it disputed the allegations in them, but the three lawsuits filed last year say it was because of those problems that Indian Point security faced low staffing levels. In spring 2015, Gagnon moved Messina back onto a shift working closely with other security guards, and soon, according to lawsuits, Messina was back to his old habits.
One of the first to complain after Messina returned was the union president, Thomas Sanfratello. The lawsuits state that Sanfratello told two internal investigators that Messina grabbed his head, kissed him, and made "sexually inappropriate and harassing gestures toward and near Sanfratello’s genital area."
That summer, Joseph Greico started as a security officer with about a dozen other newbies. He said the new male hires were informally warned during training to avoid Messina. In September 2015, Greico encountered Messina for the first time in a bunker. Messina allegedly told Greico and two male classmates, "You guys are the fresh meat," according to the lawsuits, and then — before grabbing his rifle and leaving the room — told Greico, "I'd like to fuck you in the ass and fill your ear up with cum." Since he'd heard that Messina was untouchable, Greico didn't file a complaint. Not long afterward, Greico was assigned to the same security team as Messina.
On Feb. 16, 2016, as Indian Point officials were dealing with a radioactive leak, Messina pushed Richard Gustin against a locker and began humping and rubbing his erect penis against Gustin's leg, according to the lawsuits. Gustin, a longtime nuclear safety officer, relayed the incident to a union representative and to managers. The lawsuits say Gagnon laughed and told Gustin, "The same thing happened to me years ago. That's just Vito." Gagnon, the lawsuits said, allegedly instructed Gustin to threaten Messina with physical harm if he wanted the harassment to stop. During a deposition taken this year, Gagnon said he likely would have gotten into a physical altercation with Messina if he were in Gustin's situation, but also noted that fighting back could have been grounds for termination. Gustin took the incident to internal investigators, too, specifically telling Nicholas Tranchina, the same internal corporate investigator whom Sanfratello complained to about Messina nearly a year earlier, according to Gustin's lawsuit.
"The recurring theme of complaints in there suggests there's not a positive safety culture," said Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists. It's expected that any nuclear plant may have personnel issues from time to time, he conceded, "but those should get resolved. You're not supposed to keep your lawyers busy writing checks year in and year out."
Following an investigation into Gustin's report, an executive review board at Entergy voted unanimously on March 10, 2016, to terminate Messina, according to Bellantoni. That weekend, Gagnon called Messina and told him he'd need to come into the administrative office for a meeting on Monday, she said, and Messina in turn emailed Gagnon on March 12, 2016, to say he was retiring.
"If they'd taken care of this years ago it would've been over; it wouldn't have come back to bite them in the ass again and again," Tepperwien told BuzzFeed News.
Both Barry, who allegedly suggested Tepperwien was being "over emotional," and Cherubini, who allegedly suggested that Tepperwien punch Messina, are now employed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission working on security inspections. Gagnon remains in his same managerial role at Indian Point.
Indian Point is supposed to shut down by April 2021. Two years ago, the site leaked radioactive material into groundwater near New York City. Activists had campaigned for years to shut down the site, which was compared to Fukushima, the Japanese nuclear power plant destroyed by a tsunami, causing a radiation crisis. While the site gets regular NRC inspections, which it always passes, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the site a "ticking time bomb" in January 2017, and the state fought a licensing renewal for Indian Point for several years. It only agreed to stop disputing it once Entergy agreed to wind down operations. ●