The Ms. Q&A: Adrienne Lawrence Wants You to Stay in the Game—and Fight Back Against Sexual Harassment

Adrienne Lawrence litigated cases for eight years before she became a broadcast journalist—and when the former anchor and legal analyst became the first on-air personality to sue ESPN for sexual harassment, she got a crash-course in the legal and cultural battles women were fighting against workplace discrimination and harassment.

In her new book Staying in the Game, Lawrence lays down her hard-earned knowledge about what it takes to face down “harassholes,” identify and avoid toxic workplaces and demand accountability for bad behavior that, for too long, has pushed women out of workplaces. Staying in the Game situates harassment in urgent cultural contexts, illuminating the ways in which patriarchy has poisoned our professional lives—and in its pages, Lawrence empowers women to grab their seat at the table and help shift the power structures that have hurt us economically.

Lawrence and Ms. consulting editor recently talked about the lessons in Staying in the Game on Instagram Live. Below is a condensed transcript of the first half of their conversation.

Carmen Rios: I’ve been with you during this book writing process. You talk about your own experience, we’ve talked about your experience before, but I just want to know—what was the journey really to writing this book, to pitching this book, and what was it like working through it?

Adrienne Lawrence: When I was at ESPN going through the nonsense, it’s funny, I actually have the text messages confirming that I said to a friend: “Well, if they act up and you know, they address the situation wrong, I’ll just go into women’s rights, and fight for women and work life.”

And anybody who knows me knows that I’m the person who says she’s going to do something and then goes and does it.

Along my journey, I was looking for a book that would just lay things out for me in a way where it’s an enjoyable read, but you also learn things from it. I knew sexual harassment was not a legal issue—it’s a legal issue in one percent of times, just because the law is crap—but a behavioral issue, synonymous to behavioral issues when it comes to dating stuff and culture and behavior and all these things. So I was like: You know what? No one’s written this. Because everything I saw when I researched it were either memoirs or legal reference manuals, but I wanted something that’d be easy and enjoyable. So I just went ahead and wrote it.

CR: You also obviously came at this as a lawyer, right, as someone with a background in sort of what sexual harassment is, how can the law help you; but then also as someone who had experienced sexual harassment. What were the resources that did help?

AL: I do a very good job of compartmentalizing things, which annoys a fair amount of number of people, so I was able to shut off that legal dynamic and just say, ‘You know what, that’s for the legal chapters, and those are gonna be just a small part of the book, but it’s really the behavior part that we need to focus on.’

I spent a fair amount of time doing a lot of sociological research and looking at studies and seeing, you know, specialists and the people who focus on this, what do they say about it? Doing really a deep dive. It was a blast because I love studies, and I love figuring out how our society works, so I was really in my element doing the vast majority of the research for the book.

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CR: Was there things you learned along the way that you were surprised you didn’t know, or interesting things that stayed with you?

AL: Oh, so many. There were a lot of instances where it just made me realize that I wasn’t alone, and also that my response was appropriate, and the typical response—which made me feel really, really good, because you often think you’re alone, and there must be something wrong with you. But then when we look at the research, you realize, this is totally and completely normal.

I thought there was something completely wrong with me at ESPN when people isolated me because I stood up, and because I pushed back, and it turns out that your coworkers will leave you, they will isolate you, they will avoid you—because of the aroma of trouble when you complain about sexual harassment. It speaks a lot about our societal dynamics in terms of the patriarchy, unfortunately, in this thought of, ‘Oh my goodness, you had the nerve to object about someone making a sexual advance or putting you down in some way, and the fear of losing your job.’

But I would say the thing that resonated with me the most, and was a big inspiration, was the realization in looking at the research that if you know what’s going on, and understand it more and better, that the psychological impact is a lot less great. That’s a big reason why I was like, ‘Well dude, I need to make sure I get the word out, because when you’re able to clearly see what’s going on, then all of the horrible hurdles I went through, other people aren’t going to have to go through.’

CR: You know, I have been doing feminist work and especially work around non-violence for over 10 years. This is, you know, my bag, as much as it can be. And yet there was still this—reading the anecdotes that you put in the book, I had all these similar feelings of, you know, oh my God, that kind of stuff has happened to me and I just didn’t call it this or I didn’t think X, Y, Z.

When #MeToo happened, one of the realizations that I ended up having was, oh my God, I was sexually harassed by my classmates when I was in high school, and I totally just thought it was normal, and that was how we were all interacting with each other. And it was like this huge realization—at 28!—to be like, oh that was really inappropriate behavior, and I had to reckon with that.

A lot of the book is about trusting your gut, which I love, too—because obviously, as women, we’re told to gaslight ourselves. ‘That’s not really that bad. You’re just dramatic.’

How do we change that conception of what’s normal so that it’s easier for us to recognize when really weird stuff is happening to us that we can and should speak up about?

AL: I think that it can be most impactful to really kind of just push the narrative that it’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to speak up when things feel right or they’re wrong. I think often as women, we’re taught to put our feelings aside to make sure that other people are more comfortable than we are—and instead, we should be really putting our feelings forward and say, ‘I don’t feel safe,’ or, ‘I don’t feel comfortable,’ or, ‘This doesn’t feel good,’ and, ‘This doesn’t work for me’—and teaching people to communicate it.

I find that people don’t know how to communicate, and they don’t do that very well, and they end up internalizing a fair amount of it and it just can become so toxic and so dangerous that it’s not worth it.

CR: You talk a lot in the book about power structures and how sexual harassment is not about sex; it’s about power and reinforcing power.

What do you think are some of the larger paradigm shifts that need to happen to really see an end to sexual harassment in the workplace? What are the really big things that clearly are trickling down to this kind of behavior?

AL: I really think women need to take their seat at the table. They need to really just kind of push their way through, say what’s up—and if they don’t like you, you know, fuck them, for lack of better words.

I saw this everywhere when I was at ESPN: I’m lucky to be here. I came in with the opposite mindset: You’re lucky to have me.

It’s not because I’m a lawyer, or I have all these degrees. I’m talented and I know what I bring to the table. Respect is a non-negotiable. Our culture is set up so that our employment status, and what we do, is supposed to be indicative of our value and worth as an individual.

The thing is, once you get fired from a job, maybe for doing the right thing—I pretty much turned down a boss who was coming on to me and I was trying to get away from him and that messed me up, but it also taught me that I can do whatever I want to do in this world, but my job has nothing to do with who I am and it has nothing to do with my value.

When you realize that you are whole on your own, no matter who sends your paychecks or signs them or what you have or don’t have or what you look like or don’t look like, then that’s when you really step up and know your worth, listen to your instincts and don’t allow this nonsense to go on.

CR: I love that the book is a guide to sexual harassment, but it also doesn’t accept sexual harassment as normal. Right? It’s not like, ‘Here’s how to get through it because it’s going to happen to you and that’s just the way it is.’

But it’s also not so theoretical that it doesn’t have an application in the world. It’s a book that really walks people through every step of the process saying, “You shouldn’t have to do this, but here’s what you can do to prevail in this broken system.”

To me, that means it’s a feminist book. It read to me as a feminist take on sexual harassment—sort of the first book I’d ever seen on navigating the workplace that is so feminist at its core. Would you say it’s a feminist book?

AL: I made an effort not to include the term feminist in the book, other than when I was maybe describing someone who is a feminist scholar, largely because a lot of people in our society unfortunately think feminism is bad because women have been taught to root against ourselves.

I see feminism as being about equality. It’s the same thing, you know, we blacks have and are fighting for in terms of racial equality; it just has to do with gender.

But my main goal was to reach as many people as possible, so omitting it wasn’t a big deal to me. I had to do that in order to reach people. Because I don’t see this book about being about me in any way. It’s about getting the message out so that what happened to me doesn’t ever happen to anybody else.

CR: Well, and when we talk about reaching people—you talk about masculinity and you talk about men and the role that they can have not just as “harassholes,” as you call them, but also you know, victims, bystanders and allies. Something that feminists who do claim that label, and sort of organize under “the F-word,” often come up against is that resistance, right? ‘This isn’t a thing for me. This isn’t my issue.’

How have you engaged in these conversations in your life with people who weren’t necessarily activists or feminists, who didn’t align with those labels?

AL: That’s a really good question. There are people very close to me in my life who I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re such a chauvinist’—but because I grew up around men and I’m used to operating around men, I just know how to navigate it, and as long as you don’t cross a certain line, we ain’t gonna have a problem.

But I also have found that in my fight for equality and to be treated with respect, it was men who had the courage to stand up and to have my back, because they had the cache.

It’s funny, because as much as I hate to say it—because I do see gender, but I don’t, in terms of thinking that certain parties are going to act a certain way because of it—and at ESPN it was the same thing. I had men rallying behind me or rallying by me publicly, and checking in with me and standing by me, and it was the kindest, nicest thing ever.

I don’t think it’s a matter of gender. I think it’s a matter of people who are stronger than others and who unfortunately are better than others—and they come in all colors, shapes, sizes and walks of life. When we truly value individuals as their own, I think we go a whole lot further.

CR: Men also have more structural power, right? So if a man at ESPN had your back, he probably had maybe a little less to lose, or more leverage if he was going to get backlash for that. And your book is an incredible guide for people, for individual workers who are going through this kind of stuff—but what about people who do have that kind of power in a workplace?

What are the things that make workplaces not only safer—because you do talk a lot about that, which was fascinating—but structurally, what can employers and bosses and boss ladies do to make sure they’re building safe spaces for their workers where women can thrive and nobody feels like they’re in danger?

AL: Those with power can make a significant change by standing up and saying something. Bystander intervention is a significant part of ending sexual harassment because all they are doing is bullying you, and whether it’s a come on or put down, the point is to subjugate you and to make you feel lesser, or to control you in some way.

If you have someone come up and flex on them, there’s a good chance that they’ll stop, which is also why these harassholes are out here lying about this stuff—because they know better, and that shows in the fact that they’re unwilling to be so brazen about it. If someone were to come up and check them, they’d stand down.

I really feel confident that if bystanders were willing to flex, sexual harassment would start to dwindle in terms of the numbers of people harassed.

CR: It’s so funny to me that your Plan B was basically that you would become a feminist and write a book—but what have the reverberations of that been for you? I feel like for me, those two things are sort of always connected, right? I stand up for myself at work, or I stand up for myself when something sexist happens in a public place, and it reverberates out and diffuses—you know, suddenly I’m better at setting boundaries with my friends because I got better at setting boundaries at work, and vice versa.

Being someone who has really stepped into that position of saying, ‘I’m going to be here for people who are going through sexual harassment and also I am going to talk about it and I’m going to demand accountability for it’—how has that changed other areas of your life?

AL: I would say there’s been no change in part because I’ve always been a huge defender of others. The problem is I’ve never really been very big on defending myself.

The situation with ESPN, I decided, I’m going to stand up for myself—because my god, I will go all the way for someone else, but for me, I always kind of shoulder shrug and just say, ‘No, it’s okay, I’ll be fine,’ because I’ve always been okay, because I have skills—which is great, but at the same time, I can’t let people walk all over me or take advantage of me or disrespect me.

Continuing to stand up for people and standing up for what’s right, I’ve been doing that my whole life.

CR: It also blew my mind in the book to find out that the first Supreme Court case about sexual harassment didn’t actually reach that Court until 1986—which is three years before my brother, who is one year older than me, was born.

How do you think #MeToo has really impacted this fight, and what do you think is going to come next or needs to happen next to keep it going?

AL: #MeToo is a movement in its own, and it has been extremely impactful—but if largely women don’t fully understand their right to be there in the workplace or wherever they are and the right to call out the bullshit, then what was the point?

We need individuals to stand up and to speak up and to continue to do that—and the thing is, it is sacrifices. I always go back to Rosa Parks, because she was impoverished after that. Her coworkers abandoned her, and she was fired from her job. Her husband had to leave his job. She ended up living off of handouts until she died, because standing up for what’s right is a very difficult thing to do. But that’s how we get social change, and if everybody does their part—in terms of not necessarily being “the seller,” as I say in the book, or all of these characters and nemesis that holds us back—then we can advance. But until then, having this movement, it needs to truly resonate.

It’ll be lasting change when it’s more than just speaking out about past events and standing up to current events.

CR: I think #MeToo has also shown us a lot of the institutional failures that you outlined in this book. You can speak up and you can have a bunch of sisters around you speaking up and you can still lose your job and your place, right? There are so many ways in which you could still suffer and not get the justice that you deserve.

What are some of the legal and workplace policies that could make a huge difference? What are some reforms that you think could really help give people the backing they need?

AL: Not having rapists on the Supreme Court would be very helpful.

The law is extremely problematic, the way it is structured and set up, as I go into a bit in the book. I spoke earlier today on The Young Turks about the unwelcomeness requirement for sexual harassment: I have to prove that I did not come to work to have old boy come on to me. I would think the onus is on him to show the court that I was down. The fact that I have to show that I came to my job and I wasn’t down for it really speaks to our system.

It starts with the presumption that a woman is sexually inclined or accessible at her workplace. That is one of the really important things in my book, because the system is set up against you. I teach you how to game the system and to do it in a legit and legal way that will essentially put these employers in a position where they have to get right—because it will end up costing them so incredibly much if they continue along the route that they’re going.

I actually expect a lot of pushback from this book, because it does give you the keys to the castle to beat the system. I don’t expect like the New York Times or any of the large publications to give a review of it, because this isn’t something that they’re wanting—the fact that I tell you how to dismantle and beat their system, and in a highly accessible way so that whether you work at some high-level in-house firm or you work at McDonald’s that you can be able to do it? Nobody wants that on the streets, because their system is built up to serve them.

But I’m here to serve the greater good.

WATCH: Adrienne Lawrence and Carmen Rios Talk About #StayingInTheGame


Carmen Rios is a self-proclaimed feminist superstar and the former digital editor at Ms. Her writing on queerness, gender, race and class has been published in print and online by outlets including BuzzFeed, Bitch, Bust, CityLab, DAME, ElixHER, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic, the National Women’s History Museum, SIGNS and the Women’s Media Center; and she is a co-founder of Webby-nominated Argot Magazine. @carmenriosss|