Allegations of sexism aimed at women candidates this year are approaching an all time high – or low – depending on how you view it. The latest victim is Tea Party-backed Senate hopeful Christine O'Donnell. On Thursday, the gossip website Gawker published an anonymous post by a man who claims he had a one-night stand with a drunken O'Donnell on Halloween three years ago.
"Christine O'Donnell has plenty of problematic platforms, and Gawker could have used its brand of humor to dismantle her campaign," said Yana Walton, of the Women's Media Center. "Instead they chose this story to create a misogynistic media landscape."
Despite the title of Gawker's post ("I Had a One-Night Stand with Christine O'Donnell"), the night culminated not in sex, but with both parties falling asleep.
Attacks against female candidates have prompted the Women's Media Center, along with the Women's Campaign Forum and Political Parity, to begin tracking sexist attacks in the media against female candidates in the 2010 midterm election campaign. The groups launched their effort in September, researching and fielding calls from tipsters around the country.
"All of us have been extraordinarily surprised at the amount of incidents we've responded to on a daily basis," said Walton.
Walton sited examples including what she said were reporters endorsing candidates for their "tight little butts", morning radio shock jocks talking about candidates' cup sizes, and late night host David Letterman jokingly linking Nancy Pelosi to a real-life violent, sexual event.
"Nancy Pelosi found in a hotel room drunk and naked with Charlie Sheen," said Letterman, flagging the fictional moment as the number two sign that Democrats are in trouble.
Siobahn "Sam" Bennett, president of the non-partisan Women's Campaign Forum, said the insults are getting worse, and attributes the escalation to the uncensored nature of the Internet. Bennett ran for Congress in 2008. During her campaign, a local paper ran a front page story on a comment someone had made about Bennett online. Benntt recalled the quote, which called her a "whore," said she "gave good head", and called her other derogatory terms.
"That quote is an example of a phenomenon that is twofold," said Bennett. "One is the unedited nature of the Internet, and it is indicative of the general misogyny of our age."
Gawker's story has been widely criticized online and by other media. But the website today stood by its publication. Editor Remy Stern said Christine O'Donnell's campaign has been very public about her beliefs on sexuality and purity. Gawker published the story, Stern said, to illustrate the difference between what O'Donnell says in public, and what she does in her personal life.
"We were pointing out the hypocrisy," said Stern. He added that Gawker was not judging O'Donnell's behavior, and said the story was in some ways "humanizing."
The National Organization for Women (NOW) is aware of Christine O'Donnell's political shortcomings; the organization endorsed Democrat Chris Coons earlier this week. Still, it condemned Gawker's actions, saying the gossip site's decision took the routine degradation of women candidates to a new low.
"The message to women is: You're not wanted here. And it's a message that goes to all women," said Terry O'Neill, the organization's president. "The target for sexual harassment are not just the candidates, it's all women."
According to NOW and other groups, such harassment deters women from running for office, and sends a message to all women that they are unwelcome in politics.
Asked if O'Donnell's life is open to public scrutiny because she is engaged in politics, O'Neill was quick to say O'Donnell does not deserve to be objectified.
Bennett, of the Women's Campaign Forum, said the best way for candidates to handle sexist attacks is to address them immediately. Congressional candidate Krystal Ball sought Bennett's counsel after Gawker posted photos of her at a past Christmas Party posing with a sex toy. Ball followed Bennet's advice and addressed the issue immediately in the press. She got a huge boost from it and squashed the issue, said Bennett.
"It wasn't about influencing the election, it was: This is something our readers will be interested in reading," said Stern.
Gawker has enjoyed a 20 percent surge in traffic thanks to the story, and it has certainly received a boost in notoriety. Walton, of the Women's Media Center, said the movement which is tracking sexist media attacks will be awarding prizes - dubbed the "Would You Say That to Your Mother Award" – post-election.
"We have a pretty good idea that this [Gawker] incident is a front-runner. Absolutely."