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Yes, Katie, there is sexual harassment

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, November 14, 2011 13:13 EDT
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I almost don't want to respond to Katie Roiphe's evidence-free assertion that most sexual harassment is just a matter of over-sensitive feminists trying to destroy the male libido. It's hard for me to look at Roiphe in general, since at 43 years old, she still is playing that game where you try to establish yourself as a fun, free-spirited girl by bashing other women. It's "Curb Your Enthusiasm"-level embarrassing when performed by an 18-year-old who hasn't yet figured out that the men that attracts are no good; but it's epically worse if you're a grown woman with a divorce and a child to raise under your belt. It makes people wonder what kind of bubble you live in that maturity just passed you by. I'll never really be able to forgive Roiphe for characterizing acquaintance rape as nothing but bad sex—and therefore characterizing people like me, who did in fact need help to recover (from being assaulted; I can take bad sex in stride and there is a big fucking difference) completely as being nothing but oversensitive babies—but seeing her trot that same hair-twiriling "you can harass me any time, guys!" act out at her age just fills me with pity. Even as she cashes that NY Times paycheck while doing no real research that could actually upend her baseless assertions. 

Let's start at the top:

After all these years, we are again debating the definition of unwanted sexual advances and parsing the question of whether a dirty joke in the office is a crime. Conservatives have mocked the seriousness of sexual harassment; liberal and mainstream pundits have largely reverted to the pieties of the early ’90s, with the addition of some bloggy irony about irrelevant old men just not getting it.

Got it. Making jokes on blogs is Not Funny—oh my god, the feelings of old men, no matter how rude or bigoted, must be protected at all costs—but waggling your tongue at your coworker until she squirms and wonders if she can escape your attention without being groped is just fun times. If this strikes you as backwards, you forgot the golden rule, which is that having a penis automatically makes you better and more deserving of rights and protection.

The problem is, as it always was, the capaciousness of the concept, the umbrellalike nature of the charge: sexual harassment includes both demanding sex in exchange for a job or a comment about someone’s dress. 

Ah yes, the "just a compliment" excuse. I addressed this recently in a blog post:

You often hear, though far less than you used to, this notion that cat-calling was a compliment and only stupid women could therefore object to it. But it was, along with Hill's mendacity, an article of faith in my community that I was ugly and probably a lesbian and no one male could ever actually want to defile themselves by liking me. Thus, it was literally impossible for a lewd gesture to be a compliment. Most of the boys who did this stuff to me would have sooner endured someone putting a cigarette out on their arms than actually have anyone believe for a second they thought that someone like me was anything but scum for spitting on. I had no illusions, none, about what cat calls and groping meant. It was putting you in your place, a casual reminder that you had no value in their eyes and, more importantly, so little value to the community at large that no one would ever come to your defense. And no one ever did.

The nastiness aimed at those who are just coming out now and those who got settlements in the past also make this clear. Cain was not "complimenting" anyone. There are a couple flavors of sexual harassment, and his favorite seemed to be implying that women he came on to were loose women who had to take all comers. There's nothing wrong with having sex with multiple people, of course, but believing that automatically makes it a compliment when some sexist old fuck implies you're a slut is like saying that because there's nothing wrong with being gay, you should just roll over if someone spits the word "dyke" at you. 

The words used in workshops — “uncomfortable,” “inappropriate,” “hostile” — are vague, subjective, slippery. Feminists and liberal pundits say, with some indignation, that they are not talking about dirty jokes or misguided compliments when they talk about sexual harassment, but, in fact, they are: sexual harassment, as they’ve defined it, encompasses a wide and colorful spectrum of behaviors.

This, of course, is bullshit. She's gone full wingnut now, invoking the common wingnut assumption that the law never has language in it that might, say, need the interpretation of courts and lawyers. In the real world, that's what the law is. Most cases, especially civil cases, aren't about cut-and-dry things like murder. She's simply pretending there's no "reasonable person" standard, even though such a standard is used in many other situations besides sexual harassment. (Where's her broadside against loitering laws, by the way?) The problem with making a long list of words and gestures to refrain from is that it simply gives harassers plausible deniability. If you can't call someone a slut, you just sidle up to her in an enclosed space and start saying things like, "Were you up late last night? With your boyfriend? Is he good to you, if you know what I mean? Does he know what he's doing when he's taking out the trash?" Or whatever. As the Clarence Thomas situation showed, sexual harassers are endlessly inventive with their euphemisms or gestures. If anything, they deliberately act as weird as possible in an act that is so common that psychologists have a name for it: gaslighting, i.e. acting strange to disorient the victim so that she doubts herself or has others doubt her sanity. So you do things like put pubic hairs on Coke cans, because you know that accomplishes the twin goals of making the victim feel harassed while making it hard to explain to others what just happened to her. Thus, the language of "uncomfortable" and "hostlie" is good language, since a reasonable person can see that putting a pubic hair on a Coke can is a hostile gesture designed to make the victim uncomfortable. 

Of course, that's all even just assuming a straight up sexual harassment lawsuit. Most sexual harassment situations are handled by the management and never at all in a court of law. I don't know what kind of world Roiphe lives in, but in the real world, there's a lot of "ambiguous" words in employee rules and handbooks. If your employee handbook, for instance, bans "revealing" clothes, it rarely has a skin-to-cloth ratio spelled out in demonstrable numbers. 

A study recently released by the American Association of University Women shows that nearly half of students in grades 7 through 12 have experienced sexual harassment. Their definition is “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically.” Which would seem to include anyone who has been called a “whore” or “so hot” on Facebook, or is jokingly or not jokingly propositioned.

Remember in "Carrie" how they pretended to elect her Homecoming Queen just to mock her? In Roiphe's world, Carrie should have been grateful to get the crown, and is merely paranoid for thinking there was any bullying going on there. In the real world, one cannot simply separate an occasional comment from its context, particularly with adolescents. Being called "so hot" by your actual boyfriend is not harassment. Being called "so hot" or a "whore" in the context of pervasive harassment can often be traumatizing. Leora Tanenbaum's book Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation is useful for understanding how serious this problem is.

By the way, I'm looking forward to Roiphe's denunciation of Dan Savage's It Gets Better project, where she scoffs at the idea that pantsing a kid and calling him "fag" on a daily basis should be a matter of concern, and not just a delightful expression of youthful boisterousness that shouldn't be troubled by the high suicide rate amongst gay teens.

The creativity and resourcefulness of the definitions, the broadness and rigor of the rules and codes, have always betrayed their more Orwellian purpose: when I was at Princeton in the ’90s, the guidelines distributed to students about sexual harassment stated, “sexual harassment may result from a conscious or unconscious action, and can be subtle or blatant.” It is, of course, notoriously hard to control one’s unconscious, and one can behave quite hideously in one’s dreams, but that did not deter the determined scolds.

Of course, she's assuming that the harasser is an upstanding citizen who, when confronted, will be completely honest about his intentions, which makes such language strange indeed. In the real world, harassers use Roiphe's excuse that they were just kidding around (and the guy who sexually assaulted me claimed he was just trying to tickle me, though he chose a strange place to tickle!). Creating a "kidding around" loophole for sexual harassers is like creating a "religious belief" loophole for bullies, which is to say it makes the rules meaningless. You'd be surprised what you could claim with a straight face was meant to be a joke or a well-intentioned gesture, including cornering people and groping them. Even stalkers claim they're just trying to be nice. That's why they can't have the loophole. 

If this language was curiously retrograde in the early ’90s, if it harkened back to the protection of delicate feminine sensibilities in an era when that protection was patently absurd, it is even more outdated now when women are yet more powerful and ascendant in the workplace. 

Back to Roiphe's typical schtick of hair-curling and inviting harassment. The problem isn't that many men casually dominate and harass women for shits and giggles, it's that women don't roll over and take it! That makes women "weak"! In reality, of course, standing up to a harasser is an act of courage, especially since you have to put up with shit from the likes of Roiphe. Pandering to sexist men for condescending head pats for being better than most of 'em (but certainly not equal to men) is the weak behavior. 

And, in fact, the majority of women in the workplace are not tender creatures and are largely adept at dealing with all varieties of uncomfortable or hostile situations.

For instance, instead of simply taking it as Roiphe expects you to do, you can stand up to the harasser. Then she'll label you as weak and fragile, but in reality, you're strong. 

Show me a smart, competent young professional woman who is utterly derailed by a verbal unwanted sexual advance or an inappropriate comment about her appearance, and I will show you a rare spotted owl.

You see this excuse trotted out a lot when it comes to sexual abuse and violence, that unless the victim is utterly destroyed, it doesn't count. If we end up learning more about Jerry Sandusky's victims, we may even see it if it's discovered that they did well in school or got a good job. This excuse turns what should be a point of pride for the victim, that they survived, into an excuse for the attacker. Notice, too, that Roiphe requires that the harassment utterly derail you. Perhaps the harassment you're enduring at work is merely causing you to lose sleep, pull into a coccoon, refuse to take assignments that could help out your career for fear of having to spend more time with the harasser, and killing your sex life because the harassment is making you anti-horny. You're not utterly derailed, though! You're still hanging in as you wonder how much of a pay cut you're willing to take to get another job away from the harasser. So by the magical properties of male privilege, his right to come into your office and "compliment" you by humping your desk shouldn't be curtailed, because hey, you're breathing, aren't you?

Worth pointing out again: Roiphe is, without a shred of evidence, claiming that sexual harassment complaints and lawsuits are generally about a single comment or quickly dispatched advance. In reality, for something to rise to the level of sexual harassment, it has to be a "hostile work environment", aka persistent abuse. No one is getting it for one day saying something a little off-color, and it's intellectually dishonest for her to suggest otherwise. In fact, I would call her implication a straight up falsehood. 

Codes of sexual harassment imagine an entirely symmetrical universe, where people are never outrageous, rude, awkward, excessive or confused, where sexual interest is always absent or reciprocated, in other words a universe that does not entirely resemble our own. 

False, it assumes that people can and often are rude and abusive, and that we should respond accordingly so as to minimize the damage to others. Plus, I reject this ongoing notion that there's no difference between politely asking for a date in a situation where you signal willingness to be refused without violence and cornering someone, calling them names, threatening their job, or pestering them until they start to wory that violence is coming. If Roiphe has a bunch of examples of men approaching women in public spaces with easy escape routes, asking politely, taking no for an answer, never bringing it up again, and still being hit with a sexual harassment suit and losing, I'd like to see those examples. 

We don’t legislate against meanness, or power struggles, or political maneuvering, or manipulation in offices, and how could we? 

False. There are all sorts of laws and rules restraining that behavior. If I tried to make a co-worker I don't like leave the job by taking a shit on their desk, I'd be fired. Using sexual abusiveness instead of fecal matter doesn't suddenly make that behavior okay.

Obviously there is a line, which if the allegations against Mr. Cain are true, he has crossed, but there are many behaviors loosely included under the creative, capacious rubric of sexual harassment that do not cross that line.

She doesn't have any examples, of course, but hey, we all know that all those other bitches are crazy, don't we? (Giggle, hair twirl.) No need to prove it!

In our effort to create a wholly unhostile work environment, have we simply created an environment that is hostile in a different way? 

I agree. The rules against shitting on desks are hostile to those who enjoy shitting on desks. In trying to create a shit-free work environment, we are discriminating against those who want to distribute their fecal matter willy-nilly, unrestrained by your puritanical American bullshit. You laugh, but hey, if we maybe made a rule where only men get to shit in public, and they only get to shit on women's stuff, maybe we could get Roiphe to support it. 

 Is it preferable or more productive, is it fostering a more creative or vivid office culture, for everyone to vanish into Facebook and otherwise dabble online?  Maybe it’s better to live and work with colorful or inappropriate comments, with irreverence, wildness, incorrectness, ease.

Is it preferable or more productive, is it fostering a more creative or vivid office culture, for everyone to vanish into the bathroom to dispose of their feces?  Maybe it’s better to live and work with colorful or inappropriate hygiene, with occasional turds distributed about the office.

Her entire argument about relaxing the professionalism around the office is a red herring, which is why I keep returning to the shit thing. Allowing people to harass each other isn't a charming bit of relaxed office politics like wearing jeans to work.  Most—pretty much all—of the stuff we call "sexual harassment" isn't welcome under any circumstances. Even if you're in a bar, a guy waiting until no one is looking and making lewd gestures is scary. If you're on a subway platform, having someone walk up and hump you isn't fun. Even at a party, no one likes creepy old dudes cornering you and implying that because you're young and single, you must be up for blowing anyone who asks at a moment's notice. The difference between those situation and work is that you don't have as many options when it comes to leaving your job. The harasser is holding your need to make money (or get an education) against you. 

But you know what? Even in non-work situations, we don't as a society think it's all that great to tolerate sexual harassment. Half the reason we have bouncers in bars is so they can toss out guys who grope unwilling women. All we evil feminists are asking for is that the workplace have similar protections. 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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