Time to Rethink the Concept of Sexual Harassment? November 13, 2011Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Gender.
Tags: sexual harassment, The Moral of the Story
I came across an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times: “In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risqué Remarks,” by Katie Roiphe. The title alone made me do a double-take, especially since I’ve been having second thoughts about recently deleting a box on sexual harassment from the upcoming 7th edition of The Moral of the Story. The debate just seemed so “Nineties” to me, and here we are in the second decade of a new century; surely we’ve come a longer way than that, Baby? And then the Cain story unfolds, and all of a sudden sexual harassment is in the news again. Apparently I’m not the only one who experienced a temporary time warp: According to Roiphe,
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.
The truth is, our Puritan country loves the language of sexual harassment: it lets us be enlightened and sexually conservative, modern and judgmental, sensitive and disapproving, voyeuristic and correct all at the same time.
…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. 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.
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.
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. In her brilliant and enduring critique of the women’s movement in 1972, Joan Didion wrote that certain strains of feminism were based on the idea of women as “creatures too ‘tender’ for the abrasiveness of daily life, too fragile for the streets… too ‘sensitive’ for the difficulties and ambiguities of adult life.”
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. 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.
Roiphe concludes by suggesting that we get back to living life dangerously with the risk of exposure to bawdy lingo. Regardless of the Herman Cain situation which is anything but clear at the moment, she brings up some interesting points: Perhaps women in the ’80s and ’90s needed protection from the Old Boys’ Network which was still intact and powerful, but can’t a woman simply speak up for herself today if she feels bothered by someone’s attention? We’re not being protected from rudeness in general, or office manipulation, so why this puritan focus on sexual harassment, which has ended up being a matter of perception rather than intention?
I think most of us who feel capable of speaking up for ourselves feel that we could probably handle a return to the days when a compliment on a dress, even if equivocal, wasn’t reason for suspension. But a couple of things should be taken into consideration before we return to the dirty jokes and cute compliments: that, for one thing, the power structure where sexual harassment—the innuendos and sly glances, and “accidental” unwelcomed touches—was a matter of intimidation is still in effect in many workplaces. And a woman may not feel shy about speaking up to her peers in the workplace, but it is still another thing entirely to remonstrate with the boss. And then, when you add the fact (also quoted by Roiphe) that,
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.”
In other words, for young people who have not been through the Nineties with their sensitivity training and so forth, and without any instruction about what is appropriate and what is not, sexual harassment as intimidation runs rampant. So yes, we have come further than the Nineties, those of us who remember, and some of the concerns of the past may seem petty and overbearing now. But that doesn’t mean the discussion was for naught, or that it should be abandoned today. There is a new clueless generation on the way, with social networks, texting, and a plethora of new ways of being nasty to each other, but sex has always been available as a power tool. It should be possible, today, to distinguish between shy attempts at getting someone’s attention at work or at school, or simply friendly remarks, and manipulation using sexual harassment as a weapon. I think I’ll consider putting the section back into the 7th edition of The Moral of the Story…