Katie Roiphe’s recent piece in the New York Times, In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risqué Remarks , has predictably generated unanimous outrage in the femosphere. I found her piece very provocative, and I think she made some excellent points. (Emphasis mine.)
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.
…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.
…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.
There is no better depiction of this booby trap for men than the now classic Tom Brady skit on Saturday Night Live:
The EEOC defines sexual harassment as follows:
“Unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” The EEOC goes on to explain that in order to be considered harassment, negative behavior must be “so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile work environment.”
We may take some comfort from the stipulation that the negative behavior must be frequent or severe, but who defines “hostile?” The victim, of course. If a beautiful woman gets asked out on ten dates by men she finds unattractive, but goes on dates with two others, is the environment hostile?
Uncomfortable, unwelcome, creepy, intense, unprofessional – most of us have had these unpleasant moments in the workplace, it’s true. Just as we’ve had them at parties, public places of all kinds, and even in platonic friendships. There’s a reason most people agree that platonic male-female friendship is difficult to pull off – it only works when neither party is attracted, and that is all too rare.
Sexual tension will always develop between women and men – that’s how we’re wired. Of course, the question is how do we deal with it? Obviously, that depends on how welcome it is to each party. That can’t be known until the approach is made. Roiphe:
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. We don’t legislate against meanness, or power struggles, or political maneuvering, or manipulation in offices, and how could we? So should we be legislating against rogue flirtations, the floating out of invitations?
In Time Out New York’s annual sex survey, a third of the 2,700 respondents admitted to having had sex with a colleague. That suggests that a whole lot of potential “harassment” took place and went unreported, because the “target” was interested.
In a letter to the Editor, David Berman makes an excellent point:
…We as a society might be better off allowing everyone to negotiate his or her own way through these entirely normal interactions.
But when the off-color remark or unwanted advance comes from your boss or your professor, it’s an entirely different story. We do not have the same freedom to say no to those on whom our salaries or our grades or our futures depend.
It is important that employees are protected from sexual blackmail, and every organization has processes in place to file a complaint in those cases. If one is dissatisfied with HR’s response, one may pursue the matter in court, and many have.
Roiphe frequently criticizes feminism for wanting women to be powerful like men, but protected from hardball tactics, as if women are delicate flowers. Feminists can’t have it both ways. In this case, Roiphe rightly observes that women in the workplace have considerable power and influence.
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.
Indeed, women in their 20s living in large cities, where many companies are located, earn 117% of their male counterparts.
Finally, let’s not forget the very real and present dangers that men face in the workplace. With women embracing, even flaunting their sexuality in all areas of their lives, including work, do they bear any responsibility? If a woman is showing cleavage in the office, does she have a right to be offended if she finds a male glancing that way during a meeting? Any women’s fashion magazine article about dressing for work will include mini-skirts, stiletto heels, filmy tiny blouses, etc. Women on Wall St. know better, but I’ve personally witnessed a lot of sexually suggestive clothing in the workplace, schools, etc. At the very least, confusing mixed signals are regularly sent by women, perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not.
There’s also the undeniable fact that women hit on men at work. We assume that men are so eager for sexual attention, they lap this up, but that is not true. I received a letter from one fellow blogger, a man in his mid-20s, who had foolishly entered an affair with his 30-something boss. The whole thing blew up and they both got fired. If we’re going to apply draconian standards to men, we need to take a look at the sexual innuendoes, flirtations, and occasional outright sexual aggression that women are engaging in.
Now for the fun part. Here are 10 hypothetical work-related exchanges, all in Fortune 50 companies.
Sexual harassment: Yes or No?
1. A young woman goes for an interview. It goes well, and as it winds down, the recruiter suggests that he would like to invite her back for a second round. Is she interested? If so, she should meet him at 8:00 that evening at a nearby strip club.
2. At the annual company Christmas party, a raffle is held, with all proceeds going to charity. Hundreds are in attendance. As the Senior VP prepares to announce the winner, he describes the grand prize as a weekend away with Ms. ___________, who is in attendance.
3. A middle-level manager supports a woman’s request to transfer to another geographic location. Shortly after she relocates, he visits that city on business and invites her to dinner. She accepts, and after the meal he drunkenly suggests that they proceed to his hotel room, because she “owes him a favor.”
4. A woman contributes a check to the group wedding present for someone in the office. The next day, the VP – Finance asks her to come into his office and close the door. He proceeds to hand her back her own check and ask for an explanation. She is confused. What’s the problem? The problem is that she has a joint checking account with the man she lives with. He had not realized she was living with someone, or in a relationship that was serious enough to include pooling resources. He states, “I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit.” He is married and has two children.
5. At the start of a group meeting, the middle level manager running the meeting stumbles, losing his train of thought. He recovers by saying, “Sorry, I was distracted by _________’s tits in that blouse.”
6. A male is being transferred to the Singapore office, and his going away party falls on the same night as his close coworker’s fiance’s birthday. She decides to attend the party and meet her fiance for a late birthday dinner afterward. The honoree corners her at the party and tells her to admit that she feels something for him – it’s obvious because she made him a priority over her fiance.
7. A female entry-level manager counts among her subordinates a 30-something, Harley Davidson riding, artist who works as a computer operator to pay the bills. He asks her for a private meeting in her office. He enters, closes the door and sits down. He then proceeds to tell her that her body is perfect for nude modeling, and he would like to hire her to sit for him at his studio.
8. A summer intern is looking forward to a special gathering for interns on her boss’s roof deck. Unfortunately, she comes down with violent food poisoning after eating chicken salad in the company cafeteria. When she telephones the boss to cancel, he whines, “No! You have to come! You’re the one I did this for! I don’t want to even have it if you won’t be there.” Nonplussed, she apologizes. He follows up with, “You have to make this up to me. How about drinks next week?”
9. After a presentation to senior management re a potential acquisition candidate, drinks are suggested, and the very junior employee who did most of the research and prep work is included. She is flattered and agrees to join them. After a couple of drinks, a very senior woman executive says she needs to use the ladies’ room and asks the junior woman to accompany her. When they get inside the bathroom, the senior executive pulls up her skirt, revealing a naked vagina, and raising one eyebrow suggestively.
10. Two coworkers are chatting at a retirement party in a nice restaurant. They are flirting and the man mentions that his wine is very, very good. The woman flirtatiously asks for a sip. Instead of passing her the glass, he takes a sip, leans over, kisses her and drains the wine into her mouth.
A. I experienced all of these personally between 1978 and 1987.
B. Incidents 1-9 were unwelcome. Sexual harassment? Not according to the EEOC.
C. To this day, #10 remains one of my most memorable tingles ever. Shenanigans ensued.
D. I reported one incident only – #5. My male boss and mentor told me that he would support me but that I should think very carefully about the costs and benefits to my career of such a strategy. I decided to keep silent, and I continued to work for the offending manager.
I have never regretted my handling of any of these incidents. In my view, they go with the territory. Part of working with other people includes learning to navigate and negotiate the tough situations. Recourse is available should one need it, but in general, I agree with Katie Roiphe. We’re all big boys now. Let’s stop this unproductive mewling and get back to work.