By KATIE ROIPHE | New York Times | November 12, 2011
QUESTIONS about what Herman Cain did or didn’t do after dinners years ago have carried the subject of sexual harassment back into the news.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.
Recent conservative parodies of the concept of sexual harassment hinge on a certain weakness or blurriness in the definition. 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. (In other words, it’s surprising it’s only half.)
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.
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? 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.
In our effort to create a wholly unhostile work environment, have we simply created an environment that is hostile in a different way? 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 the anodyne drone typing away in her silent cubicle free from the risk of comment on her clothes, the terror of a joke, the unsettlement of an unwanted or even a wanted sexual advance, truly our ideal? Should we aspire to the drab, cautious, civilized, quiet, comfortable workplace all of this language presumes and theorizes? At this late date, perhaps we should be worrying about different forms of hostility in our workplace.
Katie Roiphe is a professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.