Sexual Harassment and Sexual Behavior

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A demonstrator holds a "Me Too" sign during the Second Annual Women's March in New York

Representative Marcy Kaptur of Ohio recently “shocked” fellow Democrats when she suggested that the way women dress might have something to do with sexual harassment. “I saw a member yesterday with her cleavage so deep it was down to the floor,” Kaptur told her colleagues. “And what I’ve seen … it's really an invitation.’’ Her remarks, according to Politico, “left many others in the room stunned.” While defiant at the time, Kaptur later felt compelled to walk back what she had said, releasing a statement that read, Politico reported, “Under no circumstances is it the victim's fault if they are harassed in any way,”

How is it that Kaptur’s comments—not a member’s décolletage, much less the threat of sexual aggression—were what shocked her Democratic colleagues? Why is it taboo for her to imply that the way women dress may have something to do with sexual harassment? These lawmakers and many feminists and others on the liberal left seem to have embraced the idea that no matter what signals women appear to be sending, they remain “virtuous victims” who are not to blame for any unwanted sexual attention they may receive. And, these critics insist, to suggest otherwise plays right into the hands of patriarchal society and the conservative minions that uphold its values. Indeed, it is a form of victim-blaming, or, even worse, “slut-shaming.”

Some feminists are, however, beginning to take issue with this consensus, warning that while it appears to empower women by excusing them from any hint of culpability and placing the entire onus for harassment on men, this kind of thinking may actually be weakening them. As author Masha Gessen observed in The New Yorker,

In the current American conversation, women are increasingly treated as children: defenseless, incapable of consent, always on the verge of being victimized. This should give us pause. Being infantilized has never worked out well for women.

Lawyer and writer Wendy Kaminer sounded a similar note in a letter to the editor of the New York Times:

If we’re too weak to withstand sexual incivility, if we’re too pure to ever misrepresent or misconceive past encounters, then we’re not fit to exercise equal rights at the expense of special protections.

I agree, but I would add that such a stance not only denies women (and women’s) agency in sexually charged situations, but also feeds into the kind of rough justice that has become all too common in the wake of the tsunami of accusations unleashed by the #MeToo campaign. While providing women with an unprecedented platform for calling out their abusers, it has led to a situation in which firms are firing accused employees—or they are quitting pre-emptively to avoid dismissal—without a scintilla of due process because innocence is automatically presumed to be on one side only. As writer Daphne Merkin noted in the Times, “In our current climate, to be accused is to be convicted. Due process is nowhere to be found.”

A Brief History of Virtuous Victims

The presumption of female blamelessness is rooted in feminist ideas about sexuality and sexual violence that have been evolving for decades. Starting in the late 1960s, second-wave feminists flatly rejected the long-held belief that rape victims were “asking for it” by dressing provocatively or walking in dangerous neighborhoods at night. Feminists’ insistence that victims were in no way responsible for their attacks led to a revolution in U.S. rape jurisprudence; victims began to be treated with dignity, not disdain, and their accusations were no longer routinely subjected to doubt. This new approach was welcomed by women, if not replicated, around the world.

Cut to the “sex wars” of the 1980s and early ‘90s, which pitted “anti-porn” against “pro-sex” feminists. Leading the first group, legal scholar Catherine McKinnon and activist Andrea Dworkin held that the production and consumption of pornography was nothing less than a violent expression of male dominance over women. Speaking for the opposition, “sex-positive” feminists such as journalist Ellen Willis, anthropologist Gayle Rubin and activist Pat Califia warned that such a position not only violated free speech norms but also denied women’s own sexual desire and access to pleasure (which might even include consuming porn themselves). Uniting sex-positive ideas with the principle that rape victims should not be accused of “asking for it,” young women went on to claim the right to express their sexuality through dress and public behavior while retaining control over their own bodies.

Perhaps the greatest avatar of that stance was Madonna, whose recordings and performances from the 1980s on were both celebrated and denounced for their defiant self-defined, female-centered eroticism. But Madonna’s ability to retain control over her image and all that it connoted was unique. As popular culture became increasingly hypersexual, it also remained male-dominated. In such a context, young women seeking to act out sex-positive ideas were bound to be misread—and often ended up attracting attention they then deemed unwanted.

Nevertheless, as the hypersexual culture took hold, its styles became normalized. Hemlines and heels rose, necklines plunged and silhouettes clung more closely, to the point where cleavage-revealing tops, tight-fitting “pencil” skirts and stilettos became the daily uniform of women across the workforce, including among aspiring female professionals. Many convinced themselves that such outfits were freely chosen—a view that was reinforced by the fashion world, which offered few alternatives. And many intuited—not incorrectly—that dressing in this way was their route to professional success. For confirmation, they needed to look no further than the female news anchors on networks like Fox, many of whom looked as though they had just stepped out of the pages of Playboy.

The “Attractiveness Premium”

According to British social psychologists Adrian Furnham and Viren Swami, what they call an “attractiveness premium” can do much to determine employees’ status and remuneration, especially if they are female. This brings advantages as well as unwanted attention to those deemed attractive but has the opposite effect on those perceived to be unattractive, who are often denied opportunities for advancement. In other words, physical beauty—much of it “unearned” but simply the bounty of genetics—may well cancel out a more relevant meritocracy based on talents, intelligence, or other qualifications that are, in fact, needed to pursue a particular occupation.

It is not surprising, then, that many young women, especially those just starting out on the job market, have felt obliged to make themselves as attractive as possible, focusing on the advantages of doing so while ignoring or perhaps being unaware of possible negative repercussions. Journalist Michelle Cottle, writing recently in The Atlantic, noted that, early in her career, when she was working at The New Republic, then-literary editor Leon Wieseltier (recently outed as a major harasser) left a gift and a note on her desk commending her for the miniskirt she was wearing that day. After this incident, Cottle recalls, “I don’t think I ever wore a skirt to the office again.” But other women interpret such comments as directives to wear certain types of clothing if they wish to succeed. In this way, the hypersexualized culture of our time becomes a co-production that women perpetuate through their “choices” of dress, make-up, and even sexual behavior, however pre-determined.

The Price of Success

Given the environment created by the #MeToo campaign, it is now very difficult for women to admit to using their looks, much less their sexuality, to advance themselves professionally. One exception is Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Film, who in October told the PBS Newshour’s Judy Woodruff, “[I]n the ’60s, when I … got out of school and I wanted a job, I think I wasn’t abused because I was active sexually and complicit. … In retrospect, it intimidated me, but I was so ambitious that I pushed that aside.”

Nevins’ candor is refreshing, if all too rare, in the current climate. Her comments indicate that, although it was a man’s world, she found a way to turn compliance to her own advantage. It is only in retrospect that she seems to have become aware of being intimidated. Nevins may be engaging in a bit of historical rewriting here, but how, and to what end? The #MeToo campaign would probably claim that it is simply allowing her to get in touch with long-suppressed emotions that the sexist culture of the 1960s forced her to deny at the time. But perhaps instead the campaign is compelling her to assume the mantle of the virtuous victim—when in fact she knew exactly what she was doing.

How (Not) to Manage a Revolution

We seem to be in the midst of a revolution or at least, as we historians are fond of saying, a “watershed” moment. But will it result in permanent change in the way men treat women in the workplace? Although not named as such until the 1970s, the practices that constitute sexual harassment have been going on for decades, even centuries—ever since women began working outside their homes. (Think of the way men in power have treated domestic servants, enslaved women, factory “girls,” tavern “wenches”—the list is endless.) Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sex discrimination became illegal, but it was not interpreted to include sexual harassment until the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, the number of harassment cases filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had risen to over 15,000 per year and employers were paying out millions in damages annually.

Despite the legal crackdown, harassment has persisted, thriving in workplace cultures that enable, even naturalize, it and discourage women from reporting offenses. The #MeToo campaign is giving women an unprecedented platform for calling out perpetrators, and in the past few weeks it has surely gained momentum, with no end in sight. But will it succeed in extirpating enabling cultures without devolving into an all-out “sex panic” or “war on sex,” as Masha Gessen fears?

Not if the kind of rough justice currently being meted out persists. #MeToo’s absolutist position regarding responsibility for harassment—that women are always the victims of male aggression—not only forecloses discussion and debate about responsibility but also prevents due process: Men are presumed guilty, women innocent.

To be sure, the overwhelming majority of women’s stories now filling the media are replete with horrifying and chilling detail (see, for example, Salma Hayek’s exposé of Harvey Weinstein in The New York Times, as well as the paper’s more recent investigation of the treatment of women at Ford’s Chicago factories). Some accounts, however, also include instances of compliance such as that reported by Sheila Nevins, blurring the line between guilt and innocence. But with the deluge of accusations increasing every day, few employers are even trying to make such distinctions. To save themselves and the reputations of their companies and institutions (as well as to fend off potential lawsuits), they are more likely to dismiss an employee who has been accused, rather than hear him out.

Let me be clear: I am convinced that, given the general imbalance of power in American workplaces, men are almost always the ones in positions to perpetrate harassment, and thus they bear the bulk of responsibility for it. But, given the rewards—however illusory—of compliance, it is also the case that, on occasion (and perhaps inadvertently), women may signal their willingness to go along with it. Are they responsible for creating the power structure that underlies and enables harassment? No. But do they play a part in upholding it? Alas, sometimes, yes.

So, what is to be done? First, women might consider giving up the protective gear of the “virtuous victim” and instead claim the proactive stance of rights-bearing adults who are not only entitled to dignity and autonomy in all aspects of their lives, but fully prepared to defend themselves and legally pursue anyone who seeks to deprive them of their rights. The knowledge that women now have a powerful public outlet for complaints may serve to lower the frequency of sexual harassment if it not eliminate it altogether. At the very least, this knowledge may neutralize the fear of retaliation that has deterred so many women from reporting offenses in the past.

But second, women should work with men to insist on due process for those who are accused of sexual harassment and create a proportionate system of punishment. University of Southern California business professor Kathleen Reardon told APM Marketplace reporters that she is developing a “spectrum of offensive behavior” that ranges from “non-offensive” remarks, such as “You look nice today,” to “egregious sexual misconduct” such as a coerced sexual act. While some might quibble that any reference to a woman’s appearance is offensive, on the whole, this kind of precision is needed to form the basis for proportionality.

Along with unprecedented awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment, #MeToo has unleashed a torrent of pain and anger that can all too easily devolve into vigilante justice and end up short-circuiting the drive for deep change that has begun to work its way through our culture. We can keep this drive on course by acknowledging the complexity of harassment and the challenges of determining blame. As Merkin writes,

Expressing sexual interest is inherently messy and, frankly, nonconsensual—one person, typically the man, bites the bullet by expressing interest in the other, typically the woman—whether it happens at work or at a bar. Some are now suggesting that come-ons need to be constricted to a repressive degree.

Our system of jurisprudence requires that each case be treated individually, with attention to detail. Let us adhere to that norm while calling out each and every harasser, including the one currently residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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