Soraya Chemaly doesn’t understand the calls for a more lax attitude around sexual remarks in the workplace.
What exactly is the point of Katie Roiphe’s “In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risque Remarks” anyway? That women should “lighten up?” That no “strong professional” women are cowed by off-color jokes? This kind of dismissal, trivialization, and denial of the problem is itself a type of harassment. It’s why pieces like Katie Roiphe’s, which concludes that “perhaps we should be worrying about different dorms of hostility in our workplaces” end up in the New York Times Op Ed section, but stories like Melinda Hennenberger’s “Sexual Harassment Deserves a Place Among ‘The Real Issues” four days earlier in the Washington Post revealing the common and ubiquitous experiences of women end up the “Style” section.
Stories about harassment are often targeted at female readers unless they are about powerful people, then they’re “Political” and A section fodder. Why is it that stories about the rate of harassment, the validity of claims, women’s experiences, and the economic and political effects of harassment show up consistently in “women’s” sections or those with high female viewer/readership? Is that because they’re not “real” and “serious” until individual and powerful men are involved? In dealing with harassment women make all kinds of adjustments every day, on the street and in the workplace. And men don’t know about most of them. Why? Because we don’t tell them. It’s a “Women’s issue” but a “men’s problem.”
The world remains a fairly different place for men and women. It is still a male-constructed space, even the workplace where women have been making gains. Which is not to overstate the issue: the number and percentage of women in leadership positions dropped last year for the first time and is now a whopping 17%. And, that’s the real point; sex-based harassment isn’t about having a sense of humor or not being a “tender creature.” It’s about power and culture.
Harassment is about who defines what is funny and what is appropriate. And, in the instance of Katie Roiphe’s article, how mainstream media uses information to shape culture. She misses the point, to all of our detriment, on several fronts.
Firstly, sex based harassment at work is not an academic exercise, like Ms. Roiphe’s article suggests. Yes, our Puritan country “loves the language of sexual harassment” but at one point our country also loved to burn witches, something that also allowed people to be “enlightened and sexually conservative, modern [for the time] and judgmental, sensitive and disapproving, voyeuristic and correct all at the same time.” For most women, experiencing sex-based harassment at work it has real, economic ramifications.
Take my friend, D, who recently started a new job at a tech firm. On her first day, her new boss said he knew he’d hire her because she had “nice breasts,” although I think he actually said “tits.” He then, during the course of her first week, reviewed the fuckability of her female peers. Laugh a minute, that guy. She’s quietly seeking a new job. This is a woman with whom I regularly trade stories about human cannibalism and extreme survival and discuss how to weaponize children’s toys for fun. According to Ms. Roiphe, she’s humorless and delicate. She also has to stay in this job until she find a new one. Strange thing that … having to earn a living. When she gets her new job will she have to explain that she left the last one because she’s an “anodyne drone” who cowers in her cubby because she felt “terrorized” by some misguided compliments and jokes? Her claim that sexist environments do not derail “smart, professional” women is cavalier and wrong. Women routinely inhibit their behavior, alter their routines, worry about going into the workplace and are forced to make decisions that fundamentally compromise their rights. This is considered “natural” and the “price” of being a woman. It’s a matter of male privilege that men don’t even have to spend mental energy thinking about these things.
Second, unlike Ms. Roiphe’s cavalier statements to the opposite, nothing about what constitutes harassment is clear, even after years of trying, and this is a pivotal issue. I actually agree with her that most gender-based harassment cannot be legislated. That’s because there is a difference between what is legal and what is acceptable and she makes no such distinctions. This difference, between the legal and the acceptable is very important. It is largely to blame for the ambiguity of defining harassment. It’s why recognizing women’s stories of harassment as real and legitimate is vital. Because there is a gaping divide in what women experience and what men understand about their experiences. Gender harassment covers a broad spectrum of behavior ranging from street harassment to off-color and illegal workplace actions. The vast majority of sexual harassment cases are male on female. Men who harass women, whether consciously or unconsciously, don’t know when they’re crossing the line because they don’t know where it is. Men stare at a woman, make a sexual jokes, pay women compliments, smile broadly while opening doors all the time. When is one ok and the other not? I’ve got to believe that most men don’t want to harass women. But, too many women don’t say anything, drop their eyes and quietly go away. Because, when they do say something they know they will face ridicule, detailed scrutiny and real economic consequences. News coverage of the issue recently hasn’t done much to change the fact that a pervasive slut-shaming/blame the victim approach still rules the day. To date several women have come forward with claims against Herman Cain and his fundraising is going up. That’s culture. Not legality. Not humorlessness. Not weakness.
As a nation, as a culture, we decided years ago that race-based harassment was both illegal and unacceptable. We have not done the same for gender-based harassment. When Herman Cain says he believes he did nothing inappropriate, he’s partially right. For example, it is appropriate in our culture for women’s bodies to be considered public property and that men feel free to ubiquitously comment on them—87% of women report experiencing persistent and aggressive street harassment, for example. When Herman Cain does that in an office, maybe it’s illegal, but it is clearly not unacceptable given street life. There is a difference between sexual harassment in the workplace, which is illegal and sexual harassment on the street or the airwaves that includes sexist language and actions, which should be unacceptable.
I’d like to think that I’m not a frail, humorless, shrinking violet because I’d like rape pages to go away or because I’d like men like Herman Cain to know what is “appropriate” in the workplace by the time my daughters go to work. At the very least, when they do, I really hope Katie Roiphe is not in charge of HR.