The public reaction to allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. and so many others is welcome and long overdue. The public revulsion to the disclosures, the almost daily revelations about other prominent figures, and especially the #metoo movement that encouraged women to add their own experiences of harassment to the public discourse have caused a lot of men to review their past behaviors, and to consider whether and when they may have gone over the line.
That said, if this particular moment in time is going to usher in a lasting, positive change to both private behaviors and public reactions to those behaviors, it is important that we recognize that a line exists and agree about where it should be drawn. As Ruth Marcus cautioned, in a column for the Washington Post, having under-reacted for so long, we need to take care not to over-react now.
It isn’t really over-reaction that is the danger; we clearly need to act–firmly and punitively–when we are faced with evidence of sexual harassment or worse. The danger lies in neglecting to make important distinctions. We are really dealing with three categories of (mostly male) conduct: people who are engaging in criminal behaviors, people who are abusing positions of power, and still others who are simply behaving like jerks.
Some of the allegations against Roy Moore fall in the first category. His reported encounter with the 14-year-old is textbook molestation. His other behaviors probably rose to the level of stalking. Those actions aren’t simply wrong, they’re illegal. Similarly, the unwelcome touching Donald Trump bragged about on that notorious tape are sexual assault, not “locker room talk.” (Unfortunately, when you’re a “star”–excuse me while I puke–“letting you” do it means they don’t bring charges.)
Sexual harassment occurs when a person in a position of power or authority abuses that power in order to get some sort of sexual satisfaction. The satisfaction may “just” be bullying– creating what lawyers call a hostile workplace, and taking some sort of sick enjoyment from making a subordinate uncomfortable. (I recall a case where several male employees constantly posted raunchy posters and told foul jokes in order to torment the lone embarrassed female employee.) More often, harassment is a demand for a sexual quid pro quo–if you want that raise, that promotion, that film role, here’s what you need to do…The key to sexual harassment is disparity of power. If the person acting inappropriately is in a position to help or harm the object of his advances, the line is definitely crossed.
That leaves us with “jerk” behavior. This is the category where changing cultural norms really do play a part. When I was the sole female partner in a small law firm in the early 1980s, two of my male partners occasionally engaged in “joking around” that would undoubtedly be considered offensive today. But we were peers, we exercised equal authority, and I’m confident that had I been offended, they would have apologized and stopped. The culture at the time encouraged verbal banter that would be frowned upon today. (Emphasis on verbal.)
Today, in most places, the culture has changed. As women have participated in the workforce and civic life in greater numbers, we’ve stopped making excuses for jerk behaviors–verbal or physical– that “gross out” or diminish the women who experience them. This post is certainly not intended to defend jerks who engage in boorish, sexist conduct.
What I am defending is the importance of distinguishing between categories of transgression.
There are reasons to be careful before equating jerk behavior with rape, or with Harvey Weinstein masturbating in front of unwilling women. There is a significant difference between Roy Moore asking a 14-year-old to touch his erect penis, or our reality “star” President grabbing a woman’s private parts, and an unwanted pat on the butt from someone you can call out loudly and publicly without fear of repercussion.
I repeat: none of these behaviors are acceptable. A “good old boy” culture that permits or encourages any of these kinds of conduct needs to be changed–and it is, finally, being changed. But if we fail to distinguish between the boorish and the unforgivable, if we fail to calibrate the sanctions to the gravity of the offense, we risk trivializing the meaning of inexcusable.