Tag Archives: sexual harassment

A (Sort Of) Defense Of Jerks

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.

 

 

 

Women Are Always The Ones Cleaning Up….

The revelations about Harvey Weinstein–not to mention Bill Cosby, Donald Trump and a growing cast of other characters–have seemingly opened floodgates of pent-up female anger. The #metoo hashtag on social media, and the daily reports of confessions and accusations have been accompanied by a veritable tsunami of rage and recrimination.

Sex sells newspapers (or as we say these days, motivates clicks). But the attention paid to the problem isn’t just a way to sell media;  the revelations are clearly newsworthy, and the anger is justifiable. Most women–especially those of us who entered the workforce as so-called “pioneers”– can relate. We all have our stories, and I’m not exempt. On the other hand, we’ll be making a big mistake if our focus on sexual predators and harassment stories distracts from the emergence of another important wave of bipartisan feminine activism.

I think it is fair to say that a huge number of American women saw the 2016 election results as an existential threat to women’s equality and the well-being of our children and grandchildren.

The Women’s March was the first signal that–like Howard Beale in “Network”–we were “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.” It was just the beginning.

Last weekend, I moderated a couple of panels in a day-and-a-half training event called “Ready to Run.” It was geared to women interested in running for public office at any level, and sessions explored the basics of a political campaign: research, fundraising, messaging. A couple hundred women from all over Indiana filled the ballroom at Hine Hall on the IUPUI campus: they were Republicans and Democrats and Independents, white and black and brown, Muslim, Christian and Jewish. Most had never run for or held political office–or thought they ever would.

But they were thinking about it now. Seriously.

What struck me about the attendees and their interactions and questions was a repeated emphasis on what they wanted to accomplish: a government characterized by civility and integrity–two words I heard over and over.

There’s an old saying in political circles to the effect that men run for office because they want to be someone, and women run because they want to do something. That’s obviously an unfair generalization, but the women I met at Ready to Run (like those working through Women4Change, one of the day’s sponsors) clearly want to make government work again. They understand government’s importance; they also understand that making government work properly will require research and knowledge–a familiarity with the operations of the agency or branch they propose to join, certainly, but also an understanding of the “big picture.” They are willing to study, to do the work necessary to acquire what I’ve sometimes called “constitutional competence”–a genuine understanding of our American approach to self-government.

Right now in Indiana, women have announced their candidacies for several Congressional seats and a number of legislative ones. Others are considering running for local school boards and city councils. If even a third of the attendees at “Ready to Run” follow through and win offices, we will see some pretty profound changes in Indiana. Even those who lose, however, will elevate the conversation and hold incumbents accountable.

Right now, a lot of women have just had it–both with the sexual predators who make it hard to do our jobs, and with the preening and power-hungry politicians who are more invested in their own importance than in making government work for its citizens. And when women have had it, things change.

It’s like that refrigerator magnet says: When momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.