The New York Times asks whether the Harvey Weinstein revelations will finally, finally, make men stop sexually harassing women. Finally.
Has America at last reached a turning point on sexual harassment? Watching the events of the past three weeks, one can hope.
In the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s sudden and overdue expulsion from Hollywood for his serial predation, hundreds of long-silent women are calling out powerful, influential men at a remarkable clip and accusing them of sexual misconduct: Roy Price, the head of Amazon Studios; the film director James Toback; the literary critic Leon Wieseltier; the restaurateur and celebrity chef John Besh; and the political commentator Mark Halperin, to name just a few.
Are you Weinstein? Besh? Halperin? Probably not. You’re probably not rich, famous, powerful. Women probably aren’t drawn to you by your fame, or the things you can do to further their careers. You’re probably not even a bawdy 93-year-old.
Several of these men have accepted some degree of responsibility for their behavior. Former President George Bush, now 93 and using a wheelchair, apologized last week after multiple women said he groped them and whispered a crude joke during photo ops. He described it as an “attempt at humor.”
Is it more acceptable when a really old man grabs a woman’s butt? It may not be the sort of thing one takes seriously as rape, but the answer is that it’s neither appropriate, funny nor acceptable. Even when you’re really old and Babs is there watching.
Much as I spend a good deal of time deconstructing the backwards approach toward the once defined, now meaningless, words rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment, it is not because they are not to be taken seriously, or it is in any way acceptable to engage in such conduct. The nuance here is lost on many, but that can’t be helped. It’s hard to grasp nuance when you’re too busy being outraged, and it’s easy to conflate the effort to draw cognizable lines with approval of the underlying conduct. Maybe someday there will be an editorial in the Times against stupidity, but today is not that day.
Naturally, the Times paints with an assumptively broad brush that’s too big for it to handle.
The most conservative estimates say 25 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment at work, although the real number is surely much higher, since only a small fraction of such behavior is ever reported. As many as 90 percent of workers who are harassed never file a formal complaint, according to a 2016 report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which receives more than 12,000 complaints of sex-based harassment each year.
The absence of evidence is not evidence. The assumption that 90% of harassment cases go unreported is based on a study asking women if they were ever the victims of harassment and if they reported it. If so, why wasn’t it reported?
The reasons for this silence are obvious: Women fear retaliation, indifference or disbelief if they speak up. If it’s hard for rich and famous people, so many of whom kept silent in the face of Mr. Weinstein’s well-known depredations, imagine how much harder it is for someone with no political or economic power.
Is this true? Perhaps. Or perhaps it was trivial to the “victim,” or the putative victim wanted to hop on the victim bandwagon. Or perhaps it has to do with the fact that sexual harassment has gone from a legally-defined wrong to a vagary encompassing whatever a woman feels it should be.
The EEOC defines workplace sexual harassment as:
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when
(1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment,
(2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or
(3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.
The problem with this guidance is it’s both under- and over-inclusive. Most of the words used need to be defined, as they too are mere vagaries. And then there’s the “verbal” conduct of sexual nature, which not only implicates the First Amendment but offers little clue what it purports to prohibit.
Some lines are easy to draw. Don’t touch another person uninvited. If you put out your hand for a shake and the other person grasps it, you’re good. As for body parts like breasts, buttocks, even backs, they are off limits. As for the pat on the back for a job well done, that’s a remnant of days gone by. Sorry, but it’s touching, and if lines have to be drawn, they must be clear.
But that’s not terribly hard to gasp or particularly controversial. While the New York Times is of the belief that most men grab random women’s breasts at work routinely, most men will find that hard to swallow. Rather, the Times uses the Weinstein and Bush examples to go down the rabbit hole.
In other words, even the highest-profile opportunities to change America’s endemic culture of sexual harassment, which is overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, committed by men against women, can somehow be lost or swept away. How do we keep that from happening again?
And how do we ensure that progress filters down to average American workplaces, where sexual harassment occurs all the time but rarely gets media attention? The answer is part cultural, part economic and part legal.
No, the answer is definitional*. Contrary to the meaningless, conclusory vagaries proffered throughout its editorial, which rely on how women feel rather than what men do, that’s neither how law works nor how men are informed. Murder is defined by the conduct of the perpetrator, not the feelings of the dead body from the bullet slamming into its head. If you want to stop sexual harassment, then provide viable, comprehensible notice so that men will know what conduct constitutes the wrong.
It’s understandable that some women will not complain of sexual harassment for a variety of reasons. Some are acceptable, and some are nonsense. If you let Weinstein have his way in exchange for getting a role, then your complaint is disingenuous. You made a deal and sold your body for a benefit. But the fact that women fail to complain is a problem that needs to be fixed by women. The absence of a complaint isn’t evidence of a wrong. It’s nothing.
Most people, including the editorial board of the New York Times, struggle mightily with the meaning of words. If they have some vague notion of what they mean to them, that’s close enough. But if you want to stop men from sexually harassing women, which is a good and worthy cause, then the answer begins with specifically defining what conduct is unacceptable. Once on notice, no man has cause to complain. No one can possibly determine a clear line based on the reaction of the putative victim.
But one warning: the inclination to draw the line based upon the most sensitive, fragile, radical complaints will have some deeply problematic issues for the future of ordinary social interaction. Do you really want men to be afraid of being accused of sexual harassment for asking a woman on a date? And should equality ever come back into fashion, do women want to be bound by the same speech rules they would impose on men?
And does anybody really want to put a 93-year-old ex-president in jail? Remember, Bush actually touched a woman’s buttocks. There is no “just kidding around” defense.
*One might hope that somewhere in there, most likely the “legal” part, there would be discussion of the definition of sexual harassment. Nope, that wasn’t at all what they had in mind.