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Katie Roiphe’s Sexual Harassment Problem

In a New York Times opinion piece, Katie Roiphe writes of her longing for the good old days when sexual harassment in the workplace was just the way things were. Ah, for those not-so-long-ago days when, as she writes, there were:

colorful or inappropriate comments, with irreverence, wildness, incorrectness, ease.

But whose ease was it? It was certainly not the women’s when they were objects of their male superiors’ and co-workers’ unwanted sexual attention.

This is no new trope for Roiphe, who seems to pride herself on being contrarian on American culture and sexual ethics. In 1994, as a doctoral candidate at Princeton, she wrote “The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism” and had it excerpted as “Date Rape’s Other Victim” in the Times in 1993. In that piece she excoriated “rape-crisis feminists” for denying female sexual agency when it comes to being assaulted.

I’d put good money on a bet that Roiphe has never been sexually harassed or assaulted herself. What is most distressing about her approach, however, is her cavalier disregard for those who have.

I’ve never had to deal with sexual harassment at work, but I did have a much-admired professor sexually harass me when I was his student at New York University (where, incidentally, Roiphe now teaches). And I can tell you that for me, nothing about it was “irreverent” or full of “ease.”

At first, the prof just seemed particularly interested in what I had to say in class. It was my favorite course at the time, with subject matter that I found fascinating and he taught well (he was a scholar and writer of international stature). I got all As on my assignments, which I thought reflected my good work. Well into the semester, he asked to speak to me after class, at which time he invited me to call him at home to discuss my work. I never called him, but one night toward the end of the semester he called my home, ostensibly to discuss a recently-submitted paper.

He was warm and encouraging, complimentary and attentive. It was great. We discussed the paper, and then, in a flirtatious tone, he asked if it was cold in my house and what I was wearing. He was trying to take things to another level. But all it did was take me aback. I stammered something like, “What? Why?” and he attempted a quick repair, saying oh, he just wanted to know what kind of socks I liked, and didn’t my feet ever get cold? I got off the phone quickly. He never paid me the same attention in class again. And when I got my grade for the class shortly thereafter, I wasn’t totally surprised to see that, despite my consistently A-graded work, I received a B.

It was only years later that I realized that I could have — should have — brought the incident to the attention of someone higher up in the department. It was the 1980s, and I have no idea what the university’s policy on sexual harassment might have been. But I do know that it never even occurred to me to find out. I simply didn’t have the confidence, the sense of self. I didn’t have the sense of personal agency to realize that I had been, in a small way, victimized and that his superiors should have been made aware of it.

Things are different now. Or at least they should be. There are still plenty of people, like Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain and former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who seem not to understand the fundamental issues around sexual harassment and sexual abuse.

Wrong as they are (and this is not to excuse their role in the allegations against them), Cain and Paterno are both products of an era that did not embrace the idea that harassment and abuse are wrong.

Katie Roiphe, however, is in her mid-40s, is the daughter of feminist author Anne Roiphe and received the finest education possible, at Harvard and Princeton.

It’s hard to understand, is almost bizarre in fact, how the most basic implications for women of being on the receiving end of sexual harassment or worse seem to have escaped her.


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