Confusing Sexual Harassment With Flirting Hurts Women
More than a month after the initial report on numerous allegations of sexual coercion and assault by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, the national firestorm over workplace sexual harassment shows no sign of slacking off—and many men, it seems, are nervously scrutinizing their behavior. Last Friday, the New York Times reported that some men are forming company or industry text groups “to brainstorm on harassment issues,” avoiding work-related social events where flirting may happen, and asking “odd questions” such as whether it’s ever okay to hug a female co-worker.
These tales of male confusion have elicited a fair amount of derision, often from other males. “Men! Learn how to avoid sexual harassment lawsuits with my one easy trick! Step 1: Don’t sexually harass people,” tweeted James S.A. Corey. “Fuck all this “it’s a dangerous time to be a man” bullshit. Have you been a creepy piece of shit in the past? Yes? Then you’re going the fuck down. No? Congrats. Just keep worrying about heart disease and shut the fuck up,” [tweeted] Mike Primavera.
At Salon, writer Erin Keane scoffs that “men who haven’t leered, creeped, groped, raped” or used their power for sexual predation should stop being overdramatic and making this moment about themselves.
Scoffing is easy, but the truth is that the confusion is far from groundless—and some anti-harassment advocates have stoked it. For that matter, Keane’s admonishment is not reassuring: “leering” and “creeping” are behaviors with plenty of room for subjective definitions.
“Let [men] think back over every interaction they’ve had with a woman, sexual or not, at work or not, and examine whether each was fucked up,” tweeted Slate gender issues columnist Christina Cauterucci in October, noting that “harassment exists on a spectrum” and few are “totally innocent.” A male film podcaster responded with an earnest, pained confession that he must be “guilty to some degree,” being “married to a former co-worker.” (Ironically, the same man later shared the tweet asserting that only “creepy piece of shit” men need to worry.)
Meanwhile, New York Times op-ed contributor Roxane Gay has urged men to “come forward” and confess “how they have hurt women in ways great and small.” On Medium, author and podcaster Coner Habib asserts, “If every woman who had a boundary violated called out every man who had done so, there would be few men left un-accused, and few women left unwounded.” (Presumably only women have boundaries and only men ever cross them.) On Twitter, prominent feminist writer Jessica Valenti has written that it’s good for men to be afraid.
Moreover, the social media mockery of clueless men who can’t tell flirting from sexual harassment has often gone hand in hand with assertions that all workplace flirting is harassment—such as this viral tweet from singer/songwriter Marian Call. “dudes are you aware how happy women would be if strangers & coworkers never “flirted” with us again, like ever, this is the world we want,” she tweeted.
Never mind that plenty of women flirt at work, or that romances thrive even in this age of dating apps. (Among under-35 respondents to an informal 2015 survey for the online magazine Mic, nearly 18 percent of those currently coupled had met their partner through work and fewer than 10 percent through online dating.)
And what to make of current definitions of sexual harassment? A 2016 survey of federal employees classified respondents as victims if they had experienced a range of behaviors from “unwelcome invasion of personal space” (reported by 12 percent of women and 3 percent of men) and “unwelcome sexual teasing, jokes, comments, or questions” (9 percent of women and 3 percent of men) to “pressure for sexual favors” and “actual or attempted rape or sexual assault” (both reported by one percent of each gender).
“Don’t be a sexual predator or a sex pest” is self-evident. “Don’t make unwelcome invasions of personal space or sexual jokes” is more complicated -— especially in creative industries, from journalism to entertainment, where an informal work environment is often the norm and sex-themed conversation and humor may be part of the work itself.
Is it sexual harassment for a TV producer/director to talk to Lena Dunham about her much-publicized onscreen nudity while mixing informally at a restaurant after a shoot, or to show her a still from his show that has nudity in it? Dunham and her producer Jenni Konner thought so. Others might say that, while his behavior was boorish, the line he crossed was subjective.
Most of the recent charges that have wrecked the careers of powerful men have been quite serious—usually involving multiple, credible allegations of criminal conduct, from rape or sexual assault to indecent exposure, or severe verbal and sometimes physical harassment.
But some cases should raise concerns about vaguely defined offenses. David Corn, the Washington Bureau chief for Mother Jones, is under investigation for past “inappropriate” touching—from hugs to pats on the arm, back, or shoulder—that seems to have been non-sexual and gender-neutral. He is also accused of discussing issues related to sexual violence in a potentially “insensitive” and “triggering” way. While Corn has reportedly kept his physical distance from colleagues after complaints in 2014-2015, the investigation was still reopened on the post-Weinstein momentum.
More recently, staffers at the videogame and pop culture website IGN have walked out over a claim by a former employee, Kallie Plagge, that her sexual harassment complaint against former editor Vince Ingenito last year was mishandled. (Plagge left IGN in late 2016; Ingenito was laid off this past March.)
Plagge says the harassment consisted of “uncomfortable compliments” such as “Guys don’t like skinny girls. You’re perfect,” as well as “manipulative and abusive” comments putting down the young men she was dating. She also alleges that Ingenito once said, “When I was your age, I could go all night. I just want one more night like that,” while putting his hand on her arm; she sees this as an “overtly sexual” remark, though apparently not an actual proposition.
When Plagge grew uncomfortable with these interactions and went to human resources, she was treated as “an equal participant in an ‘inappropriate flirtation’”—an assessment that deeply upset her, which doesn’t necessarily mean it was wrong. Ingenito (whose career will no doubt suffer from this incident) has expressed regret on Twitter, saying that he saw Plagge as a friend who shared “very personal” things with him and that he may have “overestimated or perhaps misread” their friendship.
Meanwhile, IGN has issued a profuse apology and pledged to do better. Does this mean all uncomfortable interactions will be treated as entirely the man’s fault while female employees are presumed to have no agency? Does this mean that a woman who discusses intimate issues with a male friend at work can accuse him of harassment for making personal comments in those discussions? No wonder men are nervous.
We have been here before, after the last “national conversation” about sexual harassment following Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony at Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Then as now, many women shared wrenching stories of mistreatment, and some high-level wrongdoers—such as Sen. Bob Packwood, the Oregon Republican who resigned in 1995 under a barrage of accusations from female staffers—took a well-deserved fall. But the war on sexual harassment quickly devolved into what many called “sexual McCarthyism,” with a growing list of absurd stories of overreaction.
A manager at a wastewater treatment plant in Olympia, Washington was suspended for bringing a copy of Esquire magazine for his lunchtime reading, apparently offending a female co-worker with its racy lingerie ads. Another corporate manager was placed on probation for hugging a secretary who had just lost her mother—on a complaint from a co-worker who witnessed the hug. An insurance company manager was demoted with a big pay cut and transferred to a less desirable location after an office administrator unhappy about being denied a raise complained that he had given her humorously bawdy greeting cards—despite undisputed evidence that she had been at least as raunchy with him and other co-workers. A Miller Brewing Co. executive was fired for discussing a “Seinfeld” episode containing some risqué humor. (He sued and won $26 million in damages.)
It’s not just that these incidents were unfair to the men involved. They also contributed to a backlash that undermined legitimate concerns about sexual harassment: the issue came to be widely seen as being about trivial complaints from hypersensitive women and overzealousness rife with anti-male double standards.
Today, we’re in danger of going down the same road.
Nearly twenty years ago, dissident feminist academic Daphne Patai wrote a thought-provoking book titled “Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Politics of Feminism.” Patai argued that while remedies against sexual assault and extortion are essential, it is better to tolerate “the petty annoyance of occasional misplaced sexual attentions” than to endure the repressive vigilance required to stamp out all unwanted or offensive workplace behaviors. Today, as long-neglected abuses of power are being addressed, we would do well to remember that warning—and listen to the confused men.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and is the author of “Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.” Follow her on Twitter, @CathyYoung63.