The Yin and Yang of Sexual Harassment

Yesterday the “perps du jour” were Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor. I’ve yet to figure out exactly what Garrison Keillor is alleged to have done, other than put his hand in an inappropriate place during a photo shoot, à  la Franken. Keillor says he didn’t notice where his hand was, which is entirely possible. Lauer’s transgressions were far more egregious and intentional, and went on for years, and were corroborated by a great many women, which are kind of big differences.

There’s a old video of Katie Couric, Lauer’s one-time co-anchor, saying that Lauer used to pinch her on the behind. Couric hasn’t released a statement this week; one suspects she is busy celebrating. At Vox, Emily Stewart writes about other women who were pushed out at the Today Show. The treatment of Ann Curry in particular was shockingly awful, and it’s a wonder she didn’t sue the network for it.

Sometimes you wonder where people’s heads are. The network execs must have known about Lauer but protected him. Why? If he were amazingly charming, popular and accomplished at his job one might understand it, but he wasn’t.

However, I’ve seen the same thing play out in my own workplaces over and over again; women employees are considered more expendable than male ones. This is not just about harassment. Especially before about 1980 sometimes a man had to practically burn down the headquarters building to be considered incompetent, whereas for women there was zero tolerance for anything but perfection. I don’t think it’s quite that bad now, but it’s still not equal.

Anyway, the point I am getting at here is that all of these accusations coming out now need to be looked at individually, not thrown into the same box.

Karen Tumulty writes at WaPo,

New charges are coming from nearly every direction: the political world, newsrooms, Hollywood, Silicon Valley. And they describe a wide variety of behavior, including rape, unwelcome kisses, sexual advances toward minors, and grabbing a breast or buttock.

“We have to preserve the uniqueness of every situation. That’s at the heart of this,” said Democratic strategist Tracy Sefl, who is on the board of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), which operates a national sexual assault hotline. “In this climate that we’re in, everything has been lumped together. Then people look at it as if those crimes are all the same.”

Treating this episodes as “all the same” has the effect of trivializing the worst behavior while punishing people who really don’t deserve it. And my sense of things is that most women know this, while a lot of men haven’t figured it out. Most women want to go after the guys who make our lives hell and ruin our careers. Punishing the schmuck who occasionally does something boorish and stupid but is otherwise okay to work with is not a priority. Frankly, guys, that would describe most of you, even though you may not be aware of it.

I’m seeing a real “yin and yang” vibe on social media. In my unscientific sampling of people I bump into, men are about ten times more likely than women to want a “zero tolerance” approach, which most women realize would flush a lot of basically okay guys down the same toilet with the turds. I’ve seen men asking for bright, clear guidelines and some kind of ranking of offenses, like if putting a hand here is worse than putting it there. They want to be able to refer to a simple Powerpoint chart to know what’s okay and what isn’t. That’s very yang; simplicity and clarity.

However, women see complexity and ambiguity, which is very yin. The same act might be just annoying in one context and terrifying in another. The relationship between perp and victim, the context — whether other people were around, for example — even the perp’s apparent frame of mind can change how the incident is experienced. Women know that simplifying this issue distorts it. You really have to look at each incident separately, and consider it in all the contexts, to judge how serious it was. Sorry, guys.

Men complain that they can’t even flirt any more. Flirting in the workplace is problematic but tolerable in small doses if it’s really flirting and not harassment. Most women know the difference between flirting and harassment. It’s the difference between engaging with us as individual people and just trying to score. Flirting is sweet and subtle; harassment is gross and intimidating. Flirting is a compliment. Harassment takes away our individuality and renders us into Just Another Broad. If you really can’t feel your way around the difference, however, then perhaps you should not attempt flirting with any woman you’re not married or engaged to. (I do wonder if many men suffer from some degree of Asperger’s Syndrome sometimes.)

While we may learn more about Keillor that changes the picture, right now I suspect Minnesota Public Radio should not have reacted so quickly to fire him. And I think NBC should have dumped Lauer at least ten years ago. And now at least one woman has been caught making false claims for political reasons, which was bound to happen. But it just takes a few women to be caught lying before we’re back to the assumption that all women are liars, which is worrisome.

My other concern is that men will take over the issue and assume the lead in writing the sexual harassment response handbook, because men always think they know better than we do, and they will screw it up.

In other news, word is that Rex Tillerson will be replaced at State by Mike Pompeo, an old teabagger from Kansas who probably can’t find North Korea on a map. There’s no hope.

8 thoughts on “The Yin and Yang of Sexual Harassment

  1. IMO – concerning males, and sex and relationships outside of an individual's family, there are jerks, romeo's, creeps, and predators.  (Note: All of them can be misogynists). 

    All predators are jerks and creeps – and all of them may be trying/hoping to look like romeo's – but not all jerks, creeps, and romeo's, are predators.

    Before we decide on punishment(s), we need to distinguish between those types, and then we need to figure out how individual's behaviours and motivations make them what they are – no easy task.

    What we can't do, as maha and others have written, is lump them all together, and then give them equivalent punishments.

    Another thing we can't have, is cases of women "crying wolf."   That will cheapen the cases of real harassment/abuse.

    Easy, right?




    • Re crying wolf: Very often there are no witnesses to corroborate stories, so determining which accusations are credible and which are not often is a matter of going by one’s guts, which can be bigoted. We have to respect accusers (unless they are caught lying) and presume they are truthful, but we also have to respect the presumption of innocence.

  2. "In my unscientific sampling of people I bump into, men are about ten times more likely than women to want a 'zero tolerance' approach."

    These may be men who are telling you what they think you want to hear or who are attempting to mask a guilty conscience by publicly taking a hard line on the issue.  For what it's worth, I haven't spoken to anyone, male or female, who would advocate a zero tolerance policy for merely boorish or socially awkward behavior.  As you say, there is plenty of it going around.


  3. I keep it simple.  Women like pleasant and polite smiles.  They don’t like lip smacking smirking while staring at breasts.  Stay away from the middle ground.  And I think this is regardless of the desirability factor, the old false adage where desirable men are welcomed flirters, but undesirable men are unwanted harassers.

  4. For men, its simple: just be respectful.

    As for Tillerson, replacing him with Pompeo is bad enough, but replacing Pompeo with Tom Cotton as CIA head is an off the charts index on the insanity scale.

  5. When I was a kid much of the common wisdom was already pretty backwards.  There just weren’t enough of the respected, wise and insightful old owls to go around.  But I think in many ways that situation has gotten worse with all the identity politics, especially neocon/neolib.  Hopefully in this age of Trump, we’ve hit bottom and the de-toxification / deprogramming has begun.

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