Thoughts On The Great American Sexual Harassment Phase Change Of 2017

Thoughts On The Great American Sexual Harassment Phase Change Of 2017 December 10, 2017

It is certainly an interesting moment in gender relations in our society. It’s as if there were a phase change, a melting or a sublimation, where something suddenly began to flow.

And it is certain that a whole lot of men in power have been getting away with shocking and disturbing behavior for far too long. Our society has had an imbalance of the divine feminine and the divine masculine, the yin and the yang, for a long while…like, the whole of recorded history.

And certainly it is to be hoped that this is changing things such that those abused and harassed by powerful men (or powerful women) can from now on count on a fair hearing for their complaints, rather than being silenced and dismissed.

U.S. Army photo by Timothy L. Hale
U.S. Army photo by Timothy L. Hale

But beyond those easy certainties, I find myself with a lot of questions. There are some points about gender and power that I think are being ignored, and that makes me itch.

I don’t have any grand solution here, but I’d like to see if I can introduce a few points into the discussion. As some try to impose order on the inherently chaotic world of sex, romance, and gender relations, I feel upon me once again the urge to toss a few golden apples into the discussion.

Professional Gender Imbalance

Perhaps part of the source of that itch is that I work in two fields with very different gender balances.

I got my BS and MS in Computer Science and started my software career in the early 90s — before the first Web boom. (I wrote my first HTML in 1993. Get off my lawn.) While students and professors and the developers at those first few companies were overwhelmingly men, there were a significant number of women, even in senior positions. But it seems that the gender balance has gotten a lot worse since those days; in the early 1980s, women made up 37% of computer science majors, while by the early 2010s that was down to 18%.

But I also work as an Asian Bodywork Therapist and Licensed Massage Therapist. At the spa where I work one day a week, or when I go to a continuing education event, women far outnumber men. No one is clamouring for more men to enter the field; and there is no outcry over the fact that it is considered acceptable for a client to request they not be given a male therapist.

I’ve also been the proud student of a female karate sensei for over twenty years. That’s put me in situations where I was the only male in the company of several females higher than me in a well-defined rank hierarchy.

So over the course of my life I’ve been in a tech company where one sysadmin would call in other guys to see the “Redhead of the Week” on some softcore porn site. And I’ve heard male software developers discuss the sexual attractiveness or lack thereof of female co-workers. And yes, in the interests of esprit de corp I did sometimes take a look, or agree that “yeah, Jane Doe in HR is a real hottie.”

These events happened in my first few years in the field, in the mid-1990s. It’s been many decades since I worked in such an environment; these days my software work is done remotely, and I report directly to the company owner. I’m not sure how I’d react to such behavior today.

On the other hand I’ve also been the only male present when female colleagues talked quite frankly about their sex lives and menstrual cycles. I’ve had a senior colleague joke about me drinking her breast milk. I’ve had a woman in a supervisory position tell me she liked my moves on the dance floor.

I’ve had a male massage client suggest that he could give me a massage sometime, and a a female client come to me for massage after she first contacted me on a dating site. I’ve had another male client take a housecall in a basement room where there were posters for gay clubs with nude and fetish-clothed men on them, as he asked me to work on his groin area.

I don’t feel harassed by any of these incidents. They were awkward and a little uncomfortable, and some of them were mildly inappropriate. But none of them were threatening, coercive, or persistent.

But I wonder how they would look, if gender-swapped, in our present moment of heightened tension about sexual harassment. If a male tech-company boss said to a female software developer “Hey, nice moves out on that dance floor,” how would that go over? Or if a woman in a mostly-male office were sitting in the lunchroom as two male coworkers talked about their sex lives?

If we take the simplistic definition “if it’s unwanted, it’s harassment” that some are offering, maybe I could cite numerous times when I’ve been harassed. That doesn’t seem right, and suggests that there’s something missing in that definition.

Awkward and unwanted encounters are an inevitable part of the human condition, and we cannot meaningfully label all of them harassment.

Gender And Power

From Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer, from Donald Trump to Bill Clinton, from Roy Moore to Al Franken, much of the discussion has focused on abusive behavior by men in power.

This photo posted by Leeann Tweeden will probably be an iconic image of the #metoo moment. Fair use.
This photo posted by Leeann Tweeden of her being groped by Al Franken will probably be an iconic image of the #metoo moment. Fair use.

It is undeniable that most people with power in this society are men. But there is a difference between “most people in power are men” and “most men are people in power.”

If you look in a corporate boardroom or the chambers of a legislature, you will mostly see men. But if you look in a prison, in the armed forces sent to give their lives to enforce the will of the ruling classes, in the lists of those killed on the job, on the lists of murder victims, you will also mostly see men. Even in sexual assault, thanks to the frequency of prison rape against men at the bottom of the power hierarchy, it’s possible that we have more male than female victims. (The statistics are murky and the error bars are large.)

Some people seem to think all that is needed is to make sure women have more access to the top levels of this power hierarchy. This idea is often satirized on leftist social media as “Hire more women prison guards,” highlighting the contrast between identarian approaches which focus on the gender or race of people in power, and leftist strutural critiques which suggest that maybe people shouldn’t be in those sorts of positions of power.

To bring it down to brass tacks, maybe rather than asking how we can get more women into positions as Hollywood producers or tech moguls, we should be instead (or at least, also) be asking how we can dismantle such systems of centralized power and control.

Workplace Romances Do Exist

Much of the recent controversy has been about sexual or romantic behavior in the workplace.

I’ve never been romantically involved with a co-worker. (Which is not to say I’ve never had a workplace crush.) But a significant number of people in meaningful long-term relationships met each other at work.

A 2015 survey by Mic and a 2006 Harris Interactive study both found that about 18% of people met their significant other through work; a 2009 study by sociologist Michael Rosenfeld put the fraction lower, at about 10%. (But his study over-represented gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.) A 2013 survey by CareerBuilder found that 39% of respondents had dated a co-worker at least once, and for 30% of them office romance led to marriage.

A notable example is Barack Obama meeting Michelle when she was his supervisor at a law firm — a relationship that might, under the most broad and vague definitions, be considered harassment.

Slate editor Allison Benedikt‏ recently wrote about her office romance. It started when she was an entry-level fact-checker, and her editor asked her out for a drink. They’ve been married for 14 years now.

Reading accounts of others’ experiences since the great outpouring began, I’ve vacillated between horror at the abusive situations so many women have endured and alarm at some of the interactions being considered misconduct. I’ve felt a rift with many of the younger women I know, who claim to understand exactly where to draw the line between legitimate behavior and abuse and seem to view harassment as any interaction with a man that has made them uncomfortable. For all the power of the #MeToo moment, it’s been a bit bewildering too.

If a younger woman asks an older and more professionally powerful man for job advice, and that man ends up hitting on the woman, is that on its own harassment? Is it always wrong when a man is attracted to a woman at work, and acts on that attraction? If that man tries to, say, kiss the woman he is attracted to, and she’s not into it, and they leave it at that, was that forcible kissing? If a woman is not attracted to a man who comes on to her, and that man is in a position of any sort of power, is that clearly a fireable offense? I don’t think the answer to these questions is definitively yes. And yet, these tales and others like them have been stitched into the narrative of behavior that’s truly beyond the pale, and at times punished accordingly.

…A world where abusers fear crossing a criminal boundary is clearly a better world. But a world where interested parties fear crossing this new boundary we seem to be edging toward, where any power differential or wrong move is seen as predation, robs women of the ability to consent as well. Women should have power—the power to move about the world without fearing for our safety, but also the power to not be threatened by an unwanted but unmalicious move, the power to say no to a man’s advances without being that man’s victim.

Perhaps more than universal condemnation of everyone who makes a pass at a co-worker, we need models of healthy and acceptable behavior. Surely we can draw a line somewhere between “Hey, would you like you get a drink with me after work sometime? No? Ok, see you Monday.”, and locking your office door by remote control and dropping your pants.

Due Process

False reports of sexual assault and harassment do happen. If we understand that human beings can behave so horribly as to commit rape, we ought to understand that other human beings can behave so horribly as to lie. And it should be noted that people lie about other crimes as well — there is nothing unique about sexual offenses here.

Sometimes false claims are against men with some level of privilege, such as members of the Duke lacrosse team, who have the resources to defend themselves legally; sometimes they are against men of lower status like Emmett Till or Brian Banks, who haven’t got much chance of justice.

Research puts the rate of false reports of rape at somewhere between 2% and 11% — which is a pretty large error bar. I would guess that it would be somewhat higher for reports of harassment, where the offense alleged is not as severe, no physical evidence is expected, and the complainant may have a financial or social motive.

A false report rate of between one in ten and one in fifty makes them unusual but far from unthinkable. And so it’s important that there be a process in place whereby an accused person can defend themselves, rebut allegations, and question witnesses.

While a process exists (at least in theory) for criminal charges of rape, in other circumstances guilt is effectively a presumption.

In response to a mistaken belief in an “epidemic” of campus sexual assault, the Obama administration directed colleges to lower the evidentiary standard, and discouraged them from allowing the accused to question complainants, for hearings about sexual assault or harassment on campus. (In fact, rape and other violent crime is down from its 1990s peak, and college women are less likely to be assaulted than there non-collegiate peers.)

U.S. Representative Jared Polis said of campus sexual assault, “I mean, if 10 people are accused and under reasonable likelihood standard maybe one or two did it, it seems better to get rid of all 10 people.” He later walked that comment back, but it is extremely disturbing to hear a member of Congress speak out so directly against due process.

These campus deprivations of due process have resulted in several lawsuits and settlements.

It’s not clear what, if any, sort of process is being afforded to accused men in the current wave of allegations and firings. But it would be problematic to go through the same sort of frenzy, ruining people’s careers and lives without bothering to investigate fully.

Because some people miss this point, let me make it clear: due process rights are not about putting the rights of abusers over those of victims. They are about making sure we get the abusers rather than innocent people. And they are about preventing abusers from using the grievance process to hurt others. We give the devil benefit of the law for our own safety’s sake, not because we like the devil or put his rights over our own.

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