What we talk about when we talk about sexual harassment

One of the most pernicious ideas in American life is that sexual harassment lawsuits are an example of political correctness gone mad.

For the last few months I’ve been working on a video series for Highline, a re-examination of all the things we got wrong in the 1990s. The first episode is about the sexual harassment freakouts that cropped up in the wake of the Anita Hill hearing and what was really behind them.

Here’s a sequence that didn’t make it into the final cut, four women testifying at a 1992 Congressional hearing:

This is why we have sexual harassment laws.

Before 1986, none of these stories would have been illegal. Until Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the only workplace discrimination that fell under the law was quid pro quo harassment, the kind where your boss explicitly tells you that if you want this promotion, you’ll have to sleep with him. Skeezy comments about your looks, getting groped at the water cooler, being told you had to meet a higher standard because of your gender, all that was just the cost of being a woman at work.

The most incredible thing about these cases, though, isn’t just the shittiness of the people perpetrating them. It’s the narrow-mindedness of the people in charge of punishing them.

Reading old sexual harassment cases, what you see over and over again is judges who simply couldn’t accept that women were blameless in their own abuse. One victim testified that she been assaulted by her boss for three straight years, that he touched her under the table during work meetings, that he bought her dinner her first week on the job and invited her to a motel afterward. The judges were skeptical. What was she wearing? Why did she go to dinner in the first place? Didn’t she eventually give in and have sex with him? Surely his advances weren’t that unwelcome.

This is how members of Congress treated Anita Hill too. If Clarence Thomas had been such a terrible boss, they asked her in 50 different ways, why did she later ask him for a reference? Despite all the alleged harassment, Arlen Specter pointed out, she never once complained to Thomas’s superiors. She even—gasp—picked him up at the airport once, years after they stopped working together.

It’s fascinating to me all the ways in which societal power is invisible to the people wielding it. For old, white, affluent judges, it simply didn’t make sense that a woman would have sex with her manager unless she really wanted to. Congress members couldn’t comprehend why a woman would maintain a relationship with her dickhead former boss, why she would wait years before publicly complaining about his behavior, why she would read aggression into his flirting and his backrubs and his ribald anecdotes.

I don’t think every judge and every Senator back then was a big old sleazebag. What I do think is that they suffered from a specific form of blindness, one that is human and understandable and utterly pernicious. We are all, in ways major and minor, incapable of seeing the world through anything but our own example. If you have never feared unemployment, the moral compromises others make to avoid it seem foreign. If you have never been hurt by jokes about your gender or your race or your sexuality, those who complain about them seem oversensitive.

Somehow, in the 25 years since the Anita Hill hearing (and, as I argue in the video, the passage of the 1991 Civil Rights Act), sexual harassment has become a synonym for a country that can no longer take a joke. Colleagues can’t even ask each other out for a drink nowadays. Managers can’t pat their employees on the shoulder.

But in fact, sexual harassment cases have been dwindling for years, and the mechanisms behind them have been steadily eroded. Since 1991, punitive damages have been capped at $500,000. Those eight-digit settlements you’re always reading about? Companies only have to pay a fraction of them. A study in 2002 found that more than half of large punitive damages awards got overturned on appeal. And that’s for the cases that make it to court. The vast majority of them don’t.

The real problem, in other words, is not that we have all become oversensitive. It is that we are not sensitive enough.

I am sure that, in this big and crowded country, someone somewhere has filed a frivolous lawsuit claiming to be sexual harassed when they weren’t. But becoming the country where that happens is not what we should fear. It is becoming the country that we used to be—one where  no one is allowed to file them at all.

24 Comments

Filed under America, Serious, videos

24 responses to “What we talk about when we talk about sexual harassment

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Still relevant. Always relevant. Sadly.

  2. Sexual harassment is not something that should be tolerated. Where the problem is is how it’s defined.

  3. i thought sexual harassment takes place only in a conservative country like ours where women feel highly embarrassed to report about them. I am surprised that it is also the case in a country like the USA where women are comparatively more empowered and bold enough to report against the tormentors..

  4. Your insights are vital to a genuine discussion of this issue. Victims need support and laws must be enforced. Great admiration for your honesty and convictions. Americans must continue struggling to move their country closer to envisioned ideals. That means fighting sexual harassment, in all its many forms, every single day.

  5. Pingback: The “Cry Wolf” Theory – Write Your Own Road

  6. This write-up has confirmed my suspicions on why most women being harassed at their place of work don’t speak up. Most people don’t care to here it, even if they don’t say what’s on their mind about it. You are viewed as a “trouble maker.” May even lose your job because you dared to complain about it.
    The worst is that eight 80% of people out there will judge the victim instantly without even listening to her story. It would be more like the OP said. Questions like, “what kind of clothes does she wear to work?” “was she leading him on,” ” just a lady scorned,” some would say. Although there’s a charge some women may abuse the power if something drastic is done by law to cub sexual harassment. Such as stiff penalty by the court of law if she finds the courage to sue…it’s still better than this current humiliation women constantly go through for voicing out when abused.

  7. This! I have family in Scotland and there was an issue about a coworker asking for a hug at an outside of work gathering. When the woman said ok, he came in and rubbed his face into her breasts instead. My aunt and all of her friends on Facebook said that he never should have been fired because now he won’t be able to provide for his family.. and I’m like.. what should have happened then? Apparently she should have pushed him away, she should have yelled him, she should have punched him. But she shouldn’t have the right to press charges.. I chalked it up to maybe this is just a generation outside of my own where things were different.. but they are still affecting the way people like me are expected to handle issues we are ok with.
    I look forward to the completion of your piece. Hopefully the knowledge shared can help people who need it in the future.

  8. this was a wonderful and enlightening read thank you!

  9. Reblogged this on itspatricias and commented:
    “If you have never been hurt by jokes about your gender or your race or your sexuality, those who complain about them seem oversensitive.”

  10. Nice write up. Political correctness is a term frowned upon by those from a grouping most likely to perpetrate acts of political incorrectness.

  11. Considered a way of life in workplaces.people are no longer sensitive as much as they should and therefore makes the situation worse.

  12. kniranjang

    Very well written. I have recently realised that I exhibit the “blindness” you talked about. Thankfully, I am not in a position of power and this blindness hasn’t hurt anyone. Also, I have witnessed apathy about discrimination and harassment issues in people around me from time to time. Those people need to read this.

  13. sexual harassment is a serious menace.
    nice write up.

  14. Women are sexually harrassed everywhere! The mind of a man is still primitive in its functions of women. http://wp.me/p5IK2v-1F

  15. Reblogged this on cannymeetsworld and commented:
    Thank you for this article. Although I am not a woman, I have experienced racism & homophobia, and can relate to the lack of sensitivity of our society.

  16. This is great! I loved your point about how our lense through which we look at life is actually often times blinding, which is why it’s so important to read about and interact with people and experiences that we aren’t familiar with, and sometimes even when they make us uncomfortable! Thanks for writing. Looking forward to checking out the video series.

  17. Great piece. Thank you for sharing.

  18. Pingback: Re-Post on Sexual Harassment – Rightontheverge

  19. Speaking of sexual harassment, I had the thought
    More people are concerned with why women stay in abusive relationships, than,
    Why men abuse women?

    It’s time that changed, right?

  20. Pingback: sexual – recoveryisajourney

  21. The patriarchy has no imagination beyond their own shadow. Great share!

  22. Pingback: What we talk about when we talk about sexual harassment | The Power of Sex and How to Wield it

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