The outing of Harvey Weinstein as a sexual predator has raised the profile of sexual harassment in a way that I hope does some good. Women are sharing their stories, and letting anybody who doesn’t already know, that harassment is a pervasive problem. I think this is all good, but I think we all need to tread carefully, and see some of the pitfalls that other similar social movements have faced. Also, as a caveat, I recognize that a white cis guy probably isn’t the best voice for this, but given that my maximum readership for any post sits at around six views, I still feel moderately comfortable using this as my diary, as a place to put some flesh on my semi-private thought skeleton. I also think I have a pretty good track record of being against sex discrimination and considering myself a feminist/equalist (see here, and here). So here goes.
I’m going to start with some related underlying ideas, in no particular order, and I’ll try to get a logical fallacy that comes into play for each thought, and eventually circle back to sexual harassment and where I think the real focus needs to be, and where we’ve gone astray.
Sexism is rampant. There is no doubt in my mind that’s a true statement. I see it often, and the disparities in income and disparities in the number of women in positions of power reflect that. Many have said that this is because women raise children, which is true, but it’s also true that men can participate more in that to even the balance. What’s also clear is that men are rewarded for raising children, but it’s the expectation of women. Many times, for example, when I was the sole caretaker of my children (because my wife was away for work, or just out with friends), I was praised for “babysitting” my own children. It was striking how common that was. I used to take a commuter train to work, and got to know some of the people who rode every morning and afternoon, and if I was ever by myself with our son, I’d predictably get, “are you babysitting today?” I’m quite certain that nobody ever considered it babysitting when my wife was alone with the kids. The converse is true also: men are seldom punished for not taking an active role in childcare, but a woman faces intense judgement for doing the same. To be clear, I’m not talking about deadbeat dads. Those guys are often punished (and should be). I’m talking about the father who has a high powered job and spends more time at work than with his children. That person is not seen as a bad father. He’s providing for his family, working hard, and commended. When a woman does the same, she’s often seen as a distant mother, leaving the care of her children to a stranger…or some bullshit like that.
Parenting isn’t the only thing we unfairly reward in one gender, but not the other: we often commend assertiveness in men, but consider the same act to be aggressive in women. That is unfair, and we need to watch for that and try to avoid it. I think we saw this in the last election repeatedly: Clinton was seen as shrieking and shrill, but Sanders could scream all he wanted and didn’t get called the same things. All of that is pretty obvious to me. But here’s the problem: sometimes the woman is really just a jerk. She may also be somebody more driven to provide financially than she is to change diapers, she might also be more assertive than others, but she might just be a jerk, and it can harm the “cause” when we allow her sex to become an excuse for why people don’t like her. Sometimes she’s just a jerk. That said, sometimes we think she’s a jerk for doing things that we wouldn’t criticize a man for doing, and in that case the sexism label fits, but sometimes she’s just a jerk.
I think it’s also important to recognize that men and women are wired differently. Some of this is cultural, and pretty much all of it is moldable by culture, but we are biologically different. We have had different evolutionary pressures in our histories, and have been selected for different traits. Men produce sperm at a very high rate, and women produce far fewer eggs. Each sperm is a cheap thing for men, but eggs are far more precious for women. I’m not in any way saying that this is a conscious thing, nor am I saying that we think about these things when making decisions, but these things have undoubtedly affected our evolutionary history, and affected which characteristics in men and women were likely to foster reproduction (and therefore continue in the line of ancestors over millions of years). But men with excellent spear throwing abilities might have been prized in our evolutionary history because they could provide for their offspring, and in modern times we have found other productive ways to harness those skills (e.g., sports, military, etc). In other words, just because we’ve been bred for something, it doesn’t mean we’re now worthless, or have to keep doing that thing we were bred for. So this isn’t a, “we can’t help it” statement, and I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be criticized for mindlessly bowing to whatever natural history may have shaped us.
But these sex differences could be somewhat revealing. Man ogle women. Men objectivize women. Men grope women. Men catcall women. Men look at women’s bodies. Women do some of these things to men also, at times, but it’s pretty clearly less frequent. My guess is that many men do this, in part, because they think it’s what women secretly want, and that this is because it’s what many men think they want. My guess is that the men who grope women think that it would feel great to be groped. It’s likely that they wouldn’t like it as much as they think they would, and certainly not if it was done by somebody they found unattractive, but my guess is that much of it doesn’t come from a hostile place, but kind of from a treat-people-like-we-would-want-to-be-treated-ourselves place. Again, it doesn’t make it right, and I’m not justifying it, I’m trying to provide an explanation. As I’ve written about before, I don’t think the two are equivalent. If we’re going to try to stop this kind of behavior, it does suggest a different approach. There may, for instance, be some women who would actually enjoy being groped. There may be some women who would like to be ogled. There may be some women who would get an extra bounce in their step if the right guy let out a whistle when she walked by. So what’s the answer to that: don’t do it until you know. It’s a tea vs coffee question. Some people like tea, some people like coffee. If you don’t know which the person wants, it’s best to ask before pouring it down their throats (and it’s probably never a good idea to pour it down their throats without asking first). Yes, this complicates things, because it means we have to ask if people want tea or coffee before forcing one upon them, but that added complication could go a long way toward a happier world.
But the key point that made me start writing this is this. I do not think sex is bad. I like sex. I know lots of women who like sex. Being sexy is not bad. I like sexy things, and I know lots of women who feel good when they’re a bit sexy. We should not shame these things, and it’s a total straw man fallacy to say that’s what this is about. But that’s my fear. It’s easy to dismiss some of the #metoo campaign because there’s often a fine line between a sexual advance and an unwanted sexual advance, and the latter can quickly slip into #metoo territory. I was watching something on CNN the other day. I can’t seem to find the clip now (there’s way too much coming up in the search), but the panel was talking about Weinstein and a conservative on the panel raised an issue and got lit up for it (both by other panel members and by social media). From what I recall, which I can’t confirm because I can’t find the clip, the problem from where I sat was his poor articulation of what I think he was trying to say, and I think what he was trying to say was important. Sometimes it’s difficult to separate flirting from harassment. Of course there are some obvious rules that should be easy to follow: don’t flirt with people who work for you, or who you have real power over. Really what it boils down to is, don’t flirt with people who can’t escape if they wanted to. Whether it’s because you’re their boss, because they’re in prison, because you have something that they need (food, water, shelter, etc). We describe it in terms of a power differential. Don’t abuse that power differential by using that power to get sex from somebody with less power. But that’s where this host’s point does seem like something worth considering: can a powerful person, then, never flirt. If the presence of a power differential makes it harassment, we’re in a bind because a powerful person can never flirt without it becoming harassment, because he (or she) is more powerful than practically anybody they might meet. So I think it’s critical that we think about it less as a power differential, and more as escapability. Are both people able to walk away from the situation without harm becoming them? That’s the key. And I think that’s what the guy on CNN was trying to say, but maybe I’m giving him too much credit.
The crux of this is that we need to beware the straw man: this is not an attack on sex, or being/feeling sexy, or flirting, or wanted advances. This is about inescapable advances. That’s where the fight needs to be, and that’s where we need to do better. Men need to be better at not taking advantage of captive audiences. I’m not saying that the rest isn’t important also (not giving a woman coffee when she wants tea, for instance), but my guess is that a kind offering of tea to somebody who really wants coffee wouldn’t be taken as a hostile act if we weren’t giving tea to somebody who really wants coffee, and is also stuck in a corner, unable to escape…unless you’re into that kind of thing, and then that’s fine too.