men, masculinities and gender politics

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Want to avoid getting in trouble for sexual harassment? Don’t be an idiot. And don’t be a predator.

Sexual harassment by a male politician is again in the news, and this time it threatens to derail the “Cain Train” campaign of U.S. presidential candidate Herman Cain. Just the sheer number of women who have come forward to accuse Mr. Cain is beginning to look pretty damning. And one can easily imagine that there may still be other women who have not come forward because they do not want to endure the sort of harsh attacks that have greeted the women who have made the public disclosures.

But it is not my intent here to render judgment on Herman Cain’s guilt or innocence in these matters. That decision is best left up to the courts – that is, should any of the cases ever manage to get there without first being made to “go away” through hefty payouts.

No, my intent here is to respond to some of the things that I have been reading in the press that claim that current policies against sexual harassment amount to just one more ridiculous over-accommodation to feminist-inspired political correctness, that they rob men of the opportunity to be “playful” and to “have fun” in the workplace, and that they leave men easy targets for complaints made by malicious, disgruntled, or spurned employees.

For examples of each of these bizarre arguments, see the recent article on Slate.com by Dahlia Lithwick entitled “Never Happened: Conservatives aren’t just defending Herman Cain. They’re denying the very existence of sexual harassment.” http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2011/11/herman_cain_s_conservative_defenders_are_going_totally_overboard.html

“It’s just political correctness run amok.” Lithwick’s article cites John Derbyshire, who wrote in the National Review: “Is there anyone who thinks sexual harassment is a real thing? Is there anyone who doesn’t know it’s all a lawyers’ ramp, like 'racial discrimination'? You pay a girl a compliment nowadays, she runs off and gets lawyered up.”

What the hell? It is hard to even know where to begin in refuting that statement! But, Mr. Derbyshire, let me start with the fact that we are actually talking about women here, not girls. (And if it is indeed girls whom you are “complimenting,” then you probably deserve a visit from your local police department’s child protection unit.) But what is more likely is that you are using the term girls to describe people who are in fact adult women, which clearly shows that your sensibilities around gender are stuck way back in the pre-feminist 1950s, and that you almost certainly have nothing useful to say about sexual harassment in the year 2011.

But here in the year 2011 sexual harassment is still all too real. Legally, there are two main types of sexual harassment:

1 - Quid pro quo (“this for that”) harassment, which says you will get the job – or keep your job, or get promoted, or get better shifts – if you have sex with me.

2 - Hostile environment: in which a tone is set that unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

And, Mr. Derbyshire, both forms of sexual harassment are very serious.

Sexual harassment has real effects, both on its targets, and upon the organizations in which it occurs. According to a survey of the research (found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_harassment), common effects of sexual harassment upon its victims can include: decreased work or school performance, increased absenteeism, loss of job or career, extreme stress upon relationships with significant others, with peers and with colleagues, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, sleeplessness, nightmares, shame and guilt, difficulty concentrating, headaches, fatigue, loss of motivation, stomach problems, eating disorders, alcohol abuse, feeling betrayed and/or violated, feeling angry or violent towards the perpetrator, feeling powerless or out of control, increased blood pressure, loss of confidence and lowered self-esteem, withdrawal and isolation, overall loss of trust in people, traumatic stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts or attempts, and even suicide.

And an environment characterized by sexual harassment is not good for anyone. Businesses or organizations where sexual harassment occurs face decreased productivity and increased team conflict, loss of staff and expertise from staff resignations or the firing of alleged harassers, decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, increased health care costs and sick pay costs, and potentially immense legal costs if the problem is ignored and complainants take the issue to court.

As you can see, Mr. Derbyshire, it’s a big goddam deal.

And men can be a target, too. Men can be harassed by women in the workplace. It is not common, but it happens. More common, however, is men who are the targets of sexual harassment by other men. In 1991 a man who worked on an offshore oil rig was horribly sexually harassed by the other men who worked on his crew. He complained repeatedly to supervisors, but to no avail. He resigned, and then sued, only to be told by the District Court of Eastern Louisiana that because he was a man being targeted by other men, he was not in one of the “protected classes” that the original law was supposed to shelter from such abuse.

His case ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1998 overturned the lower court’s ruling, and stated that sexual harassment laws also apply to people of the same sex.

So yes, Mr. Derbyshire, a whole lot of people actually do believe that sexual harassment is very real. Including a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court. Including Clarence Thomas! (More on him later….) It can happen to men. It can happen to you. And if it does, you will be able to seek legal recourse… thanks to your own government’s laws prohibiting such horrible behavior.

“But it’s just good, dirty fun!” Lithwick’s article also cites New York Post commentator Kurt Schlichter, who asserts thatthe only things you need to file a lawsuit are the filing fee and a printer. Facts are optional. … Where sexual-harassment law once protected women from being forced to be the playthings of crude lechers, it’s been transformed to enforcing a prim puritanism that drains the humor and humanity from the workplace.”

My goodness! What a tragedy! Mr. Schlichter seems to think that not being able to tell sleazy jokes about tits, about hard-ons, about orgasms, and about blowjobs somehow diminishes the workplace experience. After all, what’s the big deal if the jokes we tell and the remarks we make imply to our female coworkers that they are all just another worthless piece of ass? What’s the problem? We men should have the right to be as ignorant, as disgusting, and as offensive as we want to be, right? Right?

Wrong!

And, Mr. Schlichter, before you accuse me of being just another humorless (pro)feminist, let me say that there was a time that I indeed did find all those silly jokes told in the lunch room about body parts, about women, about sex, about men and women having sex, and about all that other stuff to be absolutely hilarious! I found them uproarious! Clever! And oh-so-funny! But you know what happened next? I graduated from middle school and went to high school, where I began to realize that the sexual humor of 13 year-old boys is almost always exceptionally immature, utterly stupid, and hugely offensive.

And you know what else? Sometimes the girls in my life at that time told me that they didn’t find those jokes to be very funny. That they felt demeaned and humiliated by them. And because I happen to be in touch with the common humanity that we men all share with the females of our species, I stopped telling those stupid, offensive jokes at lunch time… Or at any time.

As an adult, I still frequently encounter off-color jokes in various lunch rooms and around the water cooler. And you know what I do? If it’s really bad, I confront the joke-teller. But if it’s merely minor stupidity, I just leave. Why? Because I respect women. Because I respect myself. And because I am no longer in the 7th grade.

Men as easy targets. A third stream of thought around these allegations against Herman Cain is that we men have simply become easy targets for this sort of allegation – especially if you are Black. The newly-minted White defenders of the Black Man in America include US Congressman Steve King from Iowa, who responded to the allegations against Mr. Cain by saying: “Where’s the Anita Hill? This is an Anita Hill issue, and from what I see, without substance. This shouldn’t have been a story.” And Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah), also alluding to the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas debacle, said: “With members of Congress and with voters generally, if this turns out to be another racially-motivated attack on an African American conservative that is unfounded, unfair, uncorroborated, and in this instance, based on anonymous sources, I think that’s going to rally people around him, in Congress and elsewhere.”

But before these defenders of Herman Cain go too far in their assertion that the attacks on their guy have about the same credibility that the allegations against Clarence Thomas did, they should do well to consider two things: first, that many, many Americans do in fact believe that Anita Hill was absolutely telling the truth, and, second, that the supporters of Clarence Thomas won the day only because they were able to suppress the evidence!

As I noted in my blog posting of May 23, 2011:

While the press, politicians, and pundits were busily maligning Ms. Hill’s character and motivation, what went largely unnoticed was that there were four other witnesses brought to Washington who were fully prepared to testify – but who were never called by the committee. These people included Angela Wright, who had been Thomas’s press secretary (and who had never met or worked with Anita Hill), and had testified privately that Thomas had repeatedly pressured her for dates, asked her about her breast size, and often made remarks about the bodies of other women. She also reported that Thomas showed up at her apartment uninvited one night and again pressed her to go out with him.

A woman named Susan Hoerchner was also prepared to testify that Hill had complained to her at the time about Thomas’ harassing behavior, and that he said things to her like: “You know I’m your kind of man, you just refuse to admit it.” Hill’s boyfriend at the time of the alleged harassment was also prepared to testify but was never called by the committee. Not called, either, was American University law professor Joel Paul, who tried to recruit Hill for a job. Asking her why she’d left the job she had held under Clarence Thomas, Hill had reported to him that her departure was due to Thomas’ sexual harassment.

So to claim that Herman Cain is just as innocent now as Clarence Thomas was then… well that seems to be a rather weak defense indeed!

But what about false accusations? The Cain apologists claim that men are all too easily the targets of fictitious accusations of sexual harassment. This is something I know a great deal about.

Many years ago I worked in an organization that attempted to get truant children back to school. One of the male employees on the team started to pay a lot of unwanted attention to one of the female employees on the team. The situation made her extremely uncomfortable. So I cut it off. I intercepted the notes he wrote to her and the cds he made for her, and I returned them to him. I let him know the attention was not welcome, and that it needed to stop.

This guy hated me for it.

Then I got a promotion, and became the team coordinator. A few weeks later a letter was sent to my bosses accusing me of sexual harassment, and saying that I was having an affair with the woman in question. I got called into my boss’ office, and was interviewed extensively by two supervisors. The woman was interviewed as well. The bosses soon realized that the charge was bogus, and when they tried to respond to the letter through certified mail, it turned out that there was no such person, and no such address.

Although I could never prove who did it, I absolutely believe that the accuser was that ass whose approaches toward that female coworker I had cut off. I did some exploring of my own and found out that this guy had previously been sent to “sensitivity training” twice for allegations that he himself was sexually harassing female coworkers. Not once – twice! In my opinion, you are damn lucky if you get sent even once. And if you continue to do it after that one time reprieve then you should be terminated. Immediately. But this guy managed to keep his job. I hope someday that his asinine behavior catches up with him and that he is severely punished.

This was a very stressful time in my life. But what helped me to get through it rather unscathed was that I keep my behavior totally clean in the workplace. I am careful to ensure that my interactions do not contain even a whiff of impropriety. And since I play fair and keep it clean, there was simply nothing to support the bogus charges.

In trying to defend Mr. Cain, U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R. Kentucky) says that our fear of sexual harassment suits damages workplace relations. He complains: “There are people now who hesitate to tell a joke to a woman in the workplace, any kind of joke, because it could be interpreted incorrectly. I don’t. I’m very cautious.”

I have to say this to Mr. Paul: I simply fail to understand your concerns. Is there something wrong with exercising caution in the workplace? Is there something wrong with not engaging in immature, stupid sexual banter that might offend a coworker, boss, or subordinate? Is there something wrong with having to act like a professional in the workplace – and to expect others to do the same?

If you do feel a need to engage in idiotic sexual banter, then I urge you to keep it to other environments!

Not that innocent. And it is critical for us all to keep in mind that a lot of the harassment that goes on is simply not innocent. Not at all. A lot of it goes far beyond telling stupid jokes in the break room or sending idiotic and inappropriate emails. According to Martha Langelan, the author of Back Off: How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers, there are three different classes of sexual harassers:

The “dominance harasser” is the most common type. He engages in harassing behavior as an ego boost. It’s his show, and he’ll run it how he pleases. He is a bully.

The “predatory harasser” gets sexual thrills from humiliating others. He may become involved in sexual extortion, and may harass just to see how targets respond. Those who don't resist may even become targeted by him for further forms of sexually abusive behavior, including rape.

The “strategic or territorial harasser” seeks to maintain male privilege in certain jobs, and harasses female employees in a predominantly male occupations – in order to send them the message that they don’t belong there.

These kinds of sexual harassment are not based in ignorance. In fact, what they are is cruel, predatory, and outright misogynist.

So just how are we guys supposed to act? If you are engaging in stupid sexual banter in the workplace, knock it off! You are being foolish, and you could lose your job because of your stupid choices. If an allegation is ever leveled against you, it will not be much of a defense for you to say: “Yeah, I joked about her boobs all the time… but I was just joking!” You can get into a lot of trouble for just acting like an idiot. And the best way to ensure that doesn’t happen is to stop acting like a fool.

But if you are a guy who is engaging in dominance, predatory, or strategic/territorial harassment (and some of the accusations suggest that Herman Cain was involved some of these sorts of behaviors), then I have no empathy whatsoever for you or for your situation. And things like “sensitivity training” won’t help. Because the issue is not one of insensitivity. You know exactly what you are doing. And because you know what you are doing, you deserve to get in trouble.

You deserve to be fired.