Sexual Harassment — Really, How Bad Can It Be?

OK, this is a long one, but it’s worth making your way through, I think. Because this is personal.

The issue of sexual harassment, from dirty jokes and inappropriate comments to groping and intimate contact in the workplace, has been front and center lately thanks to the seemingly endless stream of women coming forth to say that presidential candidate Herman Cain harassed them — sometimes “just” verbally, and at least once by pushing a woman’s face into his crotch while he reached up her dress. In every case, he was the woman’s superior, and therein lie significant components of the issue of harassment: power, economics, sexuality and sexism.

It’s something that should never have faded from the nation’s conscience, because it’s so widespread and so damaging, and so clearly a picture of the effects of patriarchy made robust by this culture. And while I acknowledge the wrongness of female superiors sexually harassing male subordinates, it’s absurd to suggest that this is not fundamentally a problem of male sexism — which has everything to do with sex, power, and the violence that comes with a thin veneer of sexual activity that makes it look like no more than the birds and the bees gone just a bit awry. As a woman who has experienced rape, I have no difficulty saying that sexual harassment is a lesser form of rape — crimes not of sex but of violence, power, and coercion expressed through sexual talk or activity.

A society as steeped in sexism as ours and which denies equal access, value, and status to women is a society that quickly condemns the man whose violence toward women doesn’t provoke sexual arousal and isn’t expressed through sexual contact, but dismisses the evil he engages in when it’s not bloody and not outwardly violent and directed toward a woman he’s been “friendly” with. Men who harass women sexually don’t do so because they’re sexually aroused; they’re sexually aroused because they’re in power over a vulnerable woman. Power that nurtures verbal or physical violence toward women may be expressed genitally, or may arouse the genitals of the harasser, but it’s not “sexual desire” that occasions rape or harassment. It’s power lorded over those believed to be vulnerable, compromised, or otherwise “less than.”

And yet, it’s more than that, as almost every woman who’s ever had a job knows.

The sexist male assertion that feminist women see sexism everywhere they look is borne out in the workplace; perhaps it has to do with the tendency of many men in power to see the women working with them as T and A, placed there for their sexual gratification. (That’s “tits and ass,” if you’ve been kept from cultural engagement during your lifetime). There is a world of difference between a male superior respectfully greeting a female co-worker or subordinate with a “Good morning, Ms. Smith. You look nice today,” and “Wow, Mary, that dress looks fantastic on you!” But I would acknowledge that the latter doesn’t constitute anything other than a cringeworthy lack of social skills.

That’s not harassment. Telling jokes about “pussy” is — I dealt with that when I worked at the University of Arizona, and it was more than a little uncomfortable. A male boss grilling a subordinate about any possible sexual experiences during a date is harassment; I experienced that in Texas. Certainly the awarding of a raise to a male subordinate while denying the same raise to his boss — because he’s a man with a family — is discrimination, and the patronizing “Now, you’re not going to cry about it, are you?”, is harassment, and I got it in a newspaper job when I was a newlywed. My experience is not unusual, and neither I nor any other woman I know who’s experienced sexual harassment in the workplace did anything at all, period, to encourage it — we just showed up to work. With breasts and other body parts that some men, weak and spiteful and perverse, simply cannot deal with.

I can imagine that some of my more conservative male readers, while assuring themselves that THEY wouldn’t act that way, are nonetheless reading the examples above and thinking that I shouldn’t be so “sensitive,” that I should toughen up. Let me assure them that they aren’t the only times I’ve felt the sting of sexual harassment. I “toughened up” early in my working career, believe me.

I worked, decades ago, for a daily newspaper in Tucson as a “stringer” — in this case, the person who phones in sports scores and stats and a few interesting features of a high school game. I had a male superior, a guy, a sportswriter in his late 20s who oversaw all of us eager, would-be newspaper reporters so grateful to be working for the Citizen, no matter how lowly our capacity. At the end of the season, every stringer got a tour of the Citizen’s plant, which was a real thrill for me, because my father had begun his newspaper career at the Citizen and was working, I’m pretty sure, at the rival newspaper, the Star, at the time — or soon would be.

After the tour, my boss and I got into his car so he could take me back to school, and as I’m buckling my seatbelt and rambling on about print journalism, he grabbed me, forcing his tongue into my mouth and not letting me go, no matter how much I struggled to get free, for almost five minutes. I was scared to death and couldn’t wait to get away, although I didn’t feel safe going back to school, back home, or anywhere else. Sadly, I couldn’t imagine ever telling anyone what he did, and I spent a lot of time trying to gauge just how bad I was that something like this would happen to me.

It was my first kiss. I was 15 years old.

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