The Sexual Harassment Quagmire
Digging Out with True Equality
by Jerry A. Boggs
Women's magazines often acknowledge sexual harassment's chilling effect on office romance. But that hasn't deterred them from recommending to the woman looking for love that a great place to look is the workplace.
Do these magazines tell women to conduct their on-the-job search for romance by directly approaching an appealing man and asking him out? Some do, but many do not. Cosmopolitan, read by the largest number of single working women, told women to take these tactics in the workplace:
"Brush up against somebody in the elevator..."
"If you have good legs, wear a very tight, short skirt and very high heels. Bend over with your back to a man (to pick something up or look in a file drawer, etc.)...."
"You cross your legs and your skirt rides up...." P. 289-90, The Myth of...
"The power of these indirect initiatives," says educator Warren Farrell, author of Why Men Are the Way They Are, "is that they put neither the woman's ego nor her career on the line." But the problem with many of women's indirect initiatives is that they attract Mr. Wrong as easily as Mr. Right, both of whom must put both their ego and their career on the line to find out which of them indeed is her Mr. Right.
If Mr. Right responds, all is well and a courtship may begin. But if Mr. Wrong responds, as may be the case just as often, how is a woman instructed to handle him? Is she told Mr. Wrong is the occasional price a woman must pay because men can't always know for sure if a woman isn't interested until they make an advance? Is she advised to say politely and convincingly, "No. I'm sorry, but I'm not interested"? Sometimes she does receive such sensible advice. Increasingly, though, she is urged, mostly by the largely unquestioned theorizing of radical feminists (RFs henceforth; radical feminists shouldn't be confused with equity feminists, who are concerned also about equity for males), to think of Mr. Wrong as someone who offended her and created for her a "hostile work environment," especially if he approached her more than once. She is advised to find out if Mr. Wrong violated one of the rules that keep multiplying as a result of the ever-expanding definition of sexual harassment. (A troubling new expansion made in September 2005 is analyzed in my "Ninth Circuit Court D) That advice is more likely to be followed if Mr. Wrong is unattractive. According to a study by Sanford Braver, a psychologist at Arizona State University, the more handsome a man is, the less likely he is ever to be accused of misconduct. Braver also found that unattractiveness in a man meant he couldn't say "hello" without it being seen as sexual harassment.
When a man compliments a woman at work, he often does so merely to foster harmony, as he might do with another man. If he is interested in her romantically, he may compliment her to show not only that he likes her, but also to test out her responses to see whether she is receptive to a request for a date. Such "testing-out" compliments have long been how men have attempted to open the door to a courtship with a woman. Since the Ninth Circuit Court in 1991 expressed the view that even well-intentioned compliments can form the basis for sexual harassment claims, some men in the workplace have shifted from testing women out with words of appreciation to avoiding them as much as possible.PB, 3/98, p.160
How do some men feel about sexual harassment and RFs' influence on how it's viewed and dealt with? Comedian Chris Rock says, "What's the difference between sexual harassment and just being an idiot? If my father didn't harass my mother, I wouldn't be here. Anita Hill started this whole thing. If Clarence Thomas looked like Denzel Washington, this would never have happened. When an ugly man wants some, you call the police." Maureen Dowd's 10/2/97? Free Press column
For another view, suppose men announced to women, "We men have decided that it is women's role, and only women's role, to raise the children. Even though we want children as much as you do, we men will take no part whatsoever in the role of childraising."
Suppose men added, "We will never acknowledge when you do well in your role of caring for children. Our only feedback to you will be to criticize you when we think you take care of the children improperly or make them angry. We will then call you 'abusers.'"
Women would feel this is sexism compounded with cruelty. Feminists would not be amused in the least by women's being stereotyped as potential abusers.
Imagine, then, how men might feel (if only more men felt free to express how they feel!) when they realize this: RFs, by fixating only on sexual harassment outside the context of all male-female flirtations and courting interactions in the workplace, have in effect said to men, "It is your role, and your role alone, to initiate sexual relationships even though women want them as much as you do. It is your role to take the roughly 150 initiatives (and the attendant 150 risks of rejection, the effect on the male pysche of rejection's constant threat having not piqued most social researchers' curiosity) that Warren Farrell says must on average be taken to move a relationship from first eye contact to first sexual contact. We do not want women to take any part in this except to say yes or no to your initiatives. Moreover, we will not commend you when you perform this role correctly and every day countless good relationships result. Our only feedback to you will be to denounce you when we think you 'do it wrong.' We will then call you 'harassers.'"
Many feminists say the childcare problem cannot be solved until men equally share the responsibility for raising children. To my knowledge, no feminists say sexual harassment cannot be solved until women equally share the responsibility for initiating romantic male-female relationships.
How the sexes learn "harassment" behavior
Examples of how men at work "do it wrong" and become sexual harassers are often shown in the videos used as part of employers' training against sexual harassment. (See a video that shows women saying, "The intent doesn't matter, only the impact" - which requires men to be mind-readers who know how women are going to react to their every word.) The videos, as well as the rest of employers' training programs, are sometimes influenced by the thinking of such RFs as Catharine MacKinnon, a law professor at the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan. MacKinnon has said that since "male power" prevents women from granting meaningful consent, male sexuality equates to rape. Thus, the videos, often swayed by such thinking, cast men as sexual predators-in-training who almost always "do it wrong," while concealing the fact that in real life the vast majority of men obviously "do it right." (Although MacKinnon suggests "male power" forces women to say "yes" when they mean "no," most men report hearing mostly women's "no." Sometimes they hear, "Not a chance" or even "Drop dead." Do such responses to men's sexual initiative-taking sound like they came from women intimidated by "male power"?)
Perhaps more important, the videos fail to take into account that women take little or no responsibility for directly initiating the workplace relationships women desire as much as men and which many women's magazines encourage them to go all out for.
The training videos' theme frequently is men's persistent requests for dates or sex. This persistence is the type of harassment that women at work often find very bothersome. (It falls within the definition of hostile environment, which now forms the basis for most sexual harassment cases.) The harassers seen in the videos are nearly always cast as overbearing boors who pay no attention to a woman's "no." They just don't get it. They persist...and persist...
Yet as surely as women are taught by Cosmo-type magazines the value of wearing come-hither clothes and "being sought, protesting, then allowing ourselves to be overcome" (Working WomanAugust 1994; emphasis mine), men are taught to use persistence to overcome.
One not-so-subtle source of this teaching on male persistence is movies. In "Body Heat," a man calculates that a woman's lucid, no-means-no refusal of his advances is disingenuous. On her porch moments after she ends their talk and locks him out, he seizes a chair and smashes it through her door. When he enters, she doesn't flee in terror from what appears to be a man gone berserk. Instead, she shrink-wraps herself around him and kisses him as if she hasn't seen a man in decades. She then leads him upstairs to her bedroom. It's later revealed that she was after him even before they met – even as she was saying "No"....
In "Lethal Weapon 3," a woman tells a man she wants the two of them to stop their sensual horseplay of showing each other their body scars. Presumably she has signaled that she doesn't want their fooling around to get out of hand. His response? He stops, but then almost immediately grabs and kisses her in the way that in 1995 got U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood in trouble with the National Organization for Women and the Senate Ethics Committee, which recommended that Packwood be expelled. Her reaction? She goes to the floor with him and they graduate from sensual horseplay to consensual sex-play.
In "Frankie and Johnny," Frankie's resistance to dating Johnny is in time worn away by his smothering persistence.
And so it goes, in movie after movie, women resisting, men persisting, women finally yielding.
"Male sexual interest is not simply being construed, or interpreted, as 'power.' It has actually been redefined as such." –Daphne Patai, Heterophobia – Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism
Explains Dr. Bernie Zilbergeld in The New Male Sexuality, "Men in the fantasy model are always rewarded for not listening to a woman rather than taking her seriously. Is it any wonder that men in the real world have trouble knowing what to do when a woman says 'No' or 'Stop'?" Is it any wonder that some men are led to think that while a "No" said with sincerity is how one woman makes her refusal clear, it's how another woman tests a man's sincerity?
The idea that women shouldn't be listened to is reinforced, Zilbergeld adds, each time a woman initially resists a man's advances to avoid being considered "loose" or "easy," or to buy time to decide whether she likes him enough to go out with him, or whether he measures up to her (and to her friends') standards, then says yes if he asks again. The message some men absorb as a result of this female behavior? Don't listen to what she says! You can talk her into changing her mind! Contrary to feminists' rhetoric, no doesn't always mean no. As Kate Fillion stresses in Lip Service, "One-third of women consistently tell researchers that on at least one occasion they have said No to sex when what they really meant was Yes; 'liberated' women are as likely to do this as are women who accept traditional gender roles."
The message that men shouldn't heed a woman's "no" - at least her first one or two - is also picked up, perhaps unconsciously, each time a man overhears a woman say of the man in her life, "I didn't like him at first. Now I'm in love!" This suggests she found love the way women in movies find it: he made an advance, and she resisted; he persisted, and she gave in and was then "swept away" by his relentlessness, by love born of male persistence, of a man' s refusal to take no for an answer.
"Many women acknowledge eventually marrying men to whom they had at first said 'No;' that is, men who had in fact persisted." –Warren Farrell, The Myth of Male Power, cassette tape version
The message "Don't listen to a woman's 'no'" pops up in lots of places. In a July 1992 letter to Ann Landers, a woman writes: "I am a professional, single, attractive woman in my late 20s. Two years ago, I met a wealthy man. I did not encourage him, but he pursued me relentlessly and was very persistent. I finally gave in."
The problem for the male, asserts Dr. Bernie Zilbergeld, is to differentiate between refusals that are real and those that are ambivalent or merely facades. If a man backs off when a refusal seems to be a facade, he may fear that not only will he lose out on a possibly great relationship, but he will be viewed by the woman as a wimp for giving up and lacking the desirable male bravado.
Many men, says Zilbergeld, stop trying to figure out if rejections are real or fake, and forge ahead regardless of what the woman says.
Although many women complain when men persist, many others complain when men don't persist. Oprah- and Dr. Phil-style talk shows feature topics like "Women Upset Because Men Didn't Call Back"! Sadly, men are put between a rock and a hard place – criticized when they overdo the pursuing, and criticized when they underdo it. Meanwhile, no one seems to understand that pursuing and calling back are women's responsibilities, too.
When feelings become fact, the stage is set for repression and censorship. That is because, in the absence of tight definitions, almost any behavior can be construed as sexual harassment. A remark meant as praise can be experienced as an affront, an expression of sexual interest as a breach of trust. Victims, real or imagined, multiply.
-Prof. M. Patricia Fernandez Kelly
It's proclaimed in some employers' training programs that sexual harassment charges are always valid, and flimsy or false charges are a myth. Suppose Bill Clinton, while president, hadn't been restricted by political correctness, hadn't sacrificed personal power for political power, and could have expressed his personal feelings regarding sexual harassment. One wonders what he might have said about the "myth" of false charges after having denied the charge that he sexually harassed Paula Jones. Chris Byron says in Men's Health magazine,9/94 "No one has yet been found guilty of sexual harassment for a tip of the hat, but charges are certainly being filed on increasingly flimsy grounds."
It stands to reason that flimsy or false charges of sexual harassment would begin surfacing. "Given the expansive terminology," writes John Cloud in Time,3/23/98, p.50 "just about anything can count as a hostile environment, depending on who's defining the terms." A man need not even be persistent. "For some women," says Warren Farrell, "any initiative – even one – could make her feel uncomfortable and therefore create a hostile environment. And that is all she needs to have her lawsuit upheld."
Not even the man's intent makes a legal difference. (Imagine intent not making a difference in the case of bodily injury or homicide.) And if it's her word against his, a "bare assertion" of sexual harassment can stand without factual support. A woman no longer even has to inform the man that he's bothering her. She can merely complain to a girlfriend at work. The EEOC's decision number 84-1 says this is "sufficient to support a finding of harassment."
"The Civil Rights Act of 1991 removed the requirements of discriminatory intent and wrote the concept of 'disparate impact' (i.e., effects, not intent) into statutory law for the first time. It also gave plaintiffs in Title VII discrimination cases the right to a jury trial and to monetary damages. This set the stage for the elevation of women's word to the level of law – which was precisely the goal of feminist activists." –Daphne Patai [Stress mine]
Extremist interpretations of sexual harassment disturb even some in the American Civil Liberties Union, normally pro-woman in matters of gender.
"There has been," says ACLU president, Nadine Strossen, author of Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight For Women's Rights(1995), "too easy a leap from discrimination on the basis of gender to the false assumption that any sexual reference to or about a woman, or in the presence of a woman, is sexist. I find that absolutely contrary not only to free speech but to women's equality. One thing I discovered in doing research for my book was the shocking extent to which, although our legal system has so far without any dissension rejected the [Catharine] MacKinnon/[Andrea] Dworkin argument in the context of pornography laws, [it] has accepted their world-view through the Trojan horse of sexual harassment law and practice. Their view boils down to: Sex is inherently degrading to women, so any sexual image or reference [is harassment]." As a result, Strossen says, sexual harassment "has disintegrated into simplistic demonization of sexual expression."
Children are taught the empowering maxim, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." But some grown women are taught by radical feminists a modern version: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but mere words have the power to utterly destroy me!"
More and more we have expanded the concept of sexual harassment. More and more we have stripped away the requirement of factual support for a complaint of harassment, and have pressured employers, who normally hear both sides to a grievance, to hear only the victim's side to a grievance of sexual harassment. More and more, RFs and the media indoctrinate women to see every man as the enemy and a harasser in the making. More and more, they have portrayed the female as a powerless, fragile creature who is easily offended and harmed by the mildest innocent male indiscretion – and whose dignity, it turns out, can be restored only by ample monetary compensation.
All things considered, why shouldn't we expect unscrupulous women, their eyes on the gold that is often easily mined for being "offended," to file flimsy sexual harassment charges, notwithstanding RFs' suggestion that such women don't exist and so false charges are a myth?
As reports of sexual harassment increase because of the increased incentives to complain about it, RFs will likely insist that more reporting merely proves sexual harassment is worsening as a result of heightened misogyny and a male backlash against women asserting themselves. They will likely demand even more legislation and incentives to make it even easier for women to come forward and complain...which in turn will increase the reporting even more…which will further increase RFs' demands for even more legislation…
"I think we've overemphasized gender or sex," Nadine Strossen says, "and underemphasized harassment. Harassment is harassment – it doesn't matter what basis you do it on! If I'm harassed because I'm a member of the ACLU or because I have curly hair, it doesn't matter what the basis [is]. The same is true at work: if anybody is doing something that interferes with your ability to work, it doesn't matter what in particular they see about you that makes them do that.
"The law [says] that you are protected against religious harassment. If we were to transpose the overly broad concept of any sexual reference to a woman as sexual harassment, then what about an employee talking about gay rights or reproductive freedom in front of an employee who's a fundamentalist? They could say that it's religious harassment at work."
"It is a sign of the extraordinary power gained by feminist perspectives that men have in some cases lost their livelihoods because a woman has interpreted something said or done (that just a few years earlier would have seemed innocuous) in accordance with new feminist dogma."
By focusing on gender or sex, we tend to ignore other common forms of harassment.
Postal worker Kimberly Thompson wrote, "Beginning in early 1990 through April 1993, I was continuously harassed by Carolyn Jones, Mary Edwards, [and] Jeanette Michaels [last names are changed]. All are supervisors on my tour [who] caused extreme stress that culminated [in] a forced resignation."
As Thompson explained, one of these supervisors stole her eyeglasses, and another accused her of having an affair with a co-worker and threatened her on the job and at home. One of them even rammed into her car and came after her with a knife.
After fleeing the knife-wielder, she reported the incident to the police. But when she reported it to the postal inspector, she was told nothing could be done about the knife threat because the incident did not occur on the job. In fact, nothing was done about anything. Even after she returned to work, she continued to be harassed by her supervisors Jeanette Michaels and Mary Edwards, "for any little thing (my seating stool was not in the proper groove or I was too long in the rest room). Michaels and Edwards would come past my station with remarks like 'We've got the right one, baby,' or 'There's always a next time' and 'If she has any sense, she would resign before she gets fired, because the next time it'll stick.'"
Had the emphasis that's given to sexual harassment been given also to this common but non-sexual harassment – which usually afflicts men – Thompson might have been able to forestall the hostile work environment. Moreover, we might not automatically picture harassers as male.
By emphasizing gender or sex, we also pay little or no attention to the harassment and humiliation of children by adults. In 1992, at West Utica Elementary School (Michigan), parent volunteers Pamela Munro and Patti Rosinski accused a 2nd-grade boy of exposing himself in school. They put a letter in the book bags of the boy's 24 classmates, urging parents to complain to the school district about the boy disrupting class. In the letter, they said the boy's "outbursts" were "perverse, unruly" and said "at the present time he is suspended for exposing himself to the class." The boy's parents, rightly, sued the school and the parent volunteers for false accusations, violation of the boy's privacy, and damage to their family reputation.
My feeling about this incident is this: Only in a culture which, taking cues from RFs like Catharine MacKinnon, has become hysterical over sexual harassment and has stereotyped males as rapacious beasts, would two adults, possibly feminists, feel the need to punish and humiliate a seven- or eight-year boy for exposing himself in class. Had the child been a girl, the two women likely would have handled the matter in a private, caring way, so as not to undermine her self-esteem, correctly seeing such a child as misguided and not fully aware of what she had done.
Criticizing the over-emphasis on gender or sex as diminishing women, Katie Riophe writes in The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus, "The assumption that women in the workplace can be sexually harassed by male peers or even subordinates – Catharine MacKinnon [argues] the fact that being a man gives you so much more power that [women] need special rules. That [is like] saying that women who are in a position of power aren't really; their power and their authority is so fragile that a dirty joke by a man can puncture all their years of hard work. I find that offensive." RFs' version of "sticks and stones"!
The price of extremism
Protect-the-woman laws similar to those pertaining to sexual harassment have historically ended up hurting women. Around 1908, in response mostly to pressure from women's groups (which had power decades before RFs first complained that women have never had power), states began passing hours-limitation laws to prevent employers from requiring female employees to work more than a certain number of days per week and hours per day. Employers, with less control over women, began barring them from productivity jobs subject to such things as last-minute product orders which, if not fulfilled, would go to the employer's competitors, thereby hurting everyone in the company. Employers were forced to reserve these jobs for the group still under their total control: men. But now with a smaller pool of workers available for these jobs, employers were compelled by the law of supply and demand to raise the pay. So began both the division of labor by sex and the sexes' income gap, now touted by feminists as prima facie evidence of women's oppression.
It's not surprising, then, that protect-the-woman legislation regarding sexual harassment is also backfiring on women.
"There's no doubt about the fact that the climate has been counterproductive," says Ricki Gaull Silberman, vice-chairman of the EEOC. Women's Freedom Network newsltr. "It limits women's opportunities, although nobody will admit to it. Managers are afraid to give travel assignments to women, late-night assignments, [work behind] closed doors. We are in danger of reinstituting the protective laws of the early 20th Century that we were so proud of getting rid of in the name of equality." (See also Rene Denfeld's The New Victorians: A Young Woman's Challenge to the Old Feminist Order; it speculates that expanding sexual harassment is part of the antimale war waged by RFs who desire gender segregation.)
Mariana Parks, Vice President at the Seattle-based Washington for Policy Studies, notices the extreme importance of a mentor for anyone serious about a career. "You learn your best lessons from the mistakes you make," she says, "but someone must be willing to sit down with you and tell you that you've screwed up. Now we have created a situation, with the deadly cocktail of affirmative action, EEOC lawsuits, and sexual harassment lawsuits, in which people are increasingly unwilling to tell women what they are doing or have done wrong because it creates a paper trail. In the long run, this will be a huge impediment to women's advancement."
Female executives may find male executives becoming more reluctant than ever to include women in their circles, even as diversity programs call for women's inclusion. Many men, says Judith Tingley in Genderflex: Men & Women Speaking Each Other's Language At Work, are paralyzed by the fear of saying or doing something that will brand them as sexist pigs guilty of harassment.
...[I]t is clear that sexual harassment policies have damaged the work place as well. Among the less visible costs are: women have acquired the status of victims who require protection from a paternalistic State; women are losing mentors who are unwilling to risk complaints; women are being viewed as "the enemy" by male co-workers who do not associate with them more than is necessary. -Wendy McElroy
Some employers now consider the female employee a potentially greater liability than males. They fear that at some point, probably when a woman is disciplined or fired, she will file a sexual harassment lawsuit and cost their company thousands of dollars just to settle.
A researcher writes:
A friend of mine who ran one of the largest research firms in California let go a woman who was unable to get along with most of the employees. A few weeks later, she sued him for sexual harassment.
He had no interest in her, had never had a complaint against him for such behavior, nor had anyone in his company ever had a complaint against him for sexual harassment. Well, there was one exception: The woman who filed the complaint had herself been the subject of complaints that she had sexually harassed two different men and discriminated against them when they were unresponsive. Nevertheless, the legal hassle that resulted diverted the firm from its function and catalyzed a decline that eventually led (in conjunction with the recession) to the company's extinction.
The potential for such destructiveness, says Warren Farrell, "makes even female employers more desirous of hiring men." Take Pittsburgh restaurateur Sarah J. McCarthy. According to Nadine Strossen, "McCarthy has said that the overly broad concept of sexual harassment as all speech with sexual connotations has made even her, an avowed feminist, 'fearful of hiring women.'" Many employers, both male and female, may be wondering if they'd be better off operating in another country where business is not terrorized by RFs and political correctness.
Although Cosmo-type magazines still tell women the workplace is a great place to look for romance, some women now think the workplace offers a dismal place to look. "Another problem with guys," says Devon in a letter to romance columnist Cheryl Lavin, 7/6/97, Free Press"is that they're not sexually aggressive enough. They don't know how to sweep a girl off her feet and turn a girl on. They're too scared and intimidated. The whole '90s thing with date rape and sexual harassment suits have made them scared and made sex a lot less fun." (Spoken truly like someone who sees romantic initiative-taking solely as the responsibility of men.)
"...[W]e all have to be careful. I don't know of one executive in this town who will hire a female assistant. That's the corrupt side of it: Women have claimed that men have done things they haven't done, and men are afraid."
–Bill Maher, formerly of "Politically Incorrect" Playboy interview, Aug. '97
Toward a legislation-free solution
Without question, employers must have training programs aimed at preventing such hostile environment cases as female workers being manhandled. They must also stop such quid pro quo incidents as bosses punishing employees who reject advances and giving preferential treatment or promotions to those who accept advances, thereby discriminating against all the other workers who were competing for the promotions. Programs designed to stop these kinds of behavior benefit everyone, employers included.
But employers' programs should also provide a balance to RFs' interpretations of sexual harassment and RFs' proposals to curb the harassment through the singular method of punishing harassers and compelling male employees to understand the "female culture." A balance would primarily include providing an understanding of the male culture as well.
Such a balance in the programs to stop sexual harassment should point out the relevance of women equally sharing the responsibility of initiating male-female relationships. This equal sharing should be emphasized especially when an employer aspires to be "socially conscious," or when an employer can't prohibit – or doesn't want to prohibit – fraternizing, since to prohibit it would deny employees a major "benefit": "When," says Warren Farrell, "I ask women in my audiences who had entered the workplace when single and later gotten married, to 'raise your hand if you married a man you met at work (or through a workplace contact – a client, or someone to whom you were a client),' almost two thirds raised their hands. Another 15 percent of these women lived with or had a long relationship with a man they met while on the job, but never married him."
To my knowledge, employers' sexual-harassment prevention programs fail even to suggest women should equally share in initiating the relationships which women equally seek at work and which most employers seem to condone. (A Fortune magazine poll of 200 executives found 79 percent think office romances are not the company's concern if the unmarried couple remain discreet.) So men feel they alone are vulnerable to charges of sexual harassment. That feeling of vulnerability will increase as more women learn that even a frivolous charge of harassment won't be questioned and may earn them a large sum of money from employers wanting to avoid the higher costs of litigation and a tarnished image. Most men, untutored on gender issues the way women are, are unable to articulate their vulnerability – and the unfairness – or are afraid to articulate it lest they be penalized at work for "opposing women."
If employers' programs do not tell women they have equal responsibility for initiating workplace romance – and thus ignore men's vulnerability and views – employers may pay a price. Some men, rather than welcome the changes promoted by diversity, may obstruct them and contribute to the workplace stress and gender alienation that a growing body of experts links to policies on sexual harassment. Other men may simply leave companies whose aggressiveness in preventing a hostile work environment for women has created a hostile work environment for men.1
"Inevitably, the heightened sensitivity to sexual harassment has left some men feeling persecuted, and it has convinced others that the handling of sexual harassment claims can be every bit as abusive as sexual harassment itself."-Ellis Cose, A Man's World
But there is a more compelling reason that employers' sexual-harassment prevention programs should reflect an understanding of the male culture and should encourage female employees to equally share in initiating relationships. This understanding and equal sharing would curb sexual harassment and costly lawsuits. Here's how.
When women complain that men don't take their "no" seriously, they imply that women do take men's "no" seriously. Men's "no"? How can men say "No" to women if women as a rule don't directly ask anything of them?
Men's "no" generally occurs when men decline to take direct initiatives in response to women's indirect initiatives. Suppose a woman takes a Cosmo-recommended indirect initiative, such as brushing up against a man in an elevator and smiling at him. If he merely returns a smile and goes back into his thoughts, this is, in her view, his way of saying "no" to her indirect initiative, to her gesture of interest in him. As a woman might explain, "If I gush at a guy, 'Zowee, you're as handsome as Brad Pitt!' and he doesn't pick up on that by talking to me and sooner or later suggesting lunch or something, I figure he's telling me to forget it. He's clearly saying 'no' to me."
Not only do men tell women "no" by declining to take initiatives, but it appears women take men's "no" quite seriously. To them, men's "no" definitely means no.
The fear of sexual harassment charges, coupled with the usual fear of rejection, discourages more and more men at work from taking initiatives in response to female co-workers' cues of romantic interest such as "My, what a nice tie/suit/shirt you have."
That's because, I believe, throughout their entire lives women see men, in both the real world and the fictional, make their interest in a woman perfectly clear by going right up to her and asking for what they want in words not open to interpretation. The male's direct and unambiguous initiative-taking has taught the female to believe that if the man she is flirting with is interested and wants to go out with her, he will unequivocally ask, "Want to go out with me?" And it has taught her that if he doesn't want to go out with her, he will utter nothing except perhaps small talk; he will take no initiative with her at all.
The male's clear-cut, unambiguous courting behavior has convinced the female that when her flirting – her indirect initiative-taking – is ignored, the man is plainly not interested. No point in her continuing to flirt with the man who fails to make an overture. No point in persisting with someone known for making his interest clear by taking initiatives, and also known for making his lack of interest clear by not taking initiatives. (Some women do persist with flirting on the sometimes-correct assumption that the man is shy and needs encouragement.)
In contrast, most women, by not taking clear-cut, male-type direct initiatives with a man who stirs their interest, often make their interest unclear. When, for example, a woman "shows her romantic interest" in a male co-worker by giving him a Brad Pitt-look-alike compliment, and she herself doesn't request a get-together, the man may hear ambiguity and think: "Does she have the hots for me, or is she just making an observation about my looks?" Considering the hysteria over sexual harassment, he may also think, especially if he doesn't know her well, "Is she setting me up to come on to her so she can charge sexual harassment and tap the company for big bucks for being 'offended'?"
In theory, sexual harassment law applies to both sexes. In practice, it applies virtually only to men, since they alone are assigned the role of initiating male-female relationships. Some young women are beginning to see this role as theirs, too, and are taking more direct, male-type initiatives. Most women, however, still leave the initiative-taking to men. Such women include even accomplished, seemingly feminist women. Nicole Beland is a former senior editor at Cosmopolitan and Mademoiselle magazines. She now produces a column, "Ask the Girl Next Door," for Men's Health. In it, she advises men how to connect with women. She appears to be an expert in sex and male-female relationships. In the January/February 2004 Men's Health, she writes: "I'll spot a good-looking guy in a coffee shop, at the bookstore or in a bar and will immediately pretend he isn't there. My thought: if he's attracted to me and looking to meet someone new, he'll say something. I'll purposely look in the other direction. So yes, it's shyness and pride, but mostly it's our annoying, persistent female reluctance to make the first move." [Emphasis added.]
Think of the bind that women like Beland put men in: a woman can be purposely looking the other way both because she likes a man and because she wants to avoid a man. Thus the man who approaches a woman who is "purposely" looking the other way is at risk of getting anything from a polite "Oh, hi, how are you?" to a belligerent, humiliating "Get out of my face!" In the workplace, men risk losing their jobs approaching such women. It continues to amaze me that experts such as Beland, even in 2004, still want to maintain a 1950s-style courting behavior, without realizing - or without caring about - the risks they ask men to take.
"Safe sex" has a different meaning for men than it does for women.
If women equally shared the responsibility for initiating relationships, how would this help curb the on-the-job sex harassment which is manifested largely in men's persistent requests of women?
By taking direct, male-type initiatives, women would become known as persons who make their romantic interests undeniably clear, just as men do. In turn, men would see – just as women do now – little or no value in persisting after being refused by someone known for taking her own direct romantic initiatives when interested. Why persist with someone known for making her romantic interest clear by taking direct initiatives, and known for making her lack of interest clear by not taking initiatives? "Why try twice with such a woman," a man would think, "if she has never expressed interest in me, and then still expressed no interest after I showed interest in her? She clearly isn't attracted."
If women shared the initiative-taking, presumably some would make persistent requests of men, and more men might complain of sexual harassment.
But the combined persistence from both women and men would be less than men's persistence currently is. (There will always be some men and women who, perhaps unable to accept rejection easily, have a hard time taking "no" for an answer.) That's because men as a whole would become considerably less persistent as they learned that a "no" from a woman known for directly initiating her own relationships truly does mean "no."
Assigning the initiator role only to males is more than sexist. It is illogical if it's true that women want relationships more than men do and they feel harassed by men's "come-ons."
An equal sharing of the romantic initiative-taking would do more than curb male persistence. It would also reduce the sexual put-downs and other mistreatments that make women feel demeaned and uneasy at work. That's because an equal sharing of the initiative-taking would increase men's respect for women, the lack of which many RFs say is a primary fuel for male harassment of women.
Here's why men's respect for women would grow. It's said men fighting together in a war bond with each other because they have a common enemy and are there for each other as each other's protector. No doubt this explains these men's bonding to a large degree. But mostly what bonds men in combat, I believe, is their knowledge that they share a common role in which they all share the same risks, the risks of physical danger and psychological terror. By knowing that all the other soldiers share their dangerous role and hence share the same risks they take, combat soldiers acquire for one another the respect that is the principal glue for the bonding between them. For those men who refuse to share the risks, they have only contempt. Many war veterans, for example, scorned former President Clinton for being a "draft dodger," someone unwilling to share the risks they took. ("Draft dodger," by the way, is a sexist double standard: how will these veterans look upon the first female president, who was legally able to avoid the draft altogether? Geraldine Ferraro, the first female candidate for vice-president, was not burdened, as male candidates are, by having to prove bravery with a combat record of risking life and limb.)
If women equally shared the risk-taking that comes with equally sharing the initiative-taking that is necessary to create relationships, men would stop seeing women as demanding "equality in relationships" while still playing the old Cosmo sexual games and refusing to share the risk-taking.
If women equally shared the risks of initiating relationships, men would not resent them for unfairly expecting men to risk not only sometimes painful rejection when reaching out to the other sex at work, but a career-smashing charge of sexual harassment as well.
"Both traditional and nontraditional men perceive women who ask for dates as kinder, warmer, more thoughtful, and less selfish than women who do not ask for dates." –From a study co-written by Dr. Charlene Muehlenhard, University of Kansas psychologist and researcher
Were the initiative-taking equally shared, men would undergo the female's role of being asked. Spending time in this role would enhance men's respect for women even further. Men would experience first-hand the awkwardness in being asked out by a boss or another person to whom they are uncomfortable saying no. They would learn that because saying no can be difficult, it can be easy to give the impression they are "leading someone on" and being a "tease."
Conversely, if women directly initiated relationships the way men do, women would respect men more as well. Instead of seeing all men as potential harassers who want to "dominate females by reducing them to a sexual role," as RFs see men, a woman assuming the role of initiator would learn first-hand that she could easily be "led on," and that being led on could at times lead her to become persistent with her requests for dates and so forth.
Such a woman would learn, too, how she could be affected by anxieties over being rejected by a man face to face (especially if she thought her advances might be overheard by others in the office). She might discover that she could become so anxious about being rejected that she might totally focus on "selling" herself as Ms. Wonderful, as someone much too great to reject!
This intense focus on the self – on "selling" herself to escape rejection – would often cause her to tune out the man's feelings and his attempt to hint "I'm not interested" without hurting her feelings. Thus a woman in the initiator role would learn how easy it is to be seen as "coming on too strong" and being persistent. (In our current male-initiates arrangement, the man who "comes on too strong" is only the counterpart of the woman who "attracts too strongly" by wearing too much makeup or too little clothing). In experiencing the pressure to "sell" herself, she would learn how "coming on too strong" and being insensitive to a man's feelings could earn her the label "insensitive jerk." Aware she could be called a jerk by some men no matter how sensitive she was, she might adjust her approach by putting up a protective, nothing-can-hurt-me front, thus appearing "invulnerable," "unfeeling" – traits society now condemns in men rather than try to understand them.
In sum, through an equal sharing of the initiative-taking, men and women in the workplace would gain more respect for each other, and in time there would be a significant reduction in on-the-job accusations of sexual harassment, both frivolous and legitimate. Workplace tension between the sexes would decrease, and so would sexual harassment's high cost to business.
Contrary to the notions of political correctness, women have as much to learn about men as the other way around.
Overcoming the resistance to an equality-based change
An impediment to this equality-based approach to curbing sexual harassment is the absence of diverse thinking about the problem. RFs, having convinced society women are victims (not without a price: many women, for example, today seem to be instilled with unprecedented fear and anger), insist the only change needed is in men and the legal system. The idea that women should have to do anything besides reporting offenses strikes many RFs as ludicrous and, worse, as blaming the victim. At the least, RFs see no connection between men being assigned the responsibility of initiating relationships and men being accused of the harassment. To RFs this is mere coincidence. (Perhaps they see no connection because they think of male initiating as male power. Never mind that men report feeling not power when taking initiatives with women but fear of rejection and ridicule if they are "Mr. Wrong" or if they initiate "incorrectly" – too fast, too slowly, too crudely…. Men's fear when taking initiatives with women at work has been racheted up by the added possibility of a sexual harassment accusation. As for power, a man may indeed feel powerful if Ms. Right accepts, but no more so than the woman does when Mr. Right asks.)
For now, RFs' views on sexual harassment rule the day. They are generally embraced by institutions and the mainstream media, which never debate whether women ought to equally share in initiating relationships, although they frequently report that men should equally share in such "female" roles as housecleaning (to the wife's standards!).
The rigid, unforgiving feminist notions about sexual harassment, as well as about men, are universal and entrenched. As a result, many who think differently about sexual harassment feel intimidated into silence. Their will to speak up is squashed by the gender politics and by the lack of strong support one ordinarily needs to challenge heavy-handed bureaucratic attitudes. Few forums arise to explore the concept of sexual harassment with intellectual honesty and a free-flowing, anything-goes exchange of views.
Yet employers can do more about sexual harassment than merely lecturing that 'no' means 'no,' which everyone but RFs concedes isn't always true. They can include in their training programs staged role reversals in which male and female employees swap their traditional courting roles (females become the initiator, males the passive reactor) and conduct mock romantic encounters and dates.
Sexual harassment regulation may get worse before it gets better. So may relations between the sexes and between male and female employees. For the time being, employers' potential for liability may grow. Employers may need all the more to train their employees, ideally through gender role-reversal training, to create a culture of empathy and understanding that automatically self-polices against sexual harassment.
Some consider such role reversals irrelevant or absurd or the workplace too staid and serious for such "play." Yet precedents exist for using this role-reversal training in programs to curb sexual harassment. Many employers already conduct role-reversal training whereby employees and supervisors trade roles to acquire a deeper understanding of what each other experiences, thus helping bring down the "Us against them" wall that often stands between them and creates hostility or uneasiness where none need be.
Police agencies conduct programs that allow officers and "criminals" to trade places in play situations to help the officers prevent or mitigate clashes in real situations. Many family counselors implement role reversals for feuding parents and teenagers, and for troubled husbands and wives. Such reversals are considered highly effective in allaying tension that arises out of the inability of two individuals, or two groups, to understand each other. They can frequently illuminate what has been muddled or distorted by verbal communication and turned into cause for animosity.
To an extent, some employers already see the value of role reversals in their harassment training. A group of male air traffic controllers was forced to let female participants fondle them, and had to look at photos of male sex organs. This was a crude RF-influenced "role reversal" training that was designed, as usual, to "educate" only the male workers. Its sole intent was to allow the female employees to show the men "how it felt" to have to endure one type of sexual harassment, even though most, if not all, of the male participants had not harassed anyone.
(Note that photos of male sex organs were used in this reversal, not female, as should have been to create a true reversal. The trainers dared not use photos of female genitalia, lest they themselves be accused of harassment by the women out to show men how it felt! They may have also thought the men would be turned on, not off. One implication of showing only male genitalia is that harassment training must be careful never to offend women, but may offend men with impunity. Which, of course, is why some men feel harassed by harassment training.)
"Sexual harassment legislation in its current form renders all male employees unequal to all female employees. It violates the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection without regard of sex. Thus the political will to protect women prevails over the constitutional mandate to protect both sexes equally." –Warren Farrell
A few years ago I wrote and distributed a pamphlet about how everyone can help create world peace. I stressed that to reduce the ill will responsible for much conflict between nations, as well as between groups and between individuals, people must, trite and meaningless as it may sound, understand each other (and themselves). I said the best way to do this – the best way to implement what I called the "principle of understanding" – is for two individuals or groups at odds with each other to assume each other's role, where possible, and walk a few miles in each other's shoes.
Taking on the role of another, walking in his or her moccasins may be the best method of applying the principle of understanding.
Especially when sustained, role assuming lets us personally undergo and assimilate the influences of another's environment which are too subtle or too complex to communicate verbally but which are necessary to experience if we intend to understand why certain people attain their beliefs, why they are the way they are, why they are our enemies. In sum, role assuming lets us, to an appreciable degree, "be" the other person. "Being" the other person helps us develop the empathy and emotional connectedness essential to both interpersonal and international peace.
Socialization can affect the extent to which role assuming allows us to "be" and understand another person. The housewife trying on her husband's provider role might not feel the same impact and stress her husband feels in that role, since males are still being socialized more than females to invest their whole ego in success at work. By the same token, men likely experience less anxiety than women in "female" roles because of less pressure to maintain an image of competence in these roles. Obviously there are mitigating factors (including our subtly operating biases) which a role assumer should be aware of to maximize the understanding sought.
After participating in role-reversed mock encounters and dates, many men and women for the first time get an inkling of what the other sex goes through in the courting arena. They suddenly see the other sex in a new, better light. More important, they learn that much hostile-environment sexual harassment, especially persistent requests for dates and so forth, can be the byproduct of misreadings and misunderstandings resulting from the sexes' different courting roles - and that sexual harassment is not, as RFs have stonily maintained, the method by which men at work conspire to subjugate women.
These sex-role reversals as part of training should appeal to the bold, cutting-edge employers who wish to move beyond political correctness to a whole new way of looking at sexual harassment, as well as at the sexes. They present them the opportunity to curb sexual harassment with an equality-minded approach that reflects an understanding of both the female culture and the male culture, thereby gaining the respect of all employees, including, possibly, even the respect of some radical feminist employees.
Objective legal minds may eventually prevail upon the courts to reverse sexual-harassment regulations' attack on first and 14th amendment rights in the workplace. But while waiting for this long shot to occur, employers may be able to reduce their potential for lawsuits via the more benign method of regular role-reversal training.
Truth-based Comic Relief
Sexual harassment exists because men believe it's easier
to get forgiveness than permission. -Unknown
"When men talk dirty to women, it's sexual harassment,
but when women talk dirty to men, it's $6.95 a minute."
—Albert Schafer, President, Coalition of Parent Support San Diego
Jerry A. Boggs has written about gender issues for over 20 years. He is the Michigan Representative of the National Coalition of Free Men. For info on NCFM, call 516-482-6378, or Web-visit the group at www.ncfm.org. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
PRIMARY REFERENCES (Search for the books at www.Amazon.com):
Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality, Cathy Young
"And You Wonder Why There is a 'Glass Ceiling,'" commentary by Charlotte Allen
Defending Pornography, Nadine Strossen
Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and The Future of Feminism, Daphne Patai
The Myth of Male Power, Warren Farrell (www.warrenfarrell.com)
The New Victorians: A Young Woman's Challenge to the Old Feminist Order, Rene Denfeld
Who Stole Feminism: Women Betraying Women, Christina Hoff Sommers
What To Do When You Don't Want to Call the Cops, Joan Kennedy Taylor
Why Men Are The Way They Are, Warren Farrell
Women Can't Hear What Men Don't Say, Warren Farrell
Men's News Daily (http://mndnet.com)
Women's Freedom Network newsletter (www.womensfreedom.org)