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Is “sexual harassment” too vague?

by Greg Krehbiel on 22 November 2017

I saw a headline or a tweet or something to the effect that 25 members of Congress are under investigation for “sexual harassment.” I’m not sure what that means, or how significant it is.

Does that mean 25 members have been accused? Have they been credibly accused? By one, or by several people? For boorish behavior, or for actual assault? With adults, or with children? With employees or not?

I don’t want to excuse any sexual harassment, but I also don’t want to participate in a witch hunt.

Remember when people went crazy about “recovered memories” of child sexual assault, and most of it turned out to be nonsense?

“Sexual harassment” can be anything from calling a female colleague “toots,” or making an unwanted pass, to actual rape.

Do we need more precision about this? Should there be classes of sexual harassment?

If you say that an unwanted pass is a “class 1” violation, I’m fairly sure some people will say that trivializes it, and we should “take all sexual harassment seriously.” Besides, if you define sexual harassment broadly enough, then every woman can participate in the “me too” campaigns. We don’t want to leave anybody out, do we? I mean, it’s got to be embarrassing if you’re the only woman in your coffee group who hasn’t been harassed. What’s wrong with you? (I’m mostly joking, but I have been in conversations where women who say they’ve never been harassed have been treated as if they’re in denial, or insufficiently aware.)

It seems that failing to make distinctions causes harm because it makes it tempting to trivialize the whole topic, which is a bad thing.

When the headline screams “Senator accused of sexual harassment,” the cynical reader will think, “yeah, he probably complimented an intern on her dress.” Because — let’s be honest — sometimes it is that silly, and after a while it becomes like the boy who cried “wolf.”

But it’s not silly. Sexual harassment is real and it’s a serious problem. I am not in any way trying to minimize the obvious problem we have about this. There’s clearly abuse going on, and it seems to be more pervasive than a lot of people think. And it’s precisely because I believe it’s a problem that I think we need to have a little more clarity in our language about it.

If an unwanted try at a kiss is just as much “sexual harassment” as rape, the term becomes meaningless, and that’s a bad thing.

2017-11-22  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 13

  1. pentamom
    22 November 2017 @ 8:36 pm

    In the midst of all this, I remember incident years ago at a company party when the owner of the company my husband worked for at the time, whom I had never seen before that evening, came up to me and did that thing where you put your hands on someone shoulders from behind and give a two-second neck rub. I remember thinking it was weird and inappropriate, but it struck me much more as “alpha dog” behavior then something really sexual, and it has only rarely crossed my mind in the years since. “Big boss man patronizes mousy little wife of mid-level employee because he can” kind of thing.

    So while I have absolutely no doubt that much of what is currently coming out is blatantly sexual, and totally unacceptable, I also wonder how widely the net is being spread to any kind of strange unwanted interaction. Some of the cases and apologies I’ve heard recently amount to little more than “I touched you and you didn’t like it. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”

  2. William
    22 November 2017 @ 8:56 pm

    I suspect that with all the current reckoning, a number of public figures are thinking hard about things they’ve done in the past that might become public in the present. Seems Al Franken, John Conyers and Joe Barton have all recently taken their place on the “wall of shame”. But, in Barton’s case, there was no harassment, just embarrassment from revenge porn (which in some states is illegal too).

    That said, although an UNWANTED kiss is different than rape, I suspect victims and their loved ones are not overly concerned about demarcations within the definition of sexual harassment. Despite the difference, each is still unwarranted and likely humiliating for them. Maybe the emphasis should be on ensuring there is a process to clearly understand the context of offenses and ensuring the punishment aptly fits the crime. So, the standard becomes that once it’s proven (or substantiated with enough credible evidence), it’s always unacceptable and the social and legal consequences are based on the particular offense.

  3. smitemouth
    27 November 2017 @ 12:10 am

    Well, some of those things you describe aren’t sexual harassment, they are sexual assault. So we already have a separate category for those.

    Now, definitely, some things that some people call are not harassment. Imagine a guy being persistent and asking a woman out multiple times. To some, that is harassment.

    Christina Hoff Summers has an interesting article out this weekend, as is an article about Susan Sarandon. Sarandon is getting hate because she didn’t vote for HRC. She’s against war, and thought HRC would be more war. She lives in NY and voted for Stein, so her vote really didn’t matter much anyways. Sarandon said she got many proposals by directors and producers in Hollywood, and she just said no to them.

  4. Greg Krehbiel GregK
    27 November 2017 @ 7:35 am

    Here’s the Sommers article.

  5. Robin R.
    27 November 2017 @ 8:12 am

    But sexual harassment can be purely verbal. If Clarence Thomas really did say all that lewd stuff that Anita Hill accused him of, that would amount to sexual harassment. Or so it seems to me.

  6. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    27 November 2017 @ 8:46 am

    Somewhere around here I had mentioned that women who deny they have been harassed are themselves harassed — as if they’ve betrayed the sisterhood or something. I mentioned that to one of my daughters and she sent me this, which she saw on Facebook.

  7. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    27 November 2017 @ 10:35 am

    This is funny. Actress Susan Sarandon: Feminism Is ‘Warped,’ ‘Hillary Was Dangerous’

  8. pentamom
    27 November 2017 @ 6:31 pm

    The Clarence Thomas thing came to mind recently when I ran across some feminists defending Louis CK on the basis that his disgusting requests weren’t harassment because they were just requests, and when he got a negative, he didn’t follow through.

    So which is it — is purported Clarence Thomas offhand disgusting banter harassment because it’s disgusting talk aimed at women who don’t want to hear it, or is it not harassment because he didn’t actually do anything against their will, just talked about it? In 1991, that was definitely harassment, and I don’t recall anyone even questioning whether that was harassment, only whether it actually happened.

  9. Robin R.
    27 November 2017 @ 7:24 pm

    My impression was that CT repeatedly made lewd suggestions to Ms. Hill, or so she claimed. If Louis CK asked a young lady only once and accepted no for answer … well okay, I guess. But if he kept hounding her about his sexual desires, that’s another thing. I don’t have any definite conclusion about whether the term under discussion is too vague, but it does seem to me that repetition is an important factor pertaining to purely verbal behavior.

  10. pentamom
    27 November 2017 @ 11:33 pm

    I’ll admit my memory is pretty fuzzy on the Thomas thing, but the things I remember weren’t even so much “suggestions” as simply a number of rude and dirty comments aimed at the room in general, not always when they were alone. Again, I might be forgetting something significant, but two of the examples I remember pretty clearly were just really crass comments not even referencing her directly, not suggestions that the two of them engage in any kind of mutual behavior.

    If that’s what happened, and it happened repeatedly after she expressed displeasure, I would have found that a hostile environment, too. But the funny thing is that a woman I know is subjected to that kind of indirect coarseness in her job as a regular thing right now, and no claim of harassment is taken seriously because that’s just how people talk to one another nowadays. So the idea that something can change from the kind of egregious behavior that could be considered grounds for ending a man’s career, to normal office banter, in the space of twenty years, also makes this whole thing complicated and bewildering. While there may have been testimony regarding more obviously problematic behaviors that I’ve forgotten, some of those things would never have made it to point of being something that should seriously be considered inimical to his reputation, because they’re more typical than not. IOW they wouldn’t even make part of the testimony today, because most (or at least enough) people would consider them a big “So what?”

  11. William
    28 November 2017 @ 1:42 am

    Although social norms evolve, there are two key elements that are consistent within the law. The first is the perception of the target or victim. The legal definition includes…

    “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that tends to create a hostile or offensive work environment.”

    Another key element is frequency. The EEOC says…

    “Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment…”

    All of this leaves a lot for interpretation. Therefore, context is key and claims needs to be considered thoughtfully. As well, a range of behaviors may fit under the rubric of sexual harassment. Yet, I feel, once confirmed, the specific actions of the offender and impact on the victim should primarily determine the legal and social consequences. It shouldn’t be a “one size fits all” type of penalty.

  12. sm
    28 November 2017 @ 1:55 am

    pm, I don’t recall Thomas asking for sexual favors either. More like discussing something he had read in a magazine or saw in a movie. Hostile, yes. But not anything close to a proposition or the stuff we’ve heard about Moore, Franken, Clinton, or Trump.

  13. Greg Krehbiel GregK
    28 November 2017 @ 5:20 am

    All I recall with Thomas was a comment about a hair on a coke can and a reference to a character in a porn movie.

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