How Do We Handle Sexual Harassment?

George S LedyardLet’s talk about the on-going discussion we are having about sexual harassment and how we wish to treat it in our society. The central theme at the moment seems to be trying to understand the continuum of severity involved. Few actually believe that grabbing a woman’s butt or using sexist language in the work place is exactly the same as rape.

The real discussion revolves around whether all these offenses get treated the same, the so-called “zero tolerance” model, or is there some range of consequences that would fit the range of offenses.

Minnie Driver recently made a passionate case for the zero tolerance model while Matt Damon made a reasoned appeal asking us to be more nuanced in our approach to this. The Guardian Article

I have listened to the various discussions and found that neither side has really defined the problem properly. There are, in fact, two continua that we need to consider in order to better understand this problem.

The one we have been publicly debating is the “severity continuum”. It ranges from merely suggestive or objectionable sexist language, to unwanted touching, to outright groping, unwanted kissing and embraces, aggressive physical sexual advances, using positions of power to coerce sex, and out right rape.

Where our discussions have fallen short is in our failure to look at the effect of “frequency” when judging the severity of our problem and the effect of harassment on both individual women and the women in the society as a whole.

Let’s use the example afforded by the historical suppression of our Black community before the civil rights movement as an example of how “frequency” can be equally as powerful in maintaining second class status as “severity”.

While lynching was the ultimate weapon used against any Black folk even perceived to be getting “uppity” or “not knowing their place”, they did not happen on a daily basis. And no one would equate calling someone a “nigger” with lynching him. Yet the issue here is much the same as with the women and harassment issue.

What kept the Black community in a position of subjugation, even in places in which they had the majority population, was a constant, 24/7 environment with myriad reminders of second class status. Not being allowed to make eye contact, whites always using your first name, never your last, or using Mr. respectfully. Calling grown men “boy”, sitting in the back of the bus, or in the hot balcony of the movie theater, not using the same drinking fountain. It went on and on.

When your entire environment is structured to provide constant little reminders of your second-class status, it disempowers you, it saps your self-esteem. It removes your sense of possibility that things could be better. Well, that is what women have been living with.

Despite endemic sexual assault rates, most women are not rape survivors. But just about EVERY woman in our society has been subjected to the myriad little, what are now being called “micro-aggressions”, women referred to as girls, sexual discriminations, innuendo, minimizing humor, and so on. Very few women have not had to fend off an overly aggressive man, or to dodge the wandering hands of a boss or co-worker. And, as we are now seeing, thousands of women are coming forward with their stories of coerced sex and rape. Their horrific stories aren’t even unique. They are ubiquitous and thereby risk losing their power to appall.

But when women come forward and say they want the guy who groped, the guy who pulled up porn on his computer, the guy who suggested that a career could be advanced if a women were “nice”, when they say that they want these guys expunged, that there should be “zero tolerance” for these behaviors, they are acknowledging that the daily onslaught of seemingly small harassments being considered “normal” or the myriad minor sexual harassments being “minimized” or “tolerated” is in many ways just as serious as the damage done by those assaults that even men would consider serious.

What we are seeing right now is the rising up of over half of our society who are saying that they will not accept second class status any more. They are pointing out that living in a society in which women’s daily experience contains actions which demean, that disempower, that insult is how women have been led to tolerate and accept second class status since the beginning. Generations of women were taught to quietly accept this treatment because if they complained, at best, they were minimized, were treated as hysterical, were made to feel stupid and at worst they were pilloried and lost their jobs or were shunned by their neighbors for speaking out.
So, while I am in agreement that we have to figure out what kind of consequences there are for men who commit these ranges of misbehaviors and we definitely need to decide whether there is a “road back” to acceptance in polite society for the minor offenders who seem to be truly remorseful and are willing to be part of the solution, not the problem, I am also sympathetic to the “zero tolerance” argument.

We are trying to undo many hundreds of years of injustice just within our own society here in the US. That cannot be done by only dealing with the major assaults like rape and coerced sex while allowing minor infractions get a slap on the wrist or a mere reprimand. We have to commit to turning around the entire professional environment for women of all walks of life. Not just the movie stars or corporate executives but the hotel workers the waitresses and domestics.

It may be that we need to go through a period in which we do have zero tolerance so that we raise a generation of women that hasn’t had to “survive” any type of harassment or assault. What kind of young ladies will we raise when the mothers of a whole generation have never had to treat harassment or assault as normal? I think we need to make it a priority to find out.