A panic is not an answer
We’re at imminent risk of turning this #metoo moment into a frenzied rush to blame all men
The fall of Harvey Weinstein and other celebrity sex monsters feels like a cultural turning point. The social contract between men and women is being rewritten before our eyes. There is a new resolve to make the workplace more respectful and equitable for women – for everyone.
But there is also panic in the air, which could ruin this #metoo moment.
The harassment scandals have prompted frenzied reactions:
Farhad Manjoo at the New York Times says he has reached the point where “I seriously, sincerely wonder how all women don’t regard all men as monsters to be constantly feared.” Does Manjoo include himself? Are his female colleagues at the Times suddenly in constant fear of him?
Niobe Way, a psychology professor at NYU, told NPR that the only way to address the harassment blight is to resocialize little boys: “We essentially raise boys in a culture that asks them to disconnect from their core humanity.”
The panic has even struck the Girl Scouts, who warned parents that their daughters don’t “owe anyone a hug” this holiday season. Parents who insist a little girl give grandma or grandpa a hug for a present can set her up to believe “she ‘owes’ another person physical affection because they bought her something.”
Before we consider all men guilty of harassment or abuse until proven innocent, a reality check is in order. Most of the sensational harassment cases in the media involved high-profile men working in unusual environments with little or no accountability. That suggests they are atypical.
In an office or company where the boss and personnel director insist on civility and respect, where there is a clear policy against harassment, and where there is system for reporting bad behavior, serious problems are far less likely to arise.
Statistics on workplace harassment are all over the map. A recent Newsweek/Wall Street Journal poll found that 48% of American women had been sexually harassed at work. Time.com ran with this statistic in a video showing American women at work in laboratories, factories and offices.
It then declared: “Almost Half of the Working Women in America Have Been Harassed on the Job,” accompanied by images of a menacing Harvey Weinstein — suggesting that vast numbers of American women are plagued by Weinstein-like predation.
Except upon closer scrutiny, the Newsweek/WSJ poll showed nothing of the kind. It defined “harassment” very broadly. And women were asked if they had ever received “unwelcome sexual advances” at any point in their working lives. It did not distinguish between minor incidents and more serious cases of actionable harassment. And no time limit was given.
The General Social Survey is one of the most trusted sources of data in the social sciences. In 2014, a random sample of Americans was asked a straightforward question: “In the last 12 months, were you sexually harassed by anyone while you were on the job?”
To that question, only 3.6% of women said yes. That is down from 6.1% in 2002. These results do not suggest an epidemic. Nor even a trendline moving in the wrong direction.
In a story on sexual harassment, The Economist reported that “even before the Harvey Weinstein story broke the dam,” the number of cases received by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had risen by 5% since 2014.”
That too is sleight of hand. The EEOC handles all sorts of disputes in the workplace, including harassment involving age, race, religion and disability. Since 2014, there has been a 5% increase in total harassment cases, but there’s been a decrease in sexual harassment cases.
In 2016, the EEOC received 6,758 sexual harassment complaints, approximately 100 cases fewer than in 2014. In 2010, they received nearly 8,000. In 2010, sexual harassment cases made up 27% of its harassment caseload; By 2016, they were down to 22%.
But even if we are not coping with an epidemic, we do still have a serious problem. There is a clear need for reform in Hollywood, in newsrooms and, apparently, in certain state capitals.
We also need to expand our concern beyond white-collar workplaces. Both the Huffington Post and the Washington Post have documented widespread harassment endured by hotel maids, waitresses and other women working in the service industry. Often, the harassment comes not from coworkers or supervisors, but from crude patrons and customers.
But we’ll never have the great awakening we need to have if we succumb to the forces trying to turn this instead into a sex panic.
New Yorker writer Masha Gessen, a victim of sexual violence, welcomes a new era of accountability. But, as she wrote, “I am also queer and I panic when I sniff sex panic.”
Sex panics are mass movements that arise in response to perceived moral threats to society – threats that are vaguely defined and wildly exaggerated. They breed chaos and persecution and create a generalized sense of danger. In the 1950s, there was a panic over gay men and women working in the federal government known as the Lavender Scare. Gays were thought to be “deviants” susceptible to blackmail. Thousands of innocent people lost their jobs.
In the 1980s, a panic over Satanic abuse in day care centers put many innocent people in prison.
Soon after the Weinstein scandal broke, an anonymously sourced “S—y Media Men” list began circulating on social media. The blacklist accuses more than 70 male journalists of sexual harassment.
But the charges range from “weird lunches” to rape. The informants collapse important distinctions between criminal predation and unwelcome flirtation. The men couldn’t defend themselves – and anyone who tries can be accused of not believing victims, even anonymous ones.
Fortunately, the blacklist received criticism — especially from leftists who pointed out that these tactics can destroy innocent lives. But prominent feminist Jill Filipovic dismissed the scrutiny as “backlash.” Writer Roxane Gay disparaged “all the hand-wringing about …the ethics of anonymous disclosure.” As she explained in the New York Times, American women live in a state of siege. She suggested all men confess to “how they have hurt women in ways great and small.”
The feminism of Gay and Filipovic is not mainstream, but its influence is growing. Teen Vogue writer Emily Lindin said on Twitter that she doesn’t care about false accusations: “If some innocent men’s reputations have to take a hit in the process of undoing the patriarchy, that is a price I am absolutely willing to pay.”
Of course, it will not be Lindin who pays the price.
The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg recently discussed the accusations against Sen. Al Franken, stemming from a USO tour more than a decade ago, when Franken was still a professional comedian.
Goldberg wrestled with the fairness of destroying his career by retroactively imposing today’s standards on such past actions. Whatever one believes about Franken — there are now more accusations of groping, which he denies — Goldberg’s reason for wanting Franken to resign is chilling.
She claimed to need to see him fall because, otherwise, “the current movement toward unprecedented accountability for sexual harassers will probably start to peter out.”
In other words, it doesn’t matter if he’s guilty: The revolution could stall without more decapitations. Goldberg said Franken disabused her of the notion that there are any “good guys,” and concluded, “Franken Should Go.”
Not only is it wrong to tar half of humanity, but indiscriminate, overzealous condemnation of men will hurt a necessary and worthy cause.
Vice President Mike Pence has a rule: He never eats alone with a woman other than his wife. It was widely mocked as prissy just a few months ago.
But now, in the aftermath of the scandals, some think it might be a good way to protect women. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat finds the Pence Rule too sweeping, but he does say “some modest limits on how men and women interact professionally are useful checks on predation.”
Maybe so. But they could also hurt young women, who need the support and mentorship of male supervisors. In many industries, this means the kind of after-hours collaboration that has always advanced young men.
Unfortunately, a new puritanism seems to be ascendant. Timothy Noah of Politico suggests we could limit sexual harassment by making meetings with anyone behind closed doors a fireable offense.
Suddenly, office Christmas parties and happy hours are under a cloud. There is talk of replacing alcohol with game rooms.
Such suggestions are silly and infantilizing. We need rules to rid ourselves of creeps, not purge every workplace of all interpersonal risk.
The advertising giant Interpublic Group has ordered its 20,000 employees to undergo sexual harassment training before Jan. 1. Employees will learn how to react to all manifestations of sexual impropriety, such as a co-worker discussing “his weekend sexual exploits.”
But context and intent matter. I can see innocent situations where good friends of the opposite sex talk about their sex lives consensually. If a friend started talking to me in this vein, it would be easy to wave him off — “Sorry: too much information!” — unless I happened to be interested.
Why do we assume women lack the power to draw lines?
Awkward flirtation, raunchy humor, even an unwanted advance may be breaches of decorum, but they are not necessarily harassment. We must be able to make distinctions between truly unacceptable behavior and lesser annoyances.
Interpublic’s training will also include what to do if an employee “comes on to a colleague’s girlfriend after hours.” Good luck with abolishing that with a few PowerPoint slides.
There are more than 150 million men and women in the U.S. workforce. And despite recent scandals, most of them appear to be working together in relative harmony.
They manage to hold meetings, plan product launches, attend conferences, travel, share stories and even go to office parties where libations are served, mostly without incident. Occasionally, they even fall in love. According to a Stanford sociologist, between 16% and 19% of married people met their spouse at work.
Federal laws against sexual harassment were enacted to protect workers from pervasive, severe bullying, coercion or extortion — not from normal human interactions.
As the Supreme Court made clear in Oncale vs. Sundowner Offshore Services (1988), “the prohibition of harassment on the basis of sex requires neither asexuality nor androgyny in the workplace; it forbids only behavior so objectively offensive as to alter the ‘conditions’ of the victim’s employment.”
That NBC/WSJ poll I mentioned at the beginning did carry some good news: It found that a majority of men — 78% — say they are now more likely to speak out if they see sexist mistreatment in the workplace.
Please, please, please: Let’s not squander this moment. Women and men of good will have a profound opportunity to speak honestly and work together to begin to write the next chapter in the quest for equality and dignity. If only we can pull ourselves out of the Great Sex Panic of 2017.