I wish I could feel triumphant at the Outing of the Pervs. But I fear the law of unintended consequences: the overturning of one important signifier of male prerogative will surely bring with it some backlash. And I notice that, although the scandal has been percolating for over a month, nothing really has changed, aside from the firing of a few of the more prominent offenders. Again, this is gratifying, but barely counts as even the tip of the iceberg.
On a recent PBS NewsHour, Rebecca Traister raised a relevant concern: since the offenders have been male, and attention along with sympathy naturally focuses on males, most of the media discussion of the problem of sexual harassment has focused on the perps, not their victims. This is unusual in crime stories: usually in a lurid case, media attention fixates on the victim, especially if female: her beauty, her virtue, her accomplishments. But discussions of sexual harassers focus on the men and their prominence, as well of course as their peculiar behaviors. So, Traister suggests, it may be only a short time before the objects of our attention become the objects of our sympathy – the poor guys, they couldn’t help it, it wasn’t so bad after all, was it, the women were asking for it… all the usuals. I hope not, but our society is not used to seeing males as blameworthy, and along with Traister I wonder how long we can keep it up. Our President is leading the way in his exculpation of Roy Moore: “He has denied everything.” (And since when does a “not guilty” plea equal a verdict of innocence?)
Trump’s evasions on Moore are more astonishing since, when asked about Weinstein, who has similarly denied engaging in nonconsensual sexual activity, Trump responded, “I’m not surprised,” which conversationally implicates, “He’s guilty.”
That’s why I am calling the men currently squirming in the spotlight “pervs,” i.e. perverts. I want us to use language that will make it harder to sympathize with those who haven’t figured out that they are living in the twenty-first century C.E., not the Neolithic. Behavior that was perfectly normal, if not desirable, in times past can no longer be countenanced, and those who cannot change on their own must be shamed into compliance with new norms.
What is to be done with the pervs? Those in entertainment and other businesses dependent on the public’s goodwill have acted fast to force the malefactors out: Weinstein, Rose, practically everyone working for Fox, and so many others are gone, at least until things blow over. But spending a few months in a tizzy won’t resolve the problem. It can’t in fact be resolved – it’s not a few instances of noxious behavior on the part of a few badly socialized men. It’s worse – not a problem at all, if properly understood. All forms of male-on-female harassment exist because they are not only normal, and have always been, but because they are necessary. Harassment, properly understood, is about keeping men in power and keeping women out of power, both seen as essential for our species.
I am not talking only about sexual harassment, although the discussion has centered on this aspect of the problem. Gender harassment is probably more common, possibly more damaging to the victim (because it is so pervasive), and, as we see from its absence in the discussion of male-on-female harassment, something to which we feel free to turn a blind eye. Since it has the same effect as sexual harassment, and is done for the same purpose (to discourage women from feeling powerful and autonomous), it should be treated the same way by the law and by all of us. Yes, I know that’s impossible, but at least we should realize what it’s about and fight against it.
Gender harassment includes multitudes of daily annoyances: the various ways in which males attempt to keep women from control of their own language (e.g. mansplaining, complaints of “shrillness” and the like, grumbling about women’s not making sense, and hyperinterpretation); inappropriate “innocent” but infantilizing touching like pats on the back, the butt, the head, etc.; comments to non-intimates on dress, hair, and so on; unsought criticism; and much more. A good test for whether the behavior you are considering is gender harassment: would you say it to another man (with whom you are not intimate)?
I know this is a shocking, even threatening thing to say, but I believe it has to be said: The men who have been caught with their pants down are merely the outliers dumb enough to let themselves be outed. These behaviors, in one form or another, are vastly more common. That is so because they work, and have always worked, to achieve a desired goal, and even (or especially) those in the media who are treating them with pious disgust it are profiting from them.
It has been this way for millions of years, since before we were human. Sexual/gender harassment is a big part of the behavior of those with whom we share almost all of our DNA, the chimpanzees and gorillas. The Weinsteins and Roses are throwbacks and silverbacks. We language users have found sophisticated ways to justify and indeed glorify apelike behavior. But in all primates the purpose is the same, and the effect is the same.
Once upon a time when I was young and innocent I believed that these kinds of misbehaviors occurred because the guys just couldn’t help it. I saw sexual predation as a crime of desire on the part of men who were just too hot to control themselves, poor things! Not only did that common analysis let the perps off the hook, but glorify them as especially manly men. And it still does.
I came to understand sexual harassment differently more recently, as communicating to women that they were inferior and ought to be submissive. It was a man’s world and women existed to gratify the owners of the property. This way of understanding harassment recognized that desire had nothing to do with it, but it did suggest that women’s role was and ought to be as handmaiden to men’s needs. In this interpretation, harassment (including gender harassment) was about power and men’s need for it. At least this interpretation had the benefit of discouraging some women from letting men get away with their behavior because women “asked for it,” or were too attractive to be spared – a funny kind of compliment, but sometimes you take what you can get.
But now I know the problem is worse than that. It’s not about unquenchable desire, and it’s not about mansplaining women’s role to them. This interpretation includes the full spectrum of bad male behavior – not just the purely sexual (titillating) stuff that currently obsesses us, but also gender harassment, which seems superficially not as bad, but may be even worse, if for no other reason than its ubiquity. Here we place the mansplaining, the hyperinterpretation, the mansitting, the condescending touching, the condescending nicknaming and nonmutual first-naming, and so much more! These are everyday acts of demotion, because they, like the sexual variety, have a worse and deeper reason for existence than we have until now been able to acknowledge: male harassment of women, in all its forms, is not about male desire, nor about male posturing to women, although each of these has a role in its meaning. Really, male harassment of women is done to inform other men of their power: I do this because I can, I am the silverback, the alpha male…and you’re not, so you can’t. Harassment is male-to-male, or human-to-human, communication, with the harassed object simply the channel through which the communication occurs, the paper on which the message is written. At the same time, it serves the other purposes, but they are side effects: sexual harassment gratifies sexual desire (maybe, or sometimes); it works to keep women subordinate and submissive. But really, it’s man-to-man. Woman is not really a part of this communication, which is one thing that makes it, in all its forms, so humiliating.
Hence although sexual harassment is usually done without witnesses, word always gets out. It is supposed to. The stories turn pervs into alphas. The perps are not “pervs,” they are not oddities, merely backward but otherwise normal men who get away with doing what they are doing because unconsciously too many of us see their atavism as being done for the sake of the species. But shame is the best cure for bad behavior, so let’s call them “pervs.”
Moreover, the attractions of harassment to the pervs is more complex than that. Although male-to-male posturing for status is harassment’s deepest justification, the other two still matter. At least occasionally, male desire is satisfied – say, by showing up naked in front of non-intimate women. And it is important as well that women know their place. These complexities are even more reason why harassment of any kind will be hard to stop.
No, we should not be seduced into thinking that, because word is out that sexual harassment is intolerable, it will stop. My guess is that it will go into hiding until we have found a new obsession, and then it will return. Gender harassment is still very much with us and not considered worth public discussion, despite the damage it does every day to half the species. Until both types of harassment of women have truly vanished, the value of female submission will remain with us. I would not hold my breath, if I were you.