gender, language

Sexual Harassment: They Still Just Don’t Get It


You have probably heard about Berkeley’s current sex scandal: Geoffrey Marcy, prominent astronomer, has been forced to resign his tenured position after acknowledging repeated acts of sexual harassment against female students, staff, and colleagues. The harassments consisted of “groping, touching, and massaging” his victims under their clothing. Such behavior violates the University’s code of conduct, and the University claims to have a “zero tolerance” policy toward it.


Disturbing as it is, in discussions of the story this aspect of the scandal takes second place to another: the fact that members of the Berkeley administration had been well aware of Marcy’s behavior for much of that time, but their response until just now had consisted of little “talks” urging him to stop, but no disciplinary action. Most of the (entirely deserved) ire of the University community and local media seems to have been directed at the administration’s long-term inaction. But we can understand both the administration’s misbehavior and Marcy’s only by fully understanding what “sexual harassment” is, why it occurs, and why it should be taken seriously rather than, as too often, being treated as a bit of boyish fun or as a joke.


Sexual harassment is not really sexual in nature. It is not an expression of sexual desire, nor does it arise out of an excess of manly passion. It is rather a gender-based crime of communication, arising out of a need by the perpetrator to diminish the victim’s power and self-confidence. It is accomplished via the sexual channel, making it a particularly effective form of misogyny, since the sexual double standard is still very present in our society. Because the external manifestations of the activity appear sexual and women may feel shame about their sexuality, victims often are reluctant to make their ordeals public, so the perp gets away with it, over and over again. Framing harassment as “sexual” misbehavior also allows the perpetrator to cast himself, in his eyes and others’, as a particularly sexy, manly man so hot he can’t help himself. This both protects him (“I didn’t really mean to. My passions just got out of control”) and allows him to feel and look like a highly desirable guy. But in fact harassers are neither sexy nor passionate: since their behavior springs from fear of losing status to more competent women, it is based on fear and resentment – that is, weakness.


Rape is somewhat similar (albeit much more harmful). It is also a crime of gender, not sex, a form of gender terrorism, an attempt to render women docile and unthreatening. Like harassment, it superficially resembles a crime of desire, but is not one. If rape arose out of desire, the current epidemic of rape threats sent via social media to women who have questioned men’s power, from critics of video games to Megyn Smith, who had the temerity to question The Donald over his treatment of women, would be unintelligible. Gender crimes like rape and harassment should be viewed as illegitimate forms of communication, on the analogy of perjury and blackmail, rather than primarily crimes of violence like assault and battery.


The claim that “everyone” – not just men — engages in harassment – men on men, women on men and women – is false. First of all, men-on-women harassment is infinitely more common than any other kind. One reason this is true is that sexual harassment is most often done by men in positions of authority against women under their control (professor against students in this case), and at most universities men hold most of the most powerful positions. Secondly, although all behaviors classified as “sexual harassment” are superficially identical, they have very different meanings when men do them against women, than in all other cases. The two types of harassment (male against female, vs. everything else) constitute what Deborah Tannen and I have called “pragmatic homonyms”: like lexical homonyms (“well” = “healthy,” and “well” = “water hole”), their superficial forms are identical, but their meanings and functions are unrelated. When men offend against women, they are drawing on millennia of misogyny and derogation of women, as well as the sexual double standard, so that their behavior works to intimidate and terrorize. In the other cases, there is no such long and sordid history, so the meaning of the act is very different and much less severe. That is not to say that the other kinds of harassment are tolerable or legitimate in any way: they are infantile, gross, and deserving of punishment – but not to the same degree. Male vs. female harassment is about driving women out of the “men’s world”: the prestigious public sphere that, until recently, men have owned. Insecure men are unable to accept the fact that that is changing; they use harassment as a last, desperate recourse, both to reassure themselves that they, manly men, still have what it takes and women do not; and to force women out of the competition. We know that this works.


That duality of meanings may also provide an explanation of why administrators too often fail to take harassment seriously, even in its most malignant forms. Most higher administrators are male; males cannot be the victims of true sexual harassment. Therefore male administrators cannot imagine the harm that harassment does to female victims, so their capacity for empathy is severely diminished. Too often they conflate harassment with harmless “flirtation,” consensual behavior, though that is like conflating rape and consensual intercourse.


Indeed, you hear arguments that if sexual harassment is punished, it will make it impossible for men and women in the workplace to engage in consensual flirtation any more. But any normally socialized adult – including harassers – knows the difference between “harassment” and “flirtation.” The latter is welcomed, enjoyed, and reciprocated; it occurs after both parties have formed a friendly relationship. Both parties start to flirt tentatively, with small, usually nonverbal signals: he smiles, she tosses her hair, he moves a bit closer, she touches his hand…. And it proceeds from there. Flirtation does not consist of one party’s groping, staring at the other’s breasts, in lieu of eye contact, or making clever comments like “you should wear tighter sweaters.”


While he was President, George W. Bush administered an unrequested neck massage to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. This was sexual harassment and entirely in keeping with the definition above. Merkel, as a powerful woman, was a threat to POTUS.


Cases like Marcy’s and W’s make it clear that gender and power remain problematic for many men and in many institutions. The problem will not go away until harassment is recognized as the misogynistic and anti-social act that it is. Those whose jobs involve the creation of a fair and egalitarian workplace have to learn that these behaviors are not cute, benign, or amorous in intent.