Friday, December 29, 2017

Men Polled about Sexual Harassment

Morning Consult and the Times asked 615 men, chosen to represent a cross-section of the workforce, the following questions; the percent who said yes is in parentheses.
In the last year at work, have you …

Told sexual stories or jokes that some might consider offensive? (19%)

Made remarks that some might consider sexist or offensive? (16%)

Displayed, used or distributed materials (like videos or cartoons) that some might consider sexist or suggestive? (7%)

Made attempts to draw someone into a discussion of sexual matters even though the person did not want to join in? (1%)

Made gestures or used body language of a sexual nature, which embarrassed or offended someone? (4%)

Continued to ask someone for dates, drinks or dinner even though he or she said no? (4%)

Made attempts to establish a romantic sexual relationship with someone despite that person’s efforts to discourage it? (3%)

Touched someone in a way that made him or her feel uncomfortable? (2%)

Made uninvited attempts to stroke, fondle or kiss someone? (1%)

Offered or implied rewards if someone engaged in sexual behavior? Or treated someone badly if he or she didn’t? (2%)
About 25% of men said yes to one of the first two categories, which I would say qualifies them as common behaviors. But context would matter a lot; you might easily tell a joke knowing that "some" might find it offensive if you know the person you're telling it to would not. These differences in style underlie many of the conflicts we have seen erupt on college campuses and the like. Some people want a polite world in which nobody does or says anything offensive; some want a world in which everybody is free to offend everyone else on an equal opportunity basis. One of my sons told me that his idea of equality is that when you meet a guy you tell a joke about his ethnicity and he fires back with an equally offensive joke about yours, and you become friends. Throw people like him into a workplace with shy, sensitive people, and there is sure to be pain.

The item on these lists that always draws my attention is "Continued to ask someone for dates, drinks or dinner even though he or she said no?" On the one hand, that can certainly feel like harassment. On the other, I have lost count of the number of stories I have heard from long-married couples that go something like, "I asked her out fifty times and on the fiftieth time she finally said yes." Plus, think about all the advice we give out about getting what you want in life: don't take no for an answer, don't give up too easily, keep trying, try a different approach. If you knew a teenager who was really discouraged after trying something once and failing, what would you say? Quit? Not me. So the advice we are supposed to give to a guy who has asked a woman out once and been told "no" is to give up? Even though that is contrary to the advice we would give in every other situation I can think of except suicide? I suspect that men who would only try once are a lot less likely to get dates, get married, or get anything else in life than those who keep trying.

I dwell on this example because it sums up for me how complicated this stuff is. But it is hard to have an honest conversation about, because it is a minefield of painful memories, awkward experiences, differences of style and opinion, political positions, and the partisan rancor that poisons everything in America these days. One thing I really value about my relationship with my wife is that we talk very freely and frankly about relationships between men and women, the differences between them, the cant that ideologues throw around about this stuff, and the complexity of the whole situation. There are whole areas of human life that we simply can't talk honestly about, except with a few close friends. Some people think that is only natural and are ok with it, but for others having to be dishonest causes real pain.

Bullies are everywhere, and people shouldn't have to put up with bullying to earn a living. But human interaction is too manifold to be contained within a list of rules, especially when romance and sex are parts of the equation. We can try to reduce the amount of grief we cause each other at work, but neither we nor any other social mammal can make interacting with each other smooth and free of pain.


Unknown said...

On the "asked her fifty times and on the fiftieth she said yes" schtick, here's a story: My wife and I once watched "Walk the Line," which is largely about the romance and eventual marriage of Johnny Cash and June Carter, which was very much of the "he asked her fifty times" variety. To me, this was a romantic and pleasant story: she was obviously into him, they had plenty of chemistry both on and off stage, and when they were on tour together, she took him to bed and didn't seem to regret it. My wife was appalled, saying "she obviously didn't want to marry him." To me, the movie made June's reluctance seem causeless and perverse, since the movie also made her seem in love with him. True, the movie does make clear that one might not want Johnny for a husband; he treats his first wife pretty poorly and, when he's not sleeping with June, dallies a lot with groupies. But the movie never actually conveys that this is the reason for her reluctance, nor (as I remember it) does it give any other reason. But my wife was unmovable on this point--which suggests to me that there may be a dark, undesirable side to these asked-her-fifty-times stories.

Second comment: as I was reading the same article, it occurred to me that the questions were entirely about workplace behavior. Put that together with schools, and I wonder if we're heading toward an idea that schools and workplaces are simply sacred spaces that need to be kept "clean" in the Levitical sense. This would be in line with our society's general worship of work and anything that builds a resume (a category in which our society, of course, firmly places the college education). There are, of course, many, many other reasons (like simple justice and kindness) to curb sexual assault and harassment everywhere. But I do detect in this movement a puritanical element of "when at work, people should stick to their work, and none of this other nonsense!" Likewise, there may be an element of Marxian alienation contributing to the anger and hostility that clearly underlies a lot of workplace harassment: "if you're going to make me do this stupid crap all day just so I can eat, I'm going to leer at that woman's chest first."

JustPeachy said...

I've never been sexually harrassed. Been in uncomfortable situations? Sure. Asked out by creeps? Yes. Lewd propositions? Yes. Heard dirty jokes I didn't care to hear? Absolutely. In no case did I feel like my personal safety was compromised, and in every case when I said "no" or "buzz off" or "go to hell" or whatever, that was the end of it. I'm a bit confused about what other people deem to be "harrassment", and I suspect a lot of the things I never gave a second thought to, other women are thinking people should be fired for.

I did have one really unpleasant episode I would term a "learning experience". I was young, shy, and trained to extreme politeness. A man at least ten years my senior and kind of icky tried to pick me up. At the library. I tried to ignore him. He wouldn't take the hint. But--and this is key-- I *didn't want to be rude* so I kept trying to give the shortest, politest responses possible, and then go sit somewhere else. He followed. I was incredibly creeped out, and when I finally left the library, I triple-checked to make sure he wasn't following, and even then, I drove to a friend's house before going home, just in case. Was he a creep? Yes. But I appreciate the experience, because I realized that I really, really needed to learn to be rude to people, sometimes, because a lot of guys hear "polite" as "not a rejection". In the long run, that guy probably saved me from a few actually-dangerous situations.

Here's the thing: if we constrain everybody's speech and behavior so tightly that they aren't allowed to express anything offensive, how are we supposed to tell which ones are jerks? You can't stop people from being jerks. Don't you want to know up front? It's like my Dad used to say about backwards hats and falling-down pants: "Don't tell them it looks stupid, it's a convenient billboard letting you know up front that they have nothing intelligent to say-- saves you a lot of time." I was sitting in a mechanic's waiting room one day and listened to the guys in the back spouting some of the most vulgar, racist, misogynistic things I'd ever heard. It revealed quite a lot about the character of both the employees and the management that tolerated them. Did I get all offended and complain to the management? No! I've met a few guys who talked like those fellas, and "trustworthy" and "conscientious" are not words I would ever apply to them. I did not hire them to do the repair, and subsequently found a great mechanic. I feel it was a lucky escape.

Asking the world to conform to your standards of polite behavior is a mistake. It just reduces the amount of information available to you, and likely makes the world more dangerous. If you succeed, it's harder to gauge who the creeps are so that you can stay away from them.

John said...

If work and school are going to be "clean" places, how are people supposed to meet? That's a rhetorical question, since I just looked it up and 15 to 20 percent of American married couples met at work. But that's tens of millions of marriages. Are we going to throw them all away?

I met my wife in school, which was also my workplace, since I was a TA. I have watched two marriages formed among people who worked directly under me, and I don't supervise that many people.

Increasingly people meet through online dating; over the past few years about a third of marriages started that way. But if you aren't comfortable dating strangers, what are you supposed to do?

Since I think that nothing in human life is more important than love and marriage -- certainly not work -- you are not likely to convince me to cut off a channel that has led to so many marriages in the name of making working something safe and sacred.

Unknown said...


Well, I hope the "you" in your post is abstract--count me NOT in the group that wants to cut off work as a way for partners to meet, and count me among those who think love and marriage are better and more important than work. I just think that "no eros, please, we're working" is the direction our society is going in.

This is partly because a quasi-legal system--such as a corporate HR department or a university student life committee--will find it very difficult to distinguish in any legally satisfactory way between creepy impingement and unwelcome romance--when the distinction, after all, is in the eye of the beholder (witness my wife thinking Johnny's multiple proposals were horrible, and me thinking June's resistance was perverse and motiveless).

One of the issues that #MeToo has exposed is the extent to which our work and educational lives are governed by quasi-legal, quasi-judicial bureaucracies, and that we are essentially asking these bureaucracies to decide between Johnny and June. How indeed could a judge tell if Johnny isn't Harvey Weinstein? Johnny was, after all, June's work colleague.

Incidentally I had the same thought about private bureaucracy as you did when reading that NYT article about agricultural regulations--that is our civilization. In fact I think judicial and quasi-judicial bureaucracy may be the very essence of western civilization. After all, that is a large part of what I as a teacher do--I decide which papers deserve reward and which deserve punishment, I judge which lateness excuses are acceptable and which not, and I write regulations about the length and topic of papers, the number of pages to be read, when not reading the pages is acceptable and when it isn't, etc., etc.--all of these being quasi-judicial verdicts based on evidence, precedent, the letter of the rules, etc., etc., and all reached in accordance with regulations imposed and subject to judgment on appeal by bureaucrat-judges above me, and so on.

Unknown said...

Used "after all" three times in one post--gotta watch those verbal tics.