We may well be entering upon the crest of the next wave of feminism, as happened when women gained the right to an abortion, or we may, instead, be in the midst of a dustup without consequences. The premise for change is that women will no longer put up with sexual harassment in the workplace, which means that they will not allow anyone to make them feel small or uncomfortable when it comes to sexual matters. They will come forward and speak up about gropes and rapes and untoward advances by male superiors, and males who have been subject to similar violations will also be able to come forward. But there are problems in the formulation of the changes in behavior that are to be undertaken as well as rhetorical and logical problems that did not befuddle the suffragettes, who were very straightforward in wanting something simple, which was the right to vote. That may be because what women have wanted over the past fifty years are changes in customary behavior even though that would result in major changes in the job market and workplace conditions, which do have to do with formal organizations. The definition of what is acceptable customary behavior is so much harder to formulate than are the rules about hiring practices or about the vote, which are matters of stipulated laws and regulations.
The definition of sexual harassment offered above is very vague in that it does not draw a clear line between flirtatious behavior and inappropriate behavior except in that women can be counted on to tell the difference. It is to be remembered that Anita Hill, in the first line of her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that what she had to say did not amount to a charge of sexual harassment, which was accurate enough in that what she said about Clarence Thomas was that he told some smutty stories and asked her out on dates. Yet now feminists treat the Anita Hill hearings as about sexual harassment. The term seems to apply most clearly to men like Harvey Weinstein, who is particularly gross in the way he approaches women and works in an industry like movies where there are so many beautiful women available for roles that some other factor than talent might be thought appropriate in making a casting choice, and so actresses seeking parts are subject to the casting couch. Corruption of this sort also makes sense in such industries as advertising where talent is whatever people make it out to be and that is less likely to be the case in law or medicine where there are real ability differences on the basis of which to make a selection of who gets the job. Bribes, that usual form of corruption, make less sense in Hollywood, where the executives already have plenty of money, and so sexual favors work in their stead. This may have been a two way street in that many women actresses may have succeeded because they were willing to be corrupted, but a new set of customs is coming into place where sexual favors are no longer a commodity to be traded. (I am excluding Roy Moore from this discussion of alterations in sexual practices because sexual contact with underage girls has always been illegal, while men using their power when approaching women and women using their allure to gain power from men has always been suspect but not punishable. Remember David and Bathsheba? He was a king and she took a bath in his view.)
Also troubling is that Weinstein and Kevin Spacey have had their careers destroyed even before any legal charges are brought against them. The accusations alone bring them down. Nicole Wallace and her MSNBC panel may think that women are just to be believed because they are putting themselves out there, but these men’s lives would not have been impacted so precipitously if they had been accused of murder. Taking away their honors and work would have awaited the outcome of a trial. Yet we must remember that that is the way it goes with changes in custom that are predicated upon atrocity cases that are to be used as examples of long standing patterns of behavior. The many policemen who have in the past few years been brought up on charges of the illegal shooting of black citizens have been largely acquitted when those charges came to trial but that does not convince me or others who support civil rights that a lot of black people get killed for no other reason than that they live in dangerous areas where cops are trigger happy. We need to address the issue of police over reaction when they patrol crime heavy neighborhoods, and we similarly need to address the issue of sexual harassment as something more than the give and take between the sexes whatever the merits of a particular case.
The last wave of feminism concerned abortion rights. These were seen as crucial for women to take over control of their own lives, biology no longer their masters. Abortion gave women an equal footing in the workplace because then women would not have an accident of biology, that they were the ones who carried babies, determine their lives. They could dispense with unwanted pregnancies. Now the rhetoric of that debate was also self serving in that it treated women as always possessed of the good judgment to decide whether a pregnancy should go forward, even though that meant the father had no say in the life of his offspring, and that middle class women could simply use abortion as a method of delayed birth control, the women’s movement sometimes sounding as if a foetus were no more than a hangnail, and so the foetus had no rights whatsoever, while at other times sounding as if this were a weighty decision that women would always take very seriously.
The bottom line in the current debate is that women are no longer to be regarded as attractive nuisances, and that is a major change of perspective. An abandoned house is an attractive nuisance, under the law, because children and others are likely to grow curious and explore in there even if many dangers lurk, like unreliable floorboards or other debris. The owner of the property will be held responsible if someone enters the premises and has an accident that harms them. That is why such properties are supposed to be boarded up and protected by locked gates. Women have always been regarded by men as an attractive nuisance. They are so damnably tempting that at the slightest provocation men, left to their druthers, will try to take advantage of them. Those provocations may include even trivial matters such as flirtatious behavior or attractive attire or a pleasant smile. But under the new dispensation presented by this new wave of the women’s movement, there is no excuse for thrusting oneself upon a woman, no matter how attractive she is, especially and even in in a work situation where the male has so much more authority than the women and whose job requires him to size women up for attractiveness. The new dispensation will require men to be even more careful about their sexual proclivities than they have been in the past, but that extension of the suppression of feeling that began, for some reason, in the high middle ages, has continued to climb in its demands ever since. The idea is that women are not game to be cornered and caught but just as fully human beings as the males who are drawn to them. Men just have to learn to cope with this next turn of the ratchet.
Feminists might not like the characterization of women as attractive nuisances but they acknowledge as much when they say women should not feel guilty for having dressed attractively for an occasion when a potential employer harassed them. Feminists also say that the overwhelming number of men are not like that but at the same time every teenage girl knows what boys want even if very few boys are likely to press such requests if they are not welcomed with open arms. Such has been the case since Adam and Eve and all we can do is set up social structures that will police the relations between men and women.
What are to be the new rules of the road? Maybe it means that all dealing with the opposite sex (or the same sex) as sexual creatures is to be forbidden in the workplace. That would establish a clear line. Work is a sexually neutral place. That would be difficult to enforce because men and women spend a lot of time in the workplace and so they are a natural ground for meeting possible sexual partners. But maybe such a prohibition is necessary so that there will be no ambiguity about whether people are abusing their power. On the other hand, it goes against the fact that many happy marriages came out of bosses dating their bookkeepers and professors dating their students. It seems needlessly prudish. Another possibility is imposing the kind of guidelines that are used at some colleges. People would have to verbally assent to every stage of a courtship, though that would be socially awkward and go against the idea that doing something dramatic and unexpected to win the hand of another is considered an important part of romance. But maybe that customary idea of the romantic also has to be put aside. Some feminists on PBS suggested that education for and in the workplace doesn’t work to cut down on abuse. Only nearly equal numbers of male and female managers, they think, will make a difference. But that will be a long time in coming. So what we have at the moment are a set of horrible cases and we don’t know how many of them there are. That is a start, but there needs to be more analysis of possible solutions before the outrage gets carried away with itself.