Gender Prejudice & Sexual Harassment

Since I assume, with everyone else, and as data indicates, that women are on average smarter than men (they, for example, do better at school) and more interested in explicating personal relationships than are men, it is amazing that during the current frenzy over sexual harassment, the distinction between that and gender prejudice is obscured or neglected, which is evidence, I take it, that we are indeed in the midst of a frenzy, when an entire gender has lost its mind, something that they will recover, hopefully, before too much time has passed--say, by the end of the decade or a few years after that. So in the hope of getting things right, I will reiterate the distinction and apply it to present circumstances. But my hopes of alleviating the frenzy are dim because the basis of the frenzy is so emotionally deeply seated in the psyches of the two sexes.

Gender prejudice is thinking less well of women because of their gender. It includes neglecting the things they say at meetings until a man brings the same point up and then it is noticed. This is a feature of social life a lot of women have mentioned to me as widely prevalent, though I never encountered it in my many years in academia or in dealing with the women I know or have known, who were very good at expressing their opinions forcefully. Even that claim of gender prejudice is complicated, however. I taught for a few years at an all girls college and found that those very bright young women deferred to the much less bright young men who were students at a college down the road and were allowed to cross register for courses at the woman’s college. It isn’t that the girls wanted not to offend boys they intended to date. The self denial went much deeper than that. They didn’t think it was ladylike, being argumentative making them less womanly, though I and most of the males I knew didn’t feel that way. It went, I presumed, into how they had been brought up and this self-censorship would take a few generations to root out, but it definitely was self-imposed rather than imposed on them. No wonder that they are so angry about it.

Gender discrimination differs from gender prejudice in that it has to do with outcomes rather than feelings, just as racial discrimination didn’t have to do with prejudice against black people, even though it  was partly based on it, but with the actual rules and regulations by which people lived, so that by law it was very difficult for blacks to vote in the deep south at mid-century and that blacks were forced to use separate drinking fountains, even if most white people did not care much about such social discrimination and were willing to dispense with those laws, which was difficult to do because there was such a threat of violence against blacks who stepped over one or another legal or customary line. A good example of gender discrimination is pay inequality. But that too is complicated. Mary Richards had to ask Lou Grant to give her pay equality; nowadays, pay inequality results from the fact that women take years out of the workforce to raise their children and so do not build up seniority and get the pay dividends that result from that. How do you handle this problem? You could say every woman employee is automatically granted a certain number of years of seniority, just the way that veterans are given extra points on civil service tests, but that seems unfair and unequal, especially if men modify their own work lives so as to take a greater part in child rearing. Is this a good way to intrude into family life or does it just result in making males the objects of gender discrimination? I don’t know how to deal with the pay disparity question. There is so much anger surrounding this question that it is difficult to discuss it rationally. It is cited as a basis for anger, not as a problem in need of a solution.

Sexual harassment is different from both gender prejudice and gender discrimination even though the three get conflated. Leonard Lopate was dismissed from NPR in part, apparently, because he bullied his subordinates but that is regarded as a form of sexual harassment. Is it that women are more sensitive about bullying and so the entire work environment has to be changed so as to discourage that antiquated practice? Maybe so. But, strictly speaking, sexual harassment has to do with sexual advances made by people who intrude that into the workplace and who have previously or at the moment were rebuffed but insisted on carrying on with their importuning. And, according to the press, there is an epidemic of this going on in factories and workplaces all over the country as well as in Washington and in Hollywood. It is difficult to pin down, however, the difference between sexual harassment and sexual overtures in that the definition is left up to the woman, she the one to decide what advances make her uncomfortable and which ones she regards as flattering. I don’t know how to objectify that distinction and so make it operational and the basis for rules and regulations and for the law. Moreover, are we seeing a revolt against something that has gone on since time immemorial or are we seeing men behaving badly because they encounter women in places and settings where the sexes previously did not mingle in a significant way, and so the epidemic of sexual harassment is a sign that the world is opening up to women? I don’t know the answer to that question.

To think that men are brutes, however, is to miss the point of the relation between the sexes. Some men actually like women and not just for sexual purposes. Women are complex and nice to converse with. They also have a kind of charm that is different from the kind men have, though I don’t know how to define it, except that it has to do with tones of voice, the way a head or a body is held, or how women express sympathy, or how women sit, slightly posed, legs crossed at the knees or held close together or at a slightly different angle than the rest of the body, all of which can be raised to the level of making women attractive, if you want to put that point to it. They can’t help it; that is just the way they are. When Henry Higgins sings “Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like A Man?” he is being ironic because it contradicts the obvious, which is that men don’t want women to be more like them. It is not so terrible if a woman keeps you waiting, because they are worth the wait. They light up the room.

Another distinction that is worth making and is relevant to the current discussion of sexual harassment is that sex is about sex not about power. Men may use their power to get sex but power is the means to the end not the end in itself even if some women can’t believe that men could be so inconsiderate if the end in sight was not the demonstration of power. Women are so attractive that some men will be brutal so that they can get some. Women may think that men should want the whole of them, and not just their sexual organs, that physical attractiveness is just skin deep, but as a teenage boy put it to me, the surface is what he wants: he didn’t care about a girl’s liver. That may all seem obvious but it is also, in its way, untrue, just as Aldous Huxley was wrong when he said that love was just a matter of how the involuntary nervous system works. The true realism may lie in romantic idealism: a man experiences a touch of a woman’s soul when he first meets her, every soul different on even first sight, and just about all women convey that. The lens of lust gives a man access to a woman’s soul. It is just that women are perhaps better than men, on average, in combining lust and romance by allowing themselves to think lustfully only when there is a touch of romance in the air. So men are different in that, for them, lust is always in the air, and chastising them for being different doesn’t do much to advance the relation between the sexes.

We may be at the start of something much more significant than stopping particularly brutish men from sexually harassing women employees. This may be the beginning of a major change in the way courtship is conducted. Traditionally, a woman was traded for five goats and went to live with her husband in a nearby village in her mother-in-law’s house. The woman was throwing in her life with his, accepting his at least mildly different way of life for the one to which she was accustomed. She trusted that it would be manageable or that, after thirty years, she would take on her mother-in-law’s dominating role in the household. Ruth remarks to Naomi: “For whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” This is different from what her fellow widows do, which is return to their original homes.  What is striking about this remark is that this is a sentiment a new wife would express to a new husband. Ruth was throwing in with Naomi, trusting her to manage her life, and her reward for this trust was a new and wealthy and respectful husband. Dating, for its part. is just a shortened version of courtship. A woman trusts that the guy who wants to be her boyfriend or have an even more circumscribed relationship is to be trusted with her good will and that he will, at the least, not prove brutish. Under those rules, the guy proposes and the girl disposes. She says either yes or no to his advances. But that asymmetry is nowadays being treated as an inequality. The negotiations between the sexes are altered because women do not need oxen for their families nor do they need to have very much trust in the temporary sexual partnerships they might make and so it is also no longer necessary for men to be the ones who propose, brutishly or not. There is an equal playing field. I don’t know how that will play out, the old rules of courtship being the ones I could manage, but I am too embarrassed to ask my granddaughter how it works these days and it would take a lot of convincing to make me believe that courtship has changed all that much since ancient times.