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The Unsexy Truth About Harassment

Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
Bankers Trust, New York City, 1960

On both sides of my subway stop, an ad campaign for the local public radio station, WNYC, has rotated for a few months now. The ads use text message-like taglines: one about the station call letters being your safe word, and another that asks, “You up?” After this week, when two more WNYC hosts were suspended as of Wednesday and placed under investigation for “inappropriate conduct”—Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz, joining John Hockenberry, who we learned over the weekend was also accused of workplace harassment—the station’s ads now read like leaked transcripts of unwanted sexts.

That’s how I read them. My AIM window once used to light up with messages from my editors and other writers at all hours, though it was one editor who was responsible for most of the late-night notes. This is how I knew he was editing my stories in bed with his wife, and he wanted me to know that he enjoyed it. He told me repeatedly, treating me like I was a secret, though it was one of his own invention, and I was not a participant. I don’t have the messages. It was years ago. I can’t say the words upset me, not then, not now. What they left me with was doubt, a sharp jab coinciding with the moments of accomplishment that I should have been able to enjoy as a writer. To detach myself from that editor meant I had to look at my own work with distance and suspicion. Did it only merit attention because I had? The editor didn’t have to say anything more; I did this doubting to myself. Over time, I stopped. 

It wasn’t #MeToo that allowed me to see my editor’s repeated attempts to sexualize our professional relationship for what it was. I knew this behavior was unacceptable at the time. Yet that didn’t make it feel significant. It had taken up so little space: a few words in a box on a screen I could hit “X” on at any time. If the messages had just been about expressing sexual desire, maybe I would have logged off. But my job was to respond, to be available, even if that meant being available to one-sided sex talk when what I wanted was the next round of edits on a story. A co-worker’s or boss’s actions, I know now, don’t have to feel like a profound violation to be harassment. They can feel more like a waste of time.

The reactions to #MeToo—what has become shorthand for a mass reckoning with sexual harassment—have taken almost the opposite emphasis. Sex has overshadowed harassment. The stories women have related under the #MeToo banner are getting edited down to something else, a vaguer behavior: “sexual misconduct.” This is a mistake. Misconduct can sound like a purely interpersonal problem, a disagreement that causes “offense” but is no one’s fault in particular. Harassment, however, is enabled by a system: the boss, the human resources department (if there is one), a workplace culture of disregard. Harassment is at its most effective in such an enabling environment. It can also create one, even if that environment is just what it’s like at night in your inbox.

In rewriting these accusations as instances of “sexual misconduct,” and not workplace harassment, women are returned to the unwanted role of sexual gatekeepers, which reduces women’s power to their sexual availability (including, even, its absence). Calling out behavior that aims at or results in women’s exclusion at work has already given way to debates about the meaning of hugs and kisses, and arguments about an allegedly brewing hysteria over sex. But women are not asking to be insulated from sex. Collectively naming sexual harassment is one way to combat male dominance as it is expressed at work, but that is not a collective panic about or refusal of sex.

“Sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for the virtuous woman,” reported Phyllis Schlafly to the United States Senate Labor Committee in 1981, “except in the rarest of cases.” Innocence is the criteria women are judged by when we report abuses of power: either we weren’t harassed because we don’t really know the difference between harassment and desire, or we were harassed because we were not innocent to begin with. Once, women were to remain ignorant of sex; and still, women are not supposed to let on that we know how power works. Consciously or not, we know how rote male dominance is, and that it often feels like nothing. It is the weather, and it is a form of discipline.

Sexual harassment is often understood, like other forms of gender-based violence, as a violation of consent. It is more than that. In the United States, sexual harassment is legally defined as a form of sex discrimination, a violation of civil rights. This legal framework doesn’t grant automatic protection, but it clarifies for me why, at work, I have never had the expectation that myself or my body would be “protected.” Nor do I expect my rights to be protected. But I do expect that if my rights are violated, those I work for will respond, and I would hope that response allowed me to continue my work, because if not, theoretically, they would be legally liable. There is a substantial difference between working towards protection and avoiding liability. Right now, despite this peak awareness, such protection is far from guaranteed. It might not even be the kind of demand a campaign in the wake of #MeToo might take up. 

As these stories continue to break, in the weeks since women have said they were harassed and abused by Harvey Weinstein, which was not the birth of a movement but an easy and highly visible shorthand for decades of organizing against sexual harassment that preceded this moment, I hope to gain back my time, my work. Lately, though, I have noticed a drift in the discourse from violated rights to violated feelings: the swelled number of reporters on the beat, the burden on each woman’s story to concern a man “important” enough to report on, the detailed accounting of hotel robes and incriminating texts along with a careful description of what was grabbed, who exposed what, and how many times. What I remember most, from “my story” is how small the sex talk felt, almost dull. I did not feel hurt. I had no pain to confess in public. As more stories come out, I like to think that we would also believe a woman who said, for example, that the sight of the penis of the man who promised her work did not wound her, and that the loss she felt was not some loss of herself but of her time, energy, power.

Hockenberry provides us with a climate model for workplace harassment: a producer described to New York magazine’s The Cut the time when Hockenberry forcibly kissed her, and how she felt that, “If you complain, you disappear.” Hockenberry’s former co-host Adaora Udoji writes: “I was recruited to join what I was told would be a new morning show driven by diverse voices and themes at WNYC.… I wish I could remember the exact moment I realized I felt like I was being exploited.” Of Hockenberry’s behavior producing the show, she says, “The abuse became normal.” Udoji was one of three of Hockenberry’s co-hosts to leave the program; all three are women of color. Former Charlie Rose producer Rebecca Carroll, writing after Rose was fired from the program after multiple women said he harassed them, recalls that in her time with the program, “There was little to no recognition of what it meant to be black and female in a workplace dominated by white men.” She describes a pattern of Rose undermining her work, how she was “silenced and punished.” With Rose, she writes, “His sexualization of white women was a manifestation of gendered power dynamics in the same way that his not sexualizing me was an expression of racialized power dynamics.”

#MeToo has already repeated the misplaced universalism of past feminist efforts to address sexual harassment, either reducing harassment to a “women’s issue,” or allowing gender to overshadow race, sexuality, and class. The “virtuous woman,” the perfect and real victim, is most always white and not too demanding (and she always reports the “incident” immediately after it happens). Nearly anyone else who fails to meet that standard could be met with suspicion: she’s angry, she’s in it for the money, she’s desperate for attention, she’s—to use the president’s lingo—only “a six.” Only those who are already seen as credible victims are granted victimhood.

This conflation of sex with “sexual misconduct” has led to some concern that what may result from the #MeToo moment is a “sex panic,” with all the attendant public punishment and casting out. But it’s too late: sexual harassment is a form of discipline, and it has already led to so many women being cast out from their work and the attention that is rightfully theirs. When men use sex to push women into inferior, undervalued, and invisible roles, that isn’t sex; that’s punishment. We must reject the idea that harassment is measured by how sexually violated the victim feels (or how she is told she is supposed to feel). Our conflict is not over sex, or with men in particular or in general, but over power.

This will require women to look at their own power. “As women become more equal as women, their rights and the power of the institutions that represent them as workers are progressively being overtaken by the prerogatives of employers and corporations,” writes the author and journalist Judith Levine. “The result: it is every woman for herself, which means only a few women prevail.” One vision of gender justice seeks to transform our relationships to power through collective resistance. Another vision is concerned with maintaining what we have through aligning ourselves with the already powerful. If #MeToo is going to lead to another kind of reckoning with power, which vision is more likely to prevail? #MeToo is not yet aligned to either vision of gender justice, and it needn’t be. Its power is in exposing power.

#MeToo gained attention through its connection to media and celebrity. But what led to this “moment” is that women’s liberation and the work of gender justice are unfinished. “The angel in the house” was set free by feminism’s first wave, and thanks to the second wave “the problem with no name” is now freely spoken of, yet how women’s rights are imagined—in truth, women’s power—is still stuck at the threshold, with the woman as arbiter, the one who says “no.” With #MeToo, women are, or could be, collectively rejecting such simple refusals. What is powerful about this moment, what is threatening, is that in place of women’s refusals, there are not only demands, but desire for a world in which sex, work, and power are not ruled by false notions of virtue and victimhood.