Panicking about Sexual Harassment Is Bad for Women

What started with Hollywood women denouncing Harvey Weinstein has rapidly developed into a global movement decrying sexual harassment. The #MeToo stories of high profile women working in politics, the media and theatre make for headline news. To some feminist campaigners this represents a tipping point, a watershed moment that could lead to new legislation and cultural change. Hour after hour, more stories emerge, and accusations of rape become conflated with decade-old clumsy flirtations. Sexual harassment has become the moral panic of our times. And when, in the panic, unsubstantiated finger-pointing has the power to destroy careers, we have all the trappings of a witchhunt.

In the UK, attention this week has focused on Parliament. A spreadsheet detailing the sexual misdemeanors of 40 so-far anonymized MPs, compiled from a secret WhatsApp group of secretaries and researchers, is circulating. Slowly names have emerged. Bex Bailey, a Labour activist, says she was raped by someone senior in the party in 2011 but told that reporting the crime would damage her career. Meanwhile Kate Maltby, an academic and political journalist, has gone public with the revelation that first Secretary of State, Damien Green, put a “fleeting” hand against her knee “so brief, it was almost deniable.”

In the swirl of rumor and panic, both these incidents come to be discussed in the same breath. It is assumed they are at either ends of a continuum of abuse. But rape and clumsy attempts at flirtation are in no way comparable. To conflate the two trivializes rape. But the advantage for feminist campaigners of blurring the distinction between assault and sexist banter is that it allows all women to present themselves as victims.

A BBC survey carried out in the aftermath of publicity surrounding the Weinstein allegations suggests that half of British women have been sexually harassed at work. This is appalling. But  more than a quarter of respondents said the harassment they had experienced was in the form of inappropriate jokes or “banter.” When harassment is defined this broadly it becomes utterly meaningless. But the implication, that all women are victims and all men are perpetrators, is damaging to both women and men. 

Victim feminism

In my book, Women Vs. Feminism: Why We All Need Liberating from the Gender Wars, I explore how feminism has changed over recent decades. I argue that feminism was once a bold campaign for women’s liberation that assumed strong and powerful women could compete with men as equals. Now, all too often, feminism claims the exact opposite.

As the enthusiasm for women to join in with the #MeToo campaign shows, victimhood has become an attractive proposition today. Not only does it provide access to platforms, resources and power but it also, more importantly, leads to a moral beatification. Contemporary political culture reveres the victim and continually reinforces the authority of those who suffer. The victim is placed on a pedestal, a heroine, blameless. The only demand the victim makes of us is to believe her and in so doing affirm her identity as a victim. The assumption of blamelessness, however, is at best a hollow victory. To be blameless is to have lacked all ability to control your own destiny.

The primary objective of feminism today seems to be securing recognition that all women, however successful, are victimized. This victim status sits easily alongside an assumption of equality: women are equal, indeed superior, to men because of the suffering they endure and the disadvantage they have overcome. Likewise, claims of victimhood can be made loudly and confidently: women are made strong by their collective pain, they are survivors. Victim feminism is an assertive demand for affirmation of this status.

In embracing victimhood, feminism has moved from a perception of women as autonomous beings, desiring freedom and able to cope with the world in the same way as men, to presenting women as being in need of special protections, trigger warnings and safe spaces. In the process, old ideas of sexually chaste and vulnerable women having to ward off predatory men are being rehabilitated at a time when women, especially those in wealthy, Western countries, have greater financial and legal independence than ever before.

Discovering sexual harassment

Sexual harassment was first “discovered” in the 1970s as second wave feminists tried to explain why gender inequality continued despite equal pay and anti-discrimination legislation. Gender inequality seemed to be entrenched in the workplace. The legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon successfully argued that sexual harassment was a feature of sexual discrimination and needed to be outlawed if women were to have equal opportunities in education and work. Linking sexual harassment to formal processes of discrimination meant drawing equivalence between an individual woman’s experiences of being mistreated, perhaps groped or propositioned in the office, with policies such as a marriage bar that formally prevented women from continuing in employment once they were married.

This expanded the definition of discrimination and moved sexual harassment away from a problem experienced and dealt with by individuals within a specific context to it being seen as a broader explanation for women’s disadvantage. The cause of women’s lack of opportunities and continued underperformance in education and work became located within their experiences of sexual harassment rather than in practical obstacles such as lack of access to childcare or in social pressures on women to remain at home once they had children. Instead, the explanation for continued inequality between the sexes was laid firmly with the collective bad behavior of men. Writing in her 1979 book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women, Mackinnon explained that sexual harassment was not tangential to women’s inequality but “a crucial expression of it.” Nonetheless, it turned out to be far more difficult a problem to solve than some other obstacles working women faced. 

Following a 1976 court case, sexual harassment in America became legally recognized as a form of discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Heightened awareness of the issue meant that suddenly sexual harassment was uncovered everywhere; MacKinnon reports that seven out of ten women had experienced sexual harassment “in some form at some point in their work lives.” For a previously unidentified problem to encompass so many people in such a short space of time is quite remarkable. Daphne Patai, author of Heterophobia is cynical about the processes that led women to attach this label to their experiences. She suggests the efforts, particularly virulent on university campuses, to uncover and name this newly discovered problem are best described as a “Sexual Harassment Industry.” Patai argues this industry offers women a “training in victimhood,” through which they “learn how to identify the injuries they suffer” and come to see themselves first as “victims” then as “survivors.”

Real problems

According to Patai, the sudden explosion in the number of sexual harassment victims suggests the offense is too broadly defined and the problem overstated. However, this is not to deny that sexual harassment takes place: Lin Farley, Catharine MacKinnon and other feminists who first drew attention to sexual harassment did indeed identify a particular problem. In the 1970s, women had a much lower status in the workforce than they do today. They often held poorly paid and insecure jobs and had few employment rights. As Mackinnon correctly points out, because women are “economically vulnerable they are sexually exposed.” Women’s low status could be exploited by unscrupulous bosses safe in the knowledge that those wanting to keep their jobs had little option other than to put up with unwanted advances. Mackinnon makes clear, “following the woman’s refusal, the man retaliated through use of his power over her job or career.” The Sexual Harassment Industry was less quick to point out that not all male bosses harassed their female employees – and neither did all women see all sexual advances as unwelcome.

The problem for women was not just that feminist campaigns defined sexual harassment far too broadly; more importantly, they did not focus on improving women’s pay and conditions or raising their status in the workplace. Instead, sexual harassment came to be viewed as a problem solely of men’s bad behavior. Mackinnon spells this out: “The common denominator is that the perpetrators tend to be men, the victims women.” This suggests that the power imbalance that enabled sexual harassment to occur was not driven by women’s precarious employment conditions but by the innate characteristics of men and women. Again, MacKinnon makes this point clearly: “The relationship between a woman’s anatomy and her social fate is the pivot on which turn all attempts, and opposition to attempts, to define or change her situation.”

Teaching victimhood

Campaigns against sexual harassment focus on exposing and correcting men’s offensive behavior. This means women have to recognize themselves as victims so that men can be held to account for their indiscretions. As a result, workplace relationships, perhaps between friends or family members, become problematized and situations that were previously viewed as trivial, or something women could easily deal with themselves, are re-interpreted as abusive. Any solution to women’s problems that requires women see themselves as victims can only ever be a hollow victory.

Teaching women to see themselves as victims increases the perception of sexual harassment as a significant problem. It’s no surprise then that, despite the fundamental transformation in women’s working lives since the 1970s, the problem of sexual harassment has not gone away. Instead, over the course of four decades, definitions of sexual harassment have become ever more expansive and are now incorporated into the law. But one problem is that the more broadly sexual harassment is defined the more subjective it becomes – what one woman experiences as unwelcome another might see as a compliment. Whether or not a picture, email or joke violates someone’s dignity or creates an offensive environment can only be determined by the recipient. The need, identified by Patai, for a Sexual Harassment Industry not only to train women to see themselves as victims but also to step in and reprimand the male perpetrators becomes clear.

Feminists for chaperones

The perception that women are bombarded by harassment from the moment they leave their homes leads, inevitably, to calls for greater regulation of the workplace and relationships. But the right to risk an uninvited comment is integral to our freedom as citizens – one that many women welcome rather than perceive to be a risk. A feminism that tells us women need police protection from such exchanges, or rules about how, when and where workmates can socialize is no champion women’s liberation.

Joanna Williams

Dr Joanna Williams is an author, academic and the education editor of Spiked. Joanna’s latest book is Women Vs Feminism: Why we all need liberating from the gender wars (Emerald, 2017).

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Joanna Williams

Dr Joanna Williams is an author, academic and the education editor of Spiked. Joanna’s latest book is Women Vs Feminism: Why we all need liberating from the gender wars (Emerald, 2017).

7 thoughts on “Panicking about Sexual Harassment Is Bad for Women

  1. It’s not just bad for women. It’s bad for everyone. It creates a distorted concept of sex as something that is dangerous, and uniquely so.

  2. The commenter Aaron has the right idea.

    The idea that the trajectory of feminism of late is to think of women as victims is only superficially true. The flip side to that way of describing matters is to think of men as perpetrators of injustice, which doesn’t have the same “fragile snowflake” implications for women. It could just as well portray women as valiant warriors or brave sufferers, which incidentally is the way the discourse goes in the actual left and not a classical liberal or conservative description of such.

    I agree with the author’s general worldview, but this article feels analogous to when the right claims that affirmative action is bad for blacks because it portrays them as not good enough. It’s too abstract and not terribly convincing. It’s an obvious win for blacks, not a handicap. Don’t overthink it.

  3. I think this article is wrong about feminists thinking women should have chaperones. Instead, feminists want a situation where a woman has the power to put any man in their place, no matter how powerful, and fully backed up by the institutions of culture and law. Your typical feminist would be incredulous at the notion that this could ever be abused, because, (1) men have all the power anyway, and (2) feminists see themselves as moral superior (or just plain superior), and so men should have nothing to fear from their moral betters. That men even go for this highlights the deep paternalism in male psychology: the desperate need to see oneself as invulnerable, and to protect and rescue woman.

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