November-December Posts On Sexual Misconduct

During the last month, there has been a great deal of intense conversation on my Facebook page. The threads have included hundreds of comments, and I haven’t been able to respond to all who asked me to clarify a position of mine or asked a particular question. I thought it might be useful, therefore, to put together some of my more substantive comments and posts from over the past month. They are not systematic, by any means, and shouldn’t be taken as such, but (with the exception of the 1998 Chronicle piece) are spontaneous, unrevised responses to evolving events.

November 22:


“I did try & fuck her. She was married. I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn’t get there. I just start kissing them. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything—grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” Donald Trump

November 23:

This piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education was published in 1998, and it NOT about all sexual misconduct, just about harassment. It obviously doesn’t address a fraction of what’s going on today, but it does show–I believe–what I mean when I say the current conversation is ignoring context, nuance, and the complexities of power:

We have made a great mistake in equating sexual harassment with sexual gestures and overtures. When Judge Susan Webber Wright threw Paula Jones’s harassment charges against President Clinton out of court last month, she made clear that not all unwelcome sexual overtures compromise equality in the workplace. It is also true that one can compromise equality without saying or doing anything sexual at all; that, too, has been obscured in our obsessive cultural focus on sexual grabs and gropes. Would anyone question that a white boss who called his black employee “boy” was harassing him, and creating a hostile and discriminatory work environment?

Except for quid pro quo instances — when, for example, promotions or grades are promised in return for sexual favors — most sexual harassment is, more properly speaking, gender discrimination: behavior and snide remarks that continually make a point of sexual “difference,” often putting down women in the process and thus making them feel less than fully accepted in the classroom or workplace.

In the past decade, episodes ranging from the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings to charges against Senator Bob Packwood to the movie Disclosure– in which Demi Moore forces herself on Michael Douglas — have helped to create a portrait of the harasser as obsessed with sex. These examples have made the gross, unwelcome sexual gesture — verbal or physical — our model of harassment.

Many commentators blame feminists for this conflation of all sexual language and behavior with harassment. But its origins are far more complicated, and include America’s heritage of prurient Puritanism; the media’s disinclination to focus on complex questions of institutional inequality; and the current renaissance, in popular science and psychology, of the late-Victorian notion that men are bundles of animal instincts and women are the sexless guardians of civilization.

In the resulting cultural climate, many people feel that the safest course is simply to avoid all sexual references and compliments in conversation, and all affectionate touching and glances — a tall and grim order, especially for those of us from families or ethnic communities that use touch to communicate empathy, humor, and playful mutual recognition. The prevailing climate is the one that allowed Paula Jones to imagine that she had an actionable case against Bill Clinton, the climate that has shaped the debates, for both his defenders and his detractors, about his behavior with women. “Gross sexual misconduct!” charge his enemies. “Boys will be boys,” counters the scientist Steven Pinker, in The New Yorker, offering “an evolutionary explanation for Presidents behaving badly” in the greater biological returns of multiple inseminations with multiple partners.

Feminist supporters of Clinton, such as Gloria Steinem, writing in The New York Times, have correctly pointed out that Monica Lewinsky’s relationship with the President “has never been called unwelcome, coerced or other than something she sought.” But the focus of these arguments is still on what Clinton did physically. Only Anita Hill has suggested that although sex makes a great story, sexual harassment is not really about sex. I made a similar point in my most recent book, Twilight Zones, in which I argue that although sexuality may be one of the mediums of sexual harassment, it is not its essence. As an illustration, I described my own harassment when I was in graduate school in the mid-1970s, in the days when we didn’t have a word for such things.

The events had begun with a professor’s expressing more than professional interest in me over lunch. I wasn’t interested, and I indicated as much, but I didn’t feel offended or compromised. The man had made a pass, I had said No. Big deal.

The situation rapidly changed for me, however, when my professor, having been turned down, began to sprinkle virtually every conversation we had with references to my gender (telling me that my comprehensive exams were extraordinarily rigorous for a woman’s) and my personal life (suggesting that I was studying Russian to please my boyfriend).

I swallowed all of this. I had learned to expect and endure such sexist comments, and I had been taught, along with many other women of my generation, that being nice to people, trying not to expose their failings, particularly if they were men, was more important than standing up for myself.

Then one day this professor jovially instructed me that it was “time for class, dear” and patted me on my rear end at the open doorway of a classroom full of other students, mostly male. My impulse, believe it or not, after I had run down the hall in humiliation, was to tell him how degrading that gesture had been to me, with what economy and precision he had reduced me, in front of my colleagues, from fellow philosopher-in-training to … to what? I’m not sure I can say exactly what. Perhaps to a child, perhaps to a piece of meat, perhaps to someone so inconsequential that my personal boundaries and integrity were irrelevant.

When I tried to tell him how I felt, the professor laughed and told me that I ought not to be so sensitive, a further humiliation that I didn’t even try to explain to him. Instead, I sought understanding from my fellow students. My closest friends were men; they told me, “Well, what did you expect? You don’t exactly dress like a nun!”

Even in those more naive times, I knew that my friends were wrong, that my professor’s gesture, although it involved physical contact with my bottom, was not a sexual advance but an attempt — conscious or otherwise — to put me back in my place.

The same dynamics, if we believe Anita Hill, were at work when Clarence Thomas shoved pornography under her nose. When Hill made her discomfort at his talk of oral sex and penis size clear to him, she sensed “that it urged him on, as though my reaction of feeling ill at ease and vulnerable was what he wanted.” Thomas’s coin was sex talk. But what made his behavior harassment was his refusal to stop talking dirty even after Hill, a subordinate, had made her discomfort clear.

Thomas’s actions, and those of my professor, were neither the actions of men confused about the rules of sexual courting, nor the behavior of sex fiends unable to control their hormones. They were the actions of gender bullies, trying to bring uppity women down to size, to restore a balance of power in which they were on top.

Context shapes the meaning of gestures, and people often don’t know how their behavior will affect others. So, the issue of harassment is complex. In my view, a boss’s putting a calendar of naked women on the office wall is not in itself necessarily harassing; nor is a teacher’s putting an arm around a student. When does harassment begin? That’s not easy to specify in a rule. It’s clear that a boss or teacher who willfully ignores the objections of subordinates — whether to sexist comments or to sexual gestures — is abusing his or her power.

When subordinates don’t object, the situation becomes murkier, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that harassment hasn’t occurred. They may feel that their jobs and grades are at stake, but also, more subtly and yet profoundly, they may feel overwhelmed by the sheer power held by their bosses and teachers — the cultural power, that is, to control the language, interpretation, and “reality” of the situation. Subordinates may be sexually drawn to that power, too.

This is where the situation with Clinton — if he’s really been cavorting with Lewinsky — gets troublesome for a feminist: not with his galloping libido or boorish sexual etiquette, but with his seeming obliviousness to the power he holds. I don’t see any evidence — so far — that Clinton bullied Lewinsky. On the other hand, I don’t see an affair between Bill Clinton, President of the United States, and Monica Lewinsky, Intern — even if she came at him panting — as just an ordinary case of horny-old-guy-meets-horny-young-girl. Even as a lowly teacher, I know that “welcome” and “unwelcome” are not trustworthy categories to employ as the bottom line when a student’s sexual feelings for an authority figure are involved.

I feel my comments echoing backward in time. We’ve heard it all before. The dynamics of sexuality and power are among the issues that we had begun to explore in the wake of the Hill=Thomas hearings; they were set aside as grabs and gropes took center stage. We need to revive that more psychologically and politically nuanced conversation. We also need to begin to discuss the notions of masculinity and femininity that still inform the realities of harassment in our culture. Role reversals such as that in Disclosure, pandering to male fantasies and anxieties, have tried to make gender utterly irrelevant to conversations about harassment. But while women can and do harass men, it’s more often the other way around, and we need to focus on why that’s the case, and why many women simply accept harassment.

Paula Jones is not Everywoman; most women do not bring suit even when they have a case. Neither is Bill Clinton Everyman, although as long as he’s being persecuted, by Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr and the media, it’s easy to see him that way. That’s the secret, I believe, to Clinton’s high ratings. It is not that people don’t believe various women’s claims about what he did, or that they “approve” of his behavior with them, but rather that he’s become, in the public imagination, a victim of harassment. “Leave the guy alone already!” those polls are saying to Starr’s sexual McCarthyism and the media’s frenzied coverage. I agree. Let’s leave Clinton’s body parts alone — and start thinking again, with our brains.

November 24:

For decades we were accused of being humorless prudes, man-haters, ball-busters, and “victim-feminists.” And all the while we were developing contextual, systemic understandings of gender and sexuality, understandings that took into account race, class, the nuances of power-relations, the role of popular culture, dominant ideas about masculinity and what it means to be a ”real man,” the ways that one can harass without even touching, the different meanings of hugs and bum pats in ethnic and racial traditions, the ethics of teacher/student, boss/employee relations. We’ve been working on this stuff all our lives, and it’s been hard and painful and we’ve had to learn to listen to experiences beyond our own individual histories, our own personal anger, and at the same time to struggle with hostility and misunderstanding and just plain feminist-hatred. We’ve defended students in their struggle with institutions that let star athletes off the hook for rape. We’ve watched tears stream down the faces of young women convinced it was their fault, because they drank too much. And we‘ve also talked, too, to young male students who were utterly confused about what women expected from them, who truly DID get mixed signals and didn’t know how to respond.

So pardon me if I don’t respond any more to posts and comments that fling the terms “predator” and “abuser” around indiscriminately, that preach about “patriarchy” as though we’ve never heard that word before, that chastise those of us who don’t see women as virtuous angels who are ALWAYS right in their interpretation of events, or the man who gets off on power and delights in the degradation of women as equivalent to the man who makes a crude gesture. I’ve made a few in my day, too. And I’ve done an awful lot of hugging without asking for permission…

“Zero tolerance”: What the hell does that even mean? Zero tolerance for what, exactly? Try to define it without resorting to empty slogans. Try to make it a practical possibility. Easy to say the words. Not so easy to actually legislate it—or even describe it.

December 1:

I don’t disagree with a word of this balanced, smart, rational piece by Suzanna Walters, and I thank her for reminding us of all the dimensions of the current wave of allegations, firings, etc.

As a 70-year-old longtime feminist, I’ve watched in dismay over the decades, screaming at the TV at the boy’s club that confirmed Clarence Thomas, criticizing in my own writing the representation of women’s bodies in movies, videos, ads, and most recently, protesting our cultural obliviousness to the gendered dimensions of our irrational vilification of Hillary Clinton.

If I’ve learned anything over the decades, it’s that our political, consumer, and media culture, unlike Suzanna’s piece are far from balanced or rational, and that’s where my concern lies. I’ve never had a problem “believing women” (except when my suspicions are aroused that they are being used politically, as we know can happen regardless of gender) or doubted the ability of most of us to distinguish between a “single inappropriate hug or a random sexual joke and rape and harassment.” But I do have big concerns about what the mass media as well as political agendas that truly sometimes DO become “witch hunts” can and will do with our efforts. And as the 2016 election made clear, people are also highly capable of behaving in a herd-like manner, and getting swept up by the headlines of the moment.

So while I agree that both “small” acts and heinous ones are on a continuum of disrespect, disdain, and objectification of women, the reality is that (1) the media tends NOT to engage in systemic analysis, but to sensationalize the behavior of individuals, which then get leveled out by virtue of the “pile on” effect (one of the reasons why Trump’s outrages of so many varieties have gotten normalized) and (2) while the media levels, power still is unequally distributed, and some groups are damn better at weaponizing and/or slipping out of sexual allegations than others—e.g. liberals tend to accept guilt right away, while Moore and Trump deny and deny, and stay in/get elected to office.

So I guess I would simply add to Walters excellent discussion a call for us to be constantly aware of the irrational, political, and consumer contexts our actions find themselves in. If I worry about where all “this” (whatever it is!!) is going, it’s because of that. I mean, “we” just elected Donald Trump, despite the Access Hollywood tapes, which shook Michelle Obama to her core and ought to have killed off Trump’s chances entirely. But the media—chasing the well-planned dump of anti-Clinton material, took our eyes off the ball. And even today, amidst all the current commentary on every other act of sexual misconduct, only rarely are we reminded of the women who accused Trump or how indisputably abusive—and truly illustrative of “rape culture”—were his words.

No matter how nuanced, thoughtful, well calibrated our theory, it remains a huge struggle to get our ideas foregrounded by the mainstream media. Or to control how our actions are taken up in our highly divisive political culture, or swept up in consumer behavior that gobbles up the sensational and ”has no appetite” (in currently popular pundit lingo) for analysis.

December 6:

I’m very uncomfortable with Gillibrand’s doctrine of “no distinctions.” It’s a slippery slope. If we’re going to make no distinctions between all unwanted bodily intrusions and sexual harassment and assault and abuse of minors, what about (1) Those who pat my daughter’s Afro without permission, treating her like a cute exotic? 2) Those who pat pregnant women’s stomachs without permission—because pregnant women’s bodies are, after all, cultural property? (3) Joe Biden? I find all three of these, under certain circumstances, to be highly disrespectful and demeaning. Why should the sexual nature of a gesture be the only relevant aspect?

And sorry, but the conversations that Gillibrand says are the wrong ones to have are ones that I believe we ultimately cannot avoid. At some point, whether in dispensing moral outrage, meting out punishment, or putting forth lawsuits, we are going to NEED to make distinctions—and bodies, moreover, aren’t all that’s involved. I think harassment, for example, is a very particular kind of ongoing assertion of power (which can be racial as well as sexual) in the workplace or educational setting. Clarence Thomas didn’t grope Anita Hill—but he subjected her to ongoing humiliating talk, jokes, and other attempts to put her in her place when she didn’t submit to his will.

I think the Democrats are being just as political here as the Republicans. No one is thinking with their full intelligence and according to a moral compass.

December 7:

The irony that Franken is “leaving, while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assaults sits in the Oval Office, and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party.” (Al Franken)

The Democrats believe that now they have the “moral high ground.”

Me: The Republicans couldn’t care less that the Democrats have “cleaned house” while theirs remains a disgusting mess.

A wasted, tragic, unjust—and decidedly unfeminist—exploitation of a devoted public servant. But we’ve seen this before….

December 7 (Response to questions on thread):

You deserve a more lengthy reply than I can provide now, and it’s a complicated issue to say the least. But I’ll say four things: (1) harassment, assault, rape, and unwanted “gropes” are all different things, and we need to distinguish between them, just as we distinguish between other forms of misconduct and crimes. As I understand harassment, Franken’s behavior, even if he did everything he was accused of, does not constitute harassment. Yet that’s how it’s being described and dealt with; (2) there is a big difference between charges leveled in a highly polarized, politicized atmosphere and, for example, the college woman who comes to my office to confide about harassment. I would immediately believe the woman in my office; but charges against highly public figures need to be investigated more thoroughly. Women are not angels, and are capable of lying, misinterpreting, and being used politically; (3) I find the exclusive emphasis on bodily misconduct of a relatively limited nature (e.g. squeezing a woman’s waist while taking a picture, with no continued pressure or groping of that woman) to be disturbing, as in my experience, women are demeaned and disrespected in so many ways that are more prevalent—and often far more harmful—than dealing with an unwanted kiss or grope; a perfect example is Anita Hill, who had to deal with ongoing humiliating comments from Clarence Thomas. For me, there’s a big difference between Thomas and Trump, who “got off” on having power over women and invading their psychological or physical boundaries, and someone who, like Franken, was shocked to learn of how his gestures were taken. Big difference. 4) I’d hate to see male behavior distract us from the systemic nature of sexism in this culture. Women are portrayed for young men, and encouraged to see themselves as well as highly sexualized cultural property, their bodies there for the taking, throughout our culture. I’m far more concerned by what goes on on Instagram, where 14 year-olds parade for public consumption, often in nearly naked poses, than I am by anything Franken was accused of. I’m not blaming these girls—just reminding us that we’re dealing with much more than bad male behavior.