Undead Sexist Cliches: Why aren’t women flattered by sexual harassment?

The right-wing response to the sexual-harassment charges against Herman Cain has, unsurprisingly, been outrage. Not at Cain, but at the supposed racist smear tactics liberals are using to destroy him (this is a textbook example, though Roy Edroso lists a few others).
Leave it to John Derbyshire (who thinks we’d be better off if women didn’t have the vote) to take it a step further: “Is there anyone who thinks sexual harassment is a real thing? Is there anyone who doesn’t know it’s all a lawyers’ ramp, like ‘racial discrimination’? You pay a girl a compliment nowadays, she runs off and gets lawyered up. Is this any way to live?”
This is a cliche I’ve been hearing for at least 20 years: The horror of sexual harassment is that it makes it harder for men to compliment/hit on/flirt with a woman. How they suffer! How tongue-tied a man feels when he sees a cute girl and has to worry she’ll have him packed off to sensitivity training if he opens his mouth.
I agree worrying about what constitutes harassment can be discomforting——but feeling unable to say “You look great with that haircut” (taking the optimistic assumption that the remark you want to say is genuinely innocuous) is still preferable to being the woman on the receiving end of unwanted attention.
The thing is, a lot of these alleged compiments aren’t that innocuous. I didn’t realize quite how bad until I read some feminist blog posts a while back rounding up stories of harassment on the street. The description of lewd gestures, suggestions and come-ons from total strangers was hair-raising.
Or consider the LA Times’ description of Arnold Schwarzenneger’s behavior in his Hollywood days, which included actively bullying, humiliating and groping women who weren’t in a position to walk away or refuse (he had a lot of influence in Hollywood and they wanted to keep their jobs).
Which is to say, yes, harassment exists (and so does racial discrimination, even though that’s not my topic).
Possibly Derbyshire doesn’t think anything he’s ever said could possibly be harassing … but astonishingly enough, men are sometimes off-base in that assessment. I made a joke to a co-worker of mine some years back which didn’t offend her, but my boss pulled me aside and pointed out it easily could have; after a while, I realized he’d been right, and, if she had taken offense, she’d have been justified.
Some of the men in one of the first sexual harassment lawsuits insisted they’d been very complimentary and sweet to the plaintiff: They’d told her how great her breasts were, shared their sexual fantasies about her——how could she turn around and accuse them of harassing her?
The assumption women are obligated to just smile because the man means to be flattering (and ignoring that in a lot of cases, it’s about power, or humiliating the woman, not trying to charm her), doesn’t hold up (it reminds me of this discussion of women’s supposed obligation to accept any man who asks them out). And if it’s in a seriously inappropriate situation (he’s the boss/commanding officer/teacher with power over her), she has every right to sue. Conversely, the stereotype of women flying off the handle and suing someone simply for complimenting their shoes doesn’t have much resemblance to real life.
By claiming all sexual harassment is just unwanted compliments, Derbyshire avoids admitting how ugly it can get. His claim harassment is a myth fits the right-wing cliche that claims of oppression and discrimination are always lies, unless they’re made by conservative white males, who are the real victims (or in Cain’s case, conservative black men).
Derbyshire’s bullshit is nothing new, but it’s still annoying. Is it too much to ask he work out his gender issues somewhere out of the public eye?

18 Comments

Filed under Undead sexist cliches

18 responses to “Undead Sexist Cliches: Why aren’t women flattered by sexual harassment?

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