Covering two cliches about sexual harassment today. First, the complaint that, according to antifeminist Suzanne Venker, “harassment is a vague term because it’s so subjective.” This is an argument I’ve seen a lot: almost anything can be classed as harassment if a woman takes offense. It’s impossible for a man to know when he’s harassing a woman. Business owner Paula Fargo in writing about how harmful #metoo supposedly is complains cases “run the gamut from hurt feelings all the way to ‘hostile work environments'” — if there’s no physical assault we’re just dealing with a woman’s “perception you are being sexually harassed” It’s just a matter of opinion. Daphne Merkin complains about a “disturbing lack of clarity” in “sexual harassment.”
This is similar to a standard argument against prosecuting date rape: the boundary for consent is so vague and arbitrary, guys can’t tell they’re doing anything wrong. Just because a woman thinks the guy crossed a line does that make it so? But the legal boundaries aren’t that vague. Federal guidelines say harassment can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, verbal and physical harassment “of a sexual nature” or offensive remarks about women in general. It does not include teasing, offhand comments or isolated incidents unless they become so frequent or severe it creates a “hostile or offensive work environment” or affects the victim’s career (e.g., firing them).
That’s not vague. It is partly subjective — is a given sexual advance welcome or unwelcome? — but that seems reasonable. It doesn’t mean, as Warren Farrell and others have claimed that harassment is anything a woman says it is. I’m confident that “he’s reading Mickey Spillane, a sexist author — that’s harassment!” wouldn’t fly, not that I’ve ever heard anything even remotely comparable. Admittedly some questions — is teasing is bad enough to create a hostile work environment? — could be vague and/or subjective, but that’s true of a lot of legal matters.
Were party A’s words so inflammatory they justified a physical response? Was a doctor’s error an understandable mistake or so bad as to constitute negligence? Whether a police shooting or a stand your ground case is justified can depend on whether the shooter felt genuinely endangered or not. Was the killer acting in cold blood (first degree murder) or did they lose control and act in a rage (second degree)? So far as I know, the only place antifeminists object to subjectivity is when it comes to harassment.
Closely related are the arguments that “An equal amount of fury is directed toward actions as morally — and legally — distinct from each other as rape, harassment, rudeness, boorishness and incivility” as Lee Siegel claims. Or editor Rick MacArthur’s argument that #metoo “has had an unfortunate tendency to lump together everybody from Harvey Weinstein to the guy who looked at you funny at the lunchroom at the office cantina or who maybe sent you a suggestive message.” See, it’s so vague, any man can get into trouble!
The trouble with this argument is that nobody’s getting fired for looking at someone funny over lunch or sending a suggestive message. They are being talked about, as in the Shitty Media Men list, but that’s not the same thing. Saying (as someone in the list did) that someone sent you a creepy direct message is not getting people fired. It’s doing what women have long done, warn others in private (the list wasn’t originally meant to go public) about guys you should stay away from (“No, you don’t want a coaching session alone with Harry. Trust me.”). It may be just silly and unfair …but then again, maybe not (the link has some discussion of this). Violence predictor Gavin DeBecker has discussed that people can often pick up on Danger even if they can’t pin down why. I don’t think “looked at me funny” would be a good standard for firing anyone, but as a warning between colleagues? It might be.