Beyond Sexual Harassment

Women & PowerThe problems created by the frat bro rules found in so many aspects of our society go much farther than the recent documented episodes of sexual harassment and abuse and even much farther than the effect those specific actions had on some women’s lives and careers. The men guilty of those behaviors and the many other men who go along with them even if they don’t personally do such things share a contempt for women’s ambition and a lack of respect for women’s abilities – even, or perhaps especially, when the women in question are the smartest people in the room.

Jill Filipovic pointed this out in a powerful New York Times op-ed in which she reported that many of the men in the news media who have been accused of various kinds of sexual harassment were the ones who pilloried Hillary Clinton. Filipovic writes:

A pervasive theme of all of these men’s coverage of Mrs. Clinton was that she was dishonest and unlikable. These recent harassment allegations suggest that perhaps the problem wasn’t that Mrs. Clinton was untruthful or inherently hard to connect with, but that these particular men hold deep biases against women who seek power instead of sticking to acquiescent sex-object status.

In other words, no matter what women do and regardless of whether sexual misconduct is involved, a lot of men – and particularly a lot of powerful men – won’t like them, support them, or give them opportunities. And they’ll call them names, to boot.

The sexual nature of the current crop of scandals makes it easy to miss that underlying problem: Men, particularly powerful men, do a lot of things to interfere with women’s efforts to fulfill their ambitions.

Sexual harassment and assault are just some of the tools such men use. If a woman meets the test of fuckability, she gets the sex object treatment. If she doesn’t, she might get sex-related harassment anyway, based on the idea that no “real” man would have her.

But labeling a woman unlikeable, aggressive, or not a “team player” – that is, using the polite words for calling her a bitch – can torpedo a woman’s career (or her life) in much the same way. And it can be done behind the screen of “I’m fine with women in power; I just don’t like this one.” The fact that they don’t like any powerful women never gets thrown back at them, because they make these statements at different times.

And, of course, some people are unlikeable. Some really don’t know how to work well with others. Some are so aggressive they step on other people all the way to the top. In my experience, most of these people are men, but a few women do fall into that category.

Then there’s that damn reality that no matter what women do, they aren’t doing it right. Push for what you want and you aren’t “feminine.” Be modest about your accomplishments and be overlooked or seen as wimpy. Be firm when you ask for a raise, or you won’t get it. But not too firm, or you won’t get it because you’re pushy and “won’t wait your turn.” It’s always pushed back on women, and all the choices are always wrong.

This series of scandals is not about sex. It’s never been about sex, even if the men who do these things get sexual gratification from it. The sex just provides the creepy, sensationalist side that gets it heard.

It’s about power. The men who do these things – whether they pull out their penises or label a woman unlikeable – are planning to keep their realm a boys’ club.

It’s time we stopped them. Figuring out how to do that is going to be hard. I can teach you physical self defense and how to convey a strong presence in the world – important steps in this process – but I haven’t figured out how to keep men from rejecting you because of that strong presence.

Mary Beard’s delightful short collection of two speeches she’s given – Women & Power: a Manifesto – traces the history of silencing women who speak out back to antiquity. (Here’s a great review of Beard’s book by Julie Phillips. ) The various compromises women have made – from learning to speak in a lower voice to adopting the ubiquitous pantsuits (practical attire, but boring) – have only done so much to change it. We don’t know what a woman in authority looks like.

It’s way past time we found out.

I have an idea, just now taking shape in my mind: Let’s follow women, rather than men. Let’s vote for women, even if we don’t think they’re “perfect” (especially when their opponents are even more imperfect), read books by women, go to lectures by women, seek advice from women. Make choosing a man, or a work by a man, the exception rather than the rule. Men should join us in doing this.

I note that some people have done this with authors, but I’d like to see us go much farther than that.

Yes, women don’t have as much power as the problem men we’re talking about. In many cases they can’t give you the job you need, or even the right reference for the job you need. But strength in numbers is valuable. Following women leaders may not get us everything we need, but it’s a good place to start.

I’ll end with a quote from Jessica Valenti’s memoir Sex Object:

Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?

The answer? I don’t know. I don’t think any of us know. But I really want to find out.

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Beyond Sexual Harassment — 8 Comments

  1. I read this book when it was published earlier this year in the UK. Mary Beard knows her stuff!

    We do know what at least one woman in full authority looked like: Queen Elizabeth I. She was terrifying, without doubt, when she wanted / needed to be, and there was no doubt either who was in charge.

    Her speeches and Rebecca Traister’s article: recently in NY Magazine, makes clear this horrific climate of abuse and harassment of women isn’t about sex, but about work — its the horrific inequality of the workplace, in partnership with the decadence of capitalism. Barbara Ehrenreicht has been saying the same for a long time too, as here.

    What I particularly like about Beard’s words though, if we consider them at all, is that without overtly saying so, she directs us to understand we cannot change anything until we change ‘entertainment’ whose $taple is depicting and glorifying degredation, humiliation, torture of, hatred of, exploitation of women and women’s bodies for the sole joy and enrichment of men.

    And yes, we women are complicit in this as well. We frequently shun and push out of the group women who don’t apologize, duck, and shuffle whenever they say anything or present anything, no matter how smart or right — or even or particularly if what she says is smart and right. That’s only allowed for women who are far enough away from our own circles.

    We can really see this even in a public venue in which one of our own has been invted to speak, if she speaks in a voice unapologetically loud enough to be heard to the back of the room from her podium and / or uses a microphone effectively, instead of going, “O I hate those things!”

    • I found Beard’s discussion of Elizabeth I particularly interesting, including the speech she probably didn’t give in which she asserted the “heart and stomach of a king” — a use of male imagery to claim authority. I think that’s how powerful women survive in male-dominated societies, but I still want to know what women in authority would look like and act like if we didn’t have all those damn preconceptions.

      And my voice carries. I’m loud and proud of it.

  2. It is so frustrating! And you are absolutely right, it is not about sex all the time, it is about power. I am a former scientist, as soon as I got promoted to group leader I got mobbed at my former job (a particularly horrid form of harassment that involve recruiting members across an organization at various levels to eliminate somebody who is perceived as a threat to the management). But I am just one of many, you can do a search in LinkedIn and find how many women scientists with good resumés are freelancers because they have hit the glass ceiling of science. After you put in those extra five to eight years of training (after your bachelor) to get your PhD and post-doc they offer you…another post-doct, while you work under a bunch of less qualified men. (Sorry about the rant, my career died earlier this year and I am still trying to figure out what to do with myself.) I could tell so many stories but every time I try I start crying and I don’t make any sense.

    • Carmen, I am so sorry to hear about your situation. The current academic world is awful enough, with so many highly qualified people working as adjuncts and so many others jumping from post doc to post doc, but when you add misogyny to the mix, it’s much worse.

      I wish I had a fix, but the truth is much the work you and others want to do in the world cannot be done with access to labs or equipment or other resources and also cannot be done easily without working with other people.

      You might want to read the book Necessary Dreams, by the psychiatrist Anna Fels, which discusses women and ambition. The key problem Fels identifies is that women don’t get recognition at key points along the way. She doesn’t have a fix, either, but I found it useful to understand where the problems come up.

      I hope you can get together with other women in your field and find ways to push together. We need you and the work you’re doing!