When the Sex Police Come to Town
Janice Fiamengo teaches English literature at the University of Ottawa and
is producing, with Steve Brule, a series of videos on feminism and men's
issues called "The Fiamengo File."
We hear a lot from feminists about the one in four (sometimes they say one in five) women sexually assaulted in their lifetimes—even though the number is absurd on its face and was conclusively debunked by Christina Hoff Sommers many years ago in her landmark 1994 Who Stole Feminism? (see especially 209-226).
A statistic that interests me—and one that, to my knowledge, is impossible to determine— is how many men have been humiliated, disciplined at work, suspended, or even fired from their jobs because of charges of sexual harassment. I’ll bet the number is high.
What is sexual harassment? Wikipedia provides the following definition: “Sexual harassment is bullying or coercion of a sexual nature, or the unwelcome or inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favors.”
So far, so good. That’s pretty clear. Wikipedia’s definition also distinguishes between harassment and regular gendered annoyance or tension (or even fun), pointing out that sexual harassment generally does not include “simple teasing, offhand comments, or minor isolated incidents. In the workplace, harassment may be considered illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment.”
Here we start to get into a grey area. No one wants women to be bullied or coerced in the workplace, or to have to suffer a hostile or offensive work environment. The problem, though, is that one person’s perception of what creates a hostile or offensive work environment may not be reasonable; it may be super-sensitive, objectively disordered, or influenced by resentment, narcissism, or any number of emotional or psychological problems.
If you’re a woman who believes a priori that men are conscienceless sexual predators who take pleasure in demeaning and threatening women through sexual come-ons and vulgar comments, you might be inclined to feel mortally offended at what others could see as innocent jokes or harmless compliments.
And if you’re a feminist who believes in male evil and you’re sitting on a disciplinary committee to adjudicate a charge of sexual harassment, you’re likely to be quick to take the woman’s word that what she experienced was “severe” enough to constitute harassment.
And when the supposed aggressor is himself vulnerable, socially inept, or unskilled in human interactions, lacking in the personal charms and social graces that make for workplace popularity, or simply naïve, then opportunities for misunderstanding and persecution abound.
Take the case of Michael Bullock, a public school teacher in Virginia, who was investigated way back in 1993 for “sexual harassment.” By most accounts, Bullock was the kind of teacher for whom teaching was everything. It may have been that he had little else to love in his life. He was grossly overweight and caustic-tongued. He suffered from a mood disorder. He made crude remarks to all his students. As one student said, “He cared too much.” And he made cutting remarks to girls in his classes—at least seven in total, according to reports—about their physical appearance (“A Complaint”).
The final straw seems to have been that he got into an exchange with a female student who repeatedly poked him in the stomach. When he told her to stop, she mentioned what a large stomach he had. In return, he commented on the small size of her chest.
Not a smart move. But sexual harassment? Definitely not, in my opinion. Bullock was suspended and investigated—for creating a “hostile environment,” that most vague of sexual harassment subsets. In another era, his remarks would likely have been passed over. It seems that in many other ways, he was a good, even an inspiring and dedicated, teacher, one who opened his home to students and mentored them. One former student described him as “an unorthodox, loud and sometimes crude man who loved teaching and his students more than anything else. He held special classes in his home on Saturdays, worked after school with the sports program and was our class sponsor. He would get frustrated with our frustrations and seek new ways to make the academic material more understandable.” (Letter, William Chicca). As this student notes, it’s hard to believe that counselling and apologies on all sides might not have settled the matter of the offensive comments to everyone’s satisfaction and enabled Bullock to continue teaching.
Instead, with the threat of losing his job and the smear of sexual sin hanging over him, he committed suicide. His suicide note made clear that he couldn’t bear the thought of the upcoming conviction and what it would do to his life.
Stories like this, equally absurd and horrifying, can be found throughout Daphne Patai’s landmark book Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism, in which she investigates sexual harassment policies.
Patai finds that in the name of protecting women, feminists have put into place an elaborate bureaucratic machinery consisting of manuals, policies, workshops, and disciplinary committees that have transformed offices and classrooms across North America into politically correct minefields from which all reason has departed.
Imagine a scenario in which, as a teaching assistant at a college, you’ve just been told that you won’t be teaching the course you had been hired for because you sent an email to a fellow graduate student asking her out on a date. Really? Or, as a male instructor, you have been charged with creating a “chilly climate” because you had your students read and discuss an article about false rape claims. Yes, these are real cases, and there are many more.
Patai argues that what she calls the “Sexual Harassment Industry”—all the advisors, harassment officers, leaders of workshops, drafters of codes of conduct—all these are part of a system gone mad in which completely legal behaviors have become potentially actionable, and in which a man can lose his job and reputation without even intending to do anything wrong.
Patai extensively researched the policies on sexual harassment and the kinds of cases that have been prosecuted. She is appalled by the threat to civil liberties that such legislation poses, and her book offers a fascinating glimpse into the breakdown of fundamental justice that occurs when feminist ideas about male evil are put into practice.
Of special concern to Patai is the manner in which authorities and disciplinary bodies ignore due process and the presumption of innocence in order to privilege a woman’s “gut reaction” to male comments or behavior. In other words, objective reality is trumped by a woman’s feelings. If she felt harassed, uncomfortable, or offended, then she was.
As Patai points out, it is one thing to agree that women should not be bullied or bothered in their workplace, but it is quite another to attempt through legislation to control every word and gesture that co-workers exchange and to stigmatize even the most subtle—and normal—currents of sexual interest.
Patai ultimately asks what kind of society we want to live in and whether we are willing to sacrifice such fundamental principles as equality before the law and freedom of speech to achieve it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want a world in which a wolf whistle ends a construction worker’s career, and in which an offhand comment by a teacher or administrator or CEO can unleash a ludicrous witchhunt.
“A Complaint, a Harassment Probe, a Teacher’s Suicide.” The Washington Post 3 June 1993. http://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1993/06/03/a-complaint-a-harassment-probe-a-teachers-suicide/59ed69fe-02eb-4e2c-a949-fe9db477e432/
Letters re “A Complaint, a Harassment Probe, a Teacher’s Suicide.” The Washington Post 3 June 1993. http://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1993/06/13/a-complaint-a-harassment-probe-a-teachers-suicide/920532e7-be2e-4cc2-b03b-e42bbdf07ea5/
Hoff Sommers, Christina. Who Stole Feminism: How Women Have Betrayed Women. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.
Patai, Daphne. Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.