In a Dec. 12 New York Time Magazine piece called “The Conversation”, Emily Bazelon interviews several notable feminist academics and journalists on workplace sexual harassment. Laura Kipnis, author of a recent book critiquing Title IX overreach on college campuses, is one of those in the conversation. Kipnis points out that feminists have struggled to gain what she calls “civic equality” (access to full participation in politics, the workplace, and other public spheres) as well as to gain bodily autonomy (such as reproductive freedom and freedom from interpersonal violence). Both of these revolutions are unfinished, as the sexual harassment of working women brings to light.
Of course, one’s lack of bodily autonomy impedes one’s civic equality. And as feminist legal theorist Catharine A. MacKinnon pointed out in her landmark 1979 book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women, sexual harassment is a pervasive problem keeping women from both economic and sexual self-determination. By the way, it’s interesting that MacKinnon is not one of those interviewed or referenced in these recent conversations. She has been stereotyped as anti-male and anti-sex, and yet her work was crucial in making sexual harassment a legally actionable form of sex discrimination in the workplace. In short, at some level anyway, we are all MacKinnon feminists now.
In the NYT Magazine interviews, Kipnis is the only one in the group to ask the question about how women respond to this kind of sexual aggression. When Bazelon asks who should be responsible for change, Anita Hill answers: “There are three ways you could approach the problem of sexual harassment. You can fix the women. You can fix the guys. Or you can change the culture.” Danyel Smith, Soledad O’Brien, Lynn Povich, and Amanda Hess all chime in that we must change men or the culture. Kipnis asks, with the innocence born of the utter sensibility of the question and the trepidation that stems from knowing full well that feminists have embraced a victim politics and she’s sure to get hammered, “Do we have to choose? Can’t it be all three?” After all, it’s not as if changing women is not also changing the culture–and vice versa. Of course, we would argue, empowerment self-defense training does not “fix” women who are “broken”. Kipnis mentions that she wants to embrace the kind of assertiveness training that was once a popular and acceptable part of the feminist movement.
In suggesting this, Laura Kipnis faces what we’ve been facing for years in our advocacy of women’s verbal and physical resistance to men’s sexual aggression: the reality that for many feminists, self-defense is verboten. The taboo on self-defense denies years of data that show how effective, empowering, and culture-changing women’s practice of verbal and physical self-defense is. (We have written about this here, here, here, and here.)
Ironically, the outright refusal to embrace the embodied tactics that resist one’s oppression embraces and essentializes the very feminine comportment and victim mindset that themselves constitute the lived realities of a sexist culture. In response to Anita Hill’s remark that “if we fix the guys and change the culture, we won’t need to fix women,” Kipnis simply, but insightfully, comes back with, “Good luck.” Suggesting that we make men change is not only unrealistic but demands and solidifies a Victorian ideal of male chivalry. This is not equitable, nor is it pro-sex, nor is it chock full of girl power. Indeed, it is an attitude that goes against all other ideas popular among feminists today.
Amanda Hess goes so far as to say that women cannot challenge their sexual harassers, proclaiming: “I think that freezing and trying to slip away when something upsetting happens to you is a human response. I think it’s also a very human response sometimes for people who are witnessing some sort of harassment, even men. I don’t think we can necessarily teach that response away.” In short, Hess wants men to change–and no doubt rejects the arguments that, thanks to evolution, our male coworkers are just cavemen in suits–but wants to underscore the fact that women, biologically, cannot change their responses to sexual harassment. Women are engaged in a “human response” that we can’t “teach away.” (Try telling Hess her male colleague’s ogling the gorgeous young woman who arrived at work wearing a bodycon dress, stiletto heels, and no bra is just a “human response.”)
Wanting to challenge sexual harassment in the workplace without training women how to challenge it flies in the face of sexual harassment law itself. After all, unless it’s the quid-pro-quo type of sex harassment (e.g., “perform this sexual act if you want the promotion/don’t want to get fired”), the law itself demands that the victim first let the perpetrator know that his verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature is unwelcome. The condition-of-work type of sex harassment presumes that people are differently sensitive to jokes, touching, and asks for drinks, and that people have different views of what conduct is sexual in nature. Thus the victim must first say something either through her supervisor or established written complaint channels, or directly to the perpetrator, such as, “I’m not comfortable with your sexual jokes; do not tell them to me anymore”, or “I don’t want you to touch me”, or “I do not want to see the porn on your computer; do not show me that again.” If a guy continues to subject his colleague to these working conditions after he is told to stop, and such action unreasonably interferes with her work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment, then it is sexual harassment. (Note: gendered terms used to make the argument easier to follow. OF COURSE some harassers are women, some victims are men, etc.)
We still need to challenge gender inequality in intimate relationships, in the workplace, and in civic life. And, to appropriate Emma Goldman, if I can’t defend myself I don’t want to be part of your unfinished revolution.
Stephen Marche is a better man than you are. Why, you may ask? He is willing to admit to his monstrous nature. All men have it, according to Marche, a journalist and novelist who thought he’d use his excellent writing skills to get a Sunday Op Ed in the New York Times on a subject he knows nothing about: male sexuality.
Marche’s essay, “The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido,” exposes what he calls the “ugly and dangerous nature of” said libido, and demands that we talk about this male “nature” for a change. (For a change?!!)
Using the recent exposure of men from Harvey Weinstein to Charlie Rose as evidence for men’s caveman nature, Marche claims that “there remains no cure for human desire.” In his concluding paragraph, which reads like the concluding paragraph of most high school essays where the student argues for a perspective that he believes is new just because it’s the first time he thought of it, Marche suggests that we ought to start studying masculinity. In a move that actually reverses decades of scholarship that analytically separated biological sex from the script of masculinity, Marche waxes philosophical, opining that “masculinity [read: male sexual nature] is a subject worth thinking about.”
Perhaps Marche would, in addition to acknowledging his own biological original sin, venture a trip to his local library, or perhaps a simple Google search, before we lose net neutrality altogether, where Marche would find a cornucopia of scholarly books and articles, and even entire academic associations, that have been devoted to studying masculinity over the past three decades.
When our students have an ah-ha moment and imagine that they are the first person on the planet who has ever thought of their idea, we always send them to the library, where they discover what has already been written on this idea. This humbling and illuminating task is responsible scholarship and responsible journalism. Stephen Marche seems not to have looked at anything already written on his topic.
Had Marche done any of the studying of masculinity he claims ought to be done, he might have found the textbook Men’s Lives, edited by Michael Kimmel and Michael Messner, now in its 9th Edition. He’d find The Caveman Mystique by See Jane Fight Back’s own Martha McCaughey, deconstructing the popular myth that men are just, deep down, biologically wired to ogle, harass, and sexually assault women. (If he’s an Amazon prime member, he can get both of them with free two-day shipping!) He could even attend the conference of the American Men’s Studies Association this coming March, which, believe it or not, has been in existence for 26 years.
Such exploration would have shown Marche how many people have made his argument before and how many have debunked it. Of course it’s tempting to use the deplorable behavior of Weinstein et al. as evidence for the highly popular idea that men are biologically wired to objectify, harass, and assault women whenever and wherever they get the opportunity.
But it’s not so simple because that logic ignores two things: (1) Those with institutional power behave this way, and they prey upon those over whom they have institutional power; and (2) Feeling like behaving that way with your body does not mean it’s your body’s nature or that your entire sex is driven to behave that way.
In short, men’s lascivious behavior is context-dependent and culture-dependent.
Those who study masculinity find the same thing those of us who study and teach self-defense to women find: that what our culture tells us about the true “nature” of women and men is, well, a load of crap. We may feel in our bones the power of our gendered scripts. That we feel them that deeply, that we embody them, does not mean these behaviors are biologically innate. It means that gendered expectations are lived ideologies.
When women get on the mat and learn to fight, they unlearn the script of feminine helplessness – something many of us assumed was our female “nature” and felt deeply.
Similarly, when men have women bosses and a culture that tells them they are expected to treat coworkers as peers, it’s amazing how much less they feel like pulling their dicks out and assuming those around them are into it.
Sorry/not sorry, Mr. Marche: your NYT Op Ed piece is nasty, brutish, and short on scholarly analysis.