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.