A Lot of Things Are Broken
Why focusing on sex won’t fix sexual harassment
This post was originally published by Eurozine and was accompanied by three other posts that Public Seminar will repost later this week.
Following the first wave of the #MeToo movement, a new phase of reflection has set in. Here, four authors and journal editors from the US and Europe assess #MeToo’s achievements and potential, but also its limitations in changing a culture of sexual harassment.
Back in the 1970s, radical feminists in the United States like Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, women who theorized rape and sexual harassment, had a valuable message: it wasn’t about sex, but about power. So why do we persist in treating the revelations of the #MeToo movement as primarily sexual?
My own workplace is a university, where power hierarchies and potential arenas of sexual danger overlap. We emphasize the boundary that ought to exist between teachers and students, but neglect other relationships: between academic and administrative staff; support and janitorial staff and their supervisors; graduate students who are teaching assistants and undergraduates; athletic staff and athletes; tenured and untenured faculty; full-time and part-time, contingent or post-doctoral faculty. There are so many different sites of potential power imbalance that the idea of regulating them all is daunting.
So, we try, we wake up a couple of decades later, and we ask why we have failed. Again.
Ironically, movements like #MeToo merely enhance the policing of sex when what we need is greater insight into the nature of power. At my university, one of the functions of sexual harassment training is to teach us how to do this effectively and legally. Training is focused almost exclusively on our legal responsibilities under Title IX, a 1972 amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965 which mandates gender equity in any educational program receiving federal financial assistance.
What is interesting is that our trainings are not focused on the causes and consequences of sexual harassment. Nor do they address the nature and consequences of power, and how power is expressed and enforced through sexuality. Instead, they focus on prohibition. The idea is that if we all understood and enforced the rules about sex, we could eliminate the abuse of power.
I think this is terribly wrongheaded. Sexual harassment is often, in my view, a subcategory of bullying, and the attempt to address one without the other is doomed to fail. In fact, it has failed. Forty-five years after the passage of Title IX, and almost 40 years after Alexander v. Yale (a lawsuit which Yale won, but which also established the term ‘sexual harassment’ in the law), sexist bullying in universities seems to be as pervasive as ever.
Universities aren’t unique. In the film industry, where the tidal wave of #MeToo revelations began last fall, it is over sixty years since Marilyn Monroe reportedly announced to the Hollywood press, after signing her first major film deal: ‘I’ll never have to suck another cock in this town again.’ (In another version of this story, she winks and adds: ‘unless I want to, of course’.) Yet that sexual act, and others, still seem to be a key point of entry into a media career.
In the industry I know best, education, we live with a dual reality: that people are not supposed to be having sexual relations with subordinates, and that they do all the time. Like the more high-profile media cases, the #MeToo moment in academia has been an opportunity to express our outrage at the miscreants who create chaos in the wake of their sexual affairs, and to reiterate our generally specious belief that universities would run smoothly if only the rules and ethical obligations about intimacy were clear and enforceable.
Enter Human Resources, the corporation counsel and a consultant or two to rectify the problem. Once a year we learn how to identify and report. We are reminded about the importance of confidentiality, and about how to respond to everything we might observe that is out of order: rape, groping, gossip about a student’s sexual identity, stalking and comments about appearance, to name a few.
These trainings may well play a role in making us more self-aware and alleviating the inappropriate eroticization of our relationships. But I don’t think they do much to address the ethical and moral complexities of a workplace where the personal power to help or harm individuals is so critical to advancing, or stalling, careers.
Important as it has been, the #MeToo moment has two flaws: the first is the assumption that the misuse of sex, rather than bullying and the misuse of power, is the source of harm and trauma in a sexual harassment case. The second is, well, the highly American focus on ‘me’. Recently, a valued colleague noted that her hesitation over a proposed prohibition of sexual relationships between faculty and students was not because it was impossible (this is my reservation), but because of her own, rewarding, affair with a professor. This reluctance to accept that there is something much bigger at stake in a sexual harassment case, something that is in the nature of the institution and not the individual, is common.
Some American feminists go further than my hesitant colleague. They have (courageously in my view, because the reaction is often vicious) proposed that the sexual harassment cases, investigated under Title IX since 2013, can conceal the agency of the subordinate partner. For example, Laura Kipnis’s book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (2017), examines a case at her own university in which a student realized that an affair with a professor was actually sexual harassment only after extensive meetings with a Title IX investigator.
Kipnis has been criticized for her reporting on this case, which I have responded to elsewhere. But Kipnis’s detailed narrative about her colleague also reveals what many sexual harassment trainings do not: that the everyday blurring of boundaries – the need students sometimes have for privacy during office hours; mentoring of colleagues and students; conferences; lab work; inviting students and colleagues for a social call in one’s home or a restaurant; and receptions after talks – is actually inherent to the practice of higher education. So is picking out favored students for an invitation-only conference: in some of the academic #MeToo cases, graduate students were invited to attend an exclusive event with a mentor, only to learn that they were expected to share a hotel room.
Here, we might want to return to ‘Blow Job City’, as Hollywood was called in Marilyn Monroe’s day, for a few lessons about how workplace cultures incubate bullying and exploitation. In October 2017, the actress Lupita Nyong’o wrote an op-ed about her own painful encounter with the catalyst for the #MeToo movement, film mogul Harvey Weinstein. It was a classic quid pro quo or ‘pay to play’ situation: Nyong’o’s potential reward would be a potential role; her punishment, should she refuse, the threat that she would never work at all. Nyong’o describes being socially, and sometimes physically, trapped by Weinstein, which she navigated either by setting boundaries, or blurring them when necessary. But, as she explains, in the performing arts, ‘the intimate is often professional and so the lines are blurred’.
When lines are blurred, it’s no wonder that simply making rules and expecting people to obey them fails. Shouldn’t we consider, instead, how we might inhabit these liminal spaces ethically? Could we not learn more about why the power imbalances in our workplaces make some people so vulnerable and spare others? Discussions that have accompanied the #MeToo movement reveal the under-analyzed fact that a vulgar or unwanted action that one person might perceive as navigable, or even insignificant, may be a traumatic snare for another. Sex is only one part of the formula for abusing authority and power. But the failure to address this fact also reveals how confused we are in the United States about what kind of currency sex represents in workplaces that are actually structured around intimate hierarchies of authority.
Which is why, perhaps, an effective #MeToo movement would stop talking about sex and start talking about the workplace itself, as well as what kinds of values are cultivated there. A former employee on the Charlie Rose Show told me, after Rose’s career and the show were destroyed last year amidst accusations of sexual harassment going back years: ‘I’ve decided to take a step back from media, which has proven to be a pretty toxic environment for me personally in the last few years. I still love it,’ she said, ‘but it’s become obvious that the issues in the industry go well beyond sexual harassment and abuse. The endless layoffs and reorganizations, the stillborn “pivot to video”, the bleak native platform ecosystem that allows for the proliferation of wildly dishonest theories and ideologies posing as “news”, and the by-line hero culture. A lot of things are broken.’
A lot of things are broken in universities too: and when our only focus is sex, we can’t begin to fix them.
Claire Potter is Professor of History at The New School, New York, and executive editor of Public Seminar.