Coverage Of Sexual Harassment Claims Carelessly Blurs Lines Between Minor Misconduct And Real Abuse
It is undeniably a great thing that abusers like Harvey Weinstein are finally receiving their comeuppance, however overdue it may be. But in the aftermath of Weinstein’s downfall, we’re at risk of broadening the definition of sexual harassment too widely.
There is a vast difference between genuine sexual harassment, abuse or rape — and minor misconduct, flirting or otherwise inappropriate behavior in the workplace (or anywhere else). Yet, in recent weeks, the two have been dangerously conflated.
Since the deluge of Weinstein revelations, we’ve seen other ‘scandals’ emerge whereby some man or other may or may not have flirted inappropriately without reciprocation years ago. The fact that these kinds of minor accusations are making headlines and being portrayed as sexual misconduct or outright harassment is disturbing, to say the least. Not to mention, the irresponsible conflation of the two is an injustice and an insult to women — and men — who have experienced real harassment or rape at the hands of a genuine abuser.
Trial by social media
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen so many people in my social media feeds posting #MeToo statuses that what started as an important reminder that sexual abuse is indeed far too prevalent, has lost all meaning. When you see someone posting a #MeToo status today, are you to assume they were raped or that someone sent them an inappropriate text once?
UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon resigned last week over allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior. What started out as one accusation that Fallon inappropriately touched the knee of a journalist many years ago was revealed to be a genuine pattern of inappropriate behavior (attempting to kiss one journalist and making lewd remarks to another). Fallon’s resignation is appropriate in that context — but what is fascinating is that so many people were willing to condemn him when the only piece of information we had was that he had touched a woman’s knee.
That Fallon has indeed turned out to be a bit of a pervert is beside the point. He has admitted his behavior was wrong and resigned — but others have denied allegations being made against them. Nonetheless, we’re supposed to condemn them anyway. Have we just decided to do away with the presumption of innocence, or at the very least the idea that these matters should be dealt with through lawyers and courts, not on Facebook and Twitter? Are we supposed to completely ignore the possibility that just maybe, an accusation could be false?
This kind of trial by social media is dangerous. A simple tweet can brand a person as a rapist who deserves to lose their job and have their lives utterly destroyed in an instant — on nothing more than the say-so of another person.
A couple of weeks ago, Adam Sandler found himself in the firing line when he touched actress Claire Foy’s knee twice during The Graham Norton Show. Some viewers were so outraged by the contact Sandler had made with Foy’s knee that she was forced to release a statement saying she was not angry or offended by Sandler’s gesture. If this kind of behavior is classed as sexual harassment or as outrageously inappropriate as some viewers suggested, we appear to be on our way toward living in a completely sterile, robotic and puritanical world where nobody can say or do anything for fear of pious backlash from the political correctness police.
There is also an insulting, sexist and patronizing element to all of this which makes women out to be weak-minded, overly sensitive creatures who can’t even handle a sexual joke being told in their presence. Or who are so vulnerable that they simply can’t be left alone to fend for themselves. One POLITICO journalist recently suggested that a good way to limit sexual harassment would be to make closed-door meetings in the workplace a fireable offense.
Small, practical step to limit sex harassment: Make holding closed-door meetings with ANYONE a fire-able offense. https://t.co/zIAvlRxf8D
— Timothy Noah (@TimothyNoah1) October 27, 2017
It is frankly insane to think this is how to prevent sexual harassment. It is almost like saying that women are too vulnerable and weak to stand up for themselves behind a closed door — and men are too disgusting and perverted to resist harassing them when they are in a private setting. I for one would hate to work in an environment where you could get fired for closing a door, just in case someone might have harassed you.
Singer-songwriter Marian Call tweeted that all women want to live in a world where strangers and coworkers “never flirted” with them again. Well, how exactly does she know what all women want? Many a happy relationship has begun as the result of workplace flirtation or a chance meeting with a stranger. One has to wonder how Call feels about women who initiate flirtatious behavior themselves— because as shocking as it may be for some, this happens on a regular basis.
This obsession with defining every sultry glance or flirty comment as sexual harassment has got so out of hand that there are now even sexual consent apps available online to download. Yes, you are now supposed to stop in your tracks and click an “I consent” button on your phone before having sex. How romantic.
Can’t get it right
I recently witnessed an interesting discussion in an online forum. A man had asked if it was appropriate to apologize to a woman in the case of minor inappropriate behavior (making unwanted advances, flirting inappropriately, making sexist jokes, etc.) — or whether it was best to say nothing, move on and do better next time. He was attacked from every angle by women who acted like he was suggesting that men send an “oops, sorry” apology text for rape. Almost every single woman told him that an apology would be useless and inappropriate and he received a barrage of comments about how he just didn’t understand and was essentially an idiot for even posing the question.
Yet, the question was well-intentioned and coming from a man who seemingly wanted to examine his own behavior in light of recent events, and who simply wondered if an apology for very minor inappropriateness would be an excellent first step. Is that not what this is all about? Is it not a good thing that many men are thinking about this more seriously for the first time? I thought that’s what everyone wanted — but apparently not.
There is of course an expectation that both men and women will behave appropriately in the workplace. It is totally unacceptable to abuse or harass anyone or to make overt and inappropriate advances where there has been no indication they would be well-received. There is also no doubt that if someone has been made aware that his or her behavior has made someone uncomfortable in any way, the behavior should be stopped. It is also absolutely a good thing that the Weinstein scandal has made women feel more comfortable talking about cases of real, genuine abuse and harassment.
But, at the same time, we need to take a step back and think about what kind of world we want to live in. Do we want it to be one where a harmless flirtation or a sexual joke — or a social media allegation of a single inappropriate touch — can destroy your whole life and elicit comparisons with serial abusers like Harvey Weinstein?
There is no clear rulebook here, but we have to do better at distinguishing between true abuse and minor inappropriateness. To conflate the two does no one any good.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.