Harassment or Bullying? Apparently, It Depends on the Target’s Gender

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I’m very much against people being mean or violent to each other. But although I’ve spent my entire career promoting gender equality, current efforts designed to protect people from others’ sexual energy feels misplaced, even dangerous to me.

These days it seems that people are looking at gender relationships, being reminded of sex, and reacting as if all unwanted attention men give women is best understood as sexual–and therefore damaging.

But just like not all firings of Blacks are racist, and not all membership rejections of Jews are anti-Semitic, not all unpleasant male-female interchanges are about sex. Many are about power. In fact, many that look like they’re about sex are really about power. But our culture is so eager to condemn sexuality that we sometimes highlight the gender aspects of situations, and the assumed sexual aspects of gender situations.

We are fortunate that sexual exploitation is finally being dragged out of the closet, so we can end it–the specific incidents as well as the larger social problem. I’m glad we have laws protecting children from inappropriate touching, and protecting adults from sexual violence.

But I see a Sex Panic out there undermining our efforts to civilize ourselves. Too many people seem to want protection not from actual harm, but from sexuality itself. Inevitably, that makes people anxious about anything involving gender.

Take “sexual harassment,” for example. It’s quite proper to protect people from the institutionalization of sexual demands in a workplace or school–you know, “put out or get out.” That’s the original idea behind creating the legal category of sexual harassment. It’s similar to making it illegal to demand that workers change religion in order to get promoted, or to making it illegal to have a workplace so aggressively White that non-Whites are less able to do their jobs.

But we don’t protect employees from, say, anti-Semitic vibes or their colleagues’ discomfort around physical handicaps. So why would we protect people from the sexual energy of others–especially when it’s mostly about protecting women from the sexual energy of men? Government and employers should not protect us against other people being jerks, or against other people verbally expressing their sexuality when we don’t want them to.

There is a lot of non-sexual verbal manipulation, slander, and deliberate humiliation in today’s workplaces. Much of it goes on between women, or between men. A lot of it is simply tiresome, while some of it is loathsome. Most people wish it were different, but no one has suggested laws to change it, and few are claiming it causes grave emotional distress or physical illness.

When this verbal rough-and-tumble is between men and women, however, and when the content refers in any way to sexuality or affection, many people suddenly relate to it differently. The activity is then considered injurious, and women become a special class of victim. Why is verbal aggression–or arrogance or stupidity–considered worse when it’s sexual than when it’s not sexual? Why is verbal aggression considered worse when a man does it to a woman than when women do it to women, or men to men? It’s because sexual talk is seen as somehow more powerful and noxious, and because women are seen as somehow weaker, needing special protection.

In this respect, the sexual harassment movement is a double-edged sword. The world out there is, in fact, a tough place. Whether it’s women in farming villages, men in factory towns, or people in elegant suburbs, humans everywhere deliberately say things that distress each other. The verbal aggression or insensitivity of some men toward some women around sexuality is no different from the general way that adults treat each other whenever they’re around each other a lot.

Of course when bosses or professors say “put out or get out,” that’s dreadfully wrong–but not because it’s about sex. Corporate whistleblowers who lose their jobs (and have their lives threatened) should receive the same sympathy and protection as women who are denied promotions for rejecting sex–but they don’t. There are only two reasons that our culture could consider unwanted sexual propositions worse than being stalked or professionally ruined: one, because sex is bad; and two, because women are weaker than men and need extra protection from words and gestures. These are terrible reasons for outlawing uninvited verbalizations about sexuality.

In fact, the whole concept of sexual harassment needs review and refinement. Some people now say it is any unwanted sexual attention, as if people have a right to be free of unwanted sexual attention. We don’t and we shouldn’t. We only believe we should because we are suspicious of sexual energy, considering it a toxin to be avoided except under the most narrow circumstances.

But look at all the other unwanted environments we endure during a typical day: Muslims are bombarded with Christian symbols in public, right down to the crosses some public employees wear around their necks. People in stores are forced to listen to music that glorifies values they hate. Former WWII POWs are surrounded by Japanese cars during their daily commute. You can’t attend or watch a sporting event on TV without being confronted with the national anthem, which many people resent. Why do we not feel a right to be protected from dealing with these affronts? And why do we consider ourselves sullied if we have to deal with others’ uninvited sexuality? Our society’s discomfort with sexuality is the real issue here. Every adult life is littered with odious non-sexual stimuli. The oft-mentioned consequences of non-physical sexual harassment–low self-esteem, guilt, difficulty trusting, etc.–are also common results of being in most organized human groups. The playground, schools, the military, sports teams, even non-profit social service agencies feature various degrees of non-sexual hazing, obnoxiousness, manipulation, and coercion. It damages some people, strengthens some people, and goes right over the heads of some people.

There isn’t an American boy alive, for example, who has not been bullied, threatened, humiliated, ostracized, and challenged to prove his manhood. The daily affronts are simply assumed to be part of “growing up.” Well, they’re horrible, a nightmare with terrible results. But we rarely pay attention to this ugly male-male harassment, and few suggest that something be done about it. When it’s male-female, however, we are more often determined to protect “people” who are victims–that is, females.

Why aren’t boys protected from the non-physical bullying of other boys the way we now want to protect girls from the non-physical bullying (“harassment”) of boys? Why don’t we take boys’ emotional distress about being bullied as seriously as girls’? For that matter, why don’t we take girls’ pain about being harassed by girls as seriously as we take their pain about being (non-physically) harassed by boys?

I believe it’s just another socially-approved vehicle to disparage sexuality, another way our sex-negative culture can say, “there’s one more example of how sexuality is destructive.”

Recently we all read about those San Francisco middle school boys who kidnapped a classmate and tormented him–making him drink toilet water, eat cigarettes, etc. They were given rather mild punishments. If they had done the exact same thing to a girl, however, without any sexual overtones whatsoever, I believe they’d have been punished far more harshly. The existence of a gender differential makes people think of sex, and because sex makes some people anxious, a crime with sexual overtones–even if it’s only gender overtones–sounds worse to them.

We’re clearly looking at the confluence of our discomfort with sex and our desire to protect women–that is, to not treat them as equals. It may look like progressive consciousness, but as long as it’s really about de-sexing the culture and insisting that women need special protection, it’s a step backwards.

The autumn incident in which a 6-year-old boy kissed a girl on the playground and was busted for sexual harassment illustrates this. (She invited the kiss, remember, and her parents did not bring charges.) Some people lauded it as a moment of raised consciousness, while others damned it as a misplaced desire to protect and educate kids. Lost in the shuffle was the basic question, ‘why is this so publicly punishable, while smacking another boy isn’t?’ Put another way, why, when physical stature and violence are not the issue, does a girl need more protection from a boy than another boy does?

In fact, would the boy have been busted if he had kissed another boy? How would our world be different if we didn’t think that unwanted kissing was worse than unwanted punching?

We can see a similar dynamic in the case of the Citadel, an overwhelmingly male institution that is obviously inhospitable to women. It is outrageous that two first-year women students had the corners of their shirts set afire. But, as documented by feminist Susan Faludi in the New Yorker, hundreds of male freshmen go through the same kind of brutal treatment every year. While many Citadel men obviously fear women, their hazing behavior toward them is about far more than gender. It’s about wielding power within a rigid hierarchy–and they do it to other men exactly like they do it to women.

The same is true in the American military. It is horrible that enlisted women are treated badly. But so are men. If sexism is primarily to blame when women are treated badly, what is to blame when men are the victims? The latest revelation is the Marine ritual of bloodwinging, in which achievement pins are sadistically pounded into the bare chests of young men. The first sickening videotape of this abuse was taken in 1991–almost six years ago. Why was nothing done about it then? The Corps’ Major Scott Campbell says “it’s [still] going on now,” and he even described when the ceremony usually takes place. This isn’t about sex, it’s about power.

In the Army, too, some men with more power take advantage of women with less power. They make sexual jokes, repeatedly ask for dates, relentlessly pressure women to feel uncomfortable. Not only has the Army now jumped on this, a top General recently ordered an investigation into other ways in which “the fundamental dignity of the American soldier may be compromised.” And lots of heads are nodding.

Where was this guy, and the other Generals, for the 200 years in which male soldiers have been systematically emotionally battered? Given degrading nicknames, their manhood constantly challenged, regimens specifically designed to eliminate individuality, and constant, constant humiliation. Why has this been considered normal and acceptable, while when done with women it is considered pathological? Because when women are involved the gender interface makes the subject appear to be sex, the misuse of which most people agree is just awful. Power-tripping with gender interfaces is somehow seen as worse than garden-variety power-tripping.

In this (welcome) era of raised consciousness, we are increasingly rejecting the age-old excuse that “boys will be boys” when they bother girls. If that’s the case, we should also reject this excuse when boys bother other boys. But we’d then have to challenge the normal psychological terrorism of real life, which is both frightening and impossible. Sure we should prevent as much as possible. But there’s a limit to what we can prevent. And pretending it’s about gender when it’s about power won’t help.

When people feel powerless, they typically assume that the “other” feels powerful and is powerful. This is simply not the case. Cranky people who habitually rain on your parade don’t feel powerful, they feel cranky. Slow drivers in the left lane don’t feel powerful, they think they’re just minding their own business. Boys who bully don’t feel powerful, and when they themselves are bullied they certainly don’t feel powerful. Most men are as afraid to walk the streets at night as most women (men are killed on the mean streets as often as women are raped). And men who make repeated unwanted passes at their female colleagues typically don’t feel powerful. They may be hostile, pathetic, or plain jerks, but they don’t usually feel powerful.

Without question, there is a real problem in modern male-female environments. Many women have decided that the standards for appropriate behavior have changed, many men agree, and some good laws have been enacted to support those changes. Those laws and changes will benefit everyone if they’re about the destructive use of power. They will undermine everyone if ultimately they’re simply about sex and gender.

Rather than demonizing sexuality, making sexual energy a little less frightening is a key step toward improving male-female relations in workplaces and other settings.

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