Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Daphne Merkin's Misgivings on the #MeToo Phenomenon

Sexual harassment at work is a form of labor market discrimination.  As long as some workers must endure it but other workers (of the same ability and productivity) do not have to endure it, the latter will face less stress at work and are more likely to persevere long enough to get raises and promotions.

Even harassment by a colleague at the same level of work can make the work environment unpleasant and difficult for the target of the harassment.  If the harasser is a boss, the imbalance of power means that the consequences of refusing his (or her) attentions can include revenge, and some of that can take an economic form.

That we are fundamentally discussing job discrimination is an important point when interpreting, say, Daphne Merkin's recent New York Times opinion piece.

And what exactly are men being accused of? What is the difference between harassment and assault and “inappropriate conduct”? There is a disturbing lack of clarity about the terms being thrown around and a lack of distinction regarding what the spectrum of objectionable behavior really is. Shouldn’t sexual harassment, for instance, imply a degree of hostility? Is kissing someone in affection, however inappropriately, or showing someone a photo of a nude male torso necessarily predatory behavior?

Merkin's desire to have more nuance in the #metoo debate and to be more careful about equating different types of harassment is well taken (1).  But she appears to be blind to the fact that being sexually harassed is a form of labor market discrimination, including a well-known form of gate-keeping in some/many traditionally male blue-collar occupations.

Rather, she interprets the problem of harassment in the context of sex.  Thus:

I think this confusion reflects a deeper ambivalence about how we want and expect people to behave. Expressing sexual interest is inherently messy and, frankly, nonconsensual — one person, typically the man, bites the bullet by expressing interest in the other, typically the woman — whether it happens at work or at a bar.
Yup.  Messy, especially if the expression of interest takes the form of masturbating in front of a colleague.

Merkin loses the nuance in that paragraph, herself, because "expressing interest" can mean almost anything, from a shy smile of respectful admiration (perfectly fine) to what amounts to something very much like a kidnap and attempted rape (absolutely not fine).

Just as there might be a difference between an unwanted sloppy kiss and placing a penis on someone's shoulder, the term "expressing interest" contains multitudes.  And it does make a difference if that "nonconsensual" expression of interest takes place at work, and especially between a subordinate and a boss.

That's because of the possible negative consequences a refusal might bring with it.  Merkin argues that women are strong enough to take them, or at least she tells that many have done so:

What happened to women’s agency? That’s what I find myself wondering as I hear story after story of adult women who helplessly acquiesce to sexual demands. I find it especially curious given that a majority of women I know have been in situations in which men have come on to them — at work or otherwise. They have routinely said, “I’m not interested” or “Get your hands off me right now.” And they’ve taken the risk that comes with it.

The "risk that comes with it" is labor market discrimination.  It's probably true that in many cases women who routinely say that they are not interested do not face negative consequences from that act, or at least are not aware of any.  But the risk they take is real.

What else is there to write about Merkin's column?

Well, she asks " Shouldn’t sexual harassment, for instance, imply a degree of hostility?" 

That is a fun question.  To answer it, we might begin by asking who is supposed to evaluate any degree of hostility in some interaction.

The alleged perpetrator?

The alleged victim?

How would Merkin evaluate the hostility in the act of uninvited masturbation in front of a colleague?  If the masturbator smiles broadly, does this mean that no hostility is present?  Or might we note the instrumental use of the colleague's presence and the use of her body as a porn substitute as indicating, if not hostility, then at least considerable contempt?  And what about the innocent pleasure of employing power differentials for sexual satisfaction?

But I get Merkin's point.  Suppose a man falls desperately in love with a female co-worker who cares not for his love (2).  He showers her with roses and chocolates and little poems and keeps asking her out and she keeps refusing.

Is that sexual harassment?  At what point does it turn into harassment?  Most would argue that stalking the woman would get us there.  Or sabotaging her career in revenge.

But yes, indeed, there are gray areas in this debate, though those are not the kinds of examples I have been reading about for several months now.  Still, it's important to keep the discussion nuanced.

Finally, Merkin worries that the #metoo phenomenon is turning young women into fragile morning glories:

Perhaps even more troubling is that we seem to be returning to a victimology paradigm for young women, in particular, in which they are perceived to be — and perceive themselves to be — as frail as Victorian housewives. 
Interesting.  I'm not a fan of victimology (the "war against Christmas", the "nonstop hounding" of Christians in the US and so on), and I very much want to see all women find their hidden power.

We should all also become Superwomen.   POW@#%

Though I suspect that Victorian middle-class housewives (3) were pretty tough in many ways and just employed the fragility defense because they had so few legal rights.  Besides, you would faint, too, if the society deemed that your waist had to be at most eighteen inches in circumference and if you used an internal torture machine to create one.

More seriously, the above quote ignores the fact that we can tell very little about any victimology paradigm for young men at work (4), because though they are not safe from sexual harassment they are less likely to experience it.

Thus, we cannot really tell how young men, as opposed to young women, might act when the boss demands extra benefits in exchange for, say, a promotion.  My point is that coping with sexual harassers is assumed to be a task for women and not, say, for the institutions they work in.


(1)  I agree that more nuance would benefit the debate and that the consequences to the harasser should depend on both the severity and possible repeated nature of sexual harassment that investigation has found to be supported by evidence.  But others have also already written about the need for nuance.

(2) You can reverse the genders in this story and it stays the same in how we would interpret it.

(3)  Merkin probably means middle-class Victorian housewives.  The lives of poorer white women and of most African-American women were not conducive to maintaining the pretense of frailty.

(4)  I introduce this comparison, because much writing, even feminist writing, at most compares some women to what other women may have done, thus isolating the question of what these women are doing from what is happening to them.

Are all workers exposed to similar levels of sexual harassment?

They are not, and this means that we don't know if today's young women are more like morning glories than other people (say, young men) in the same situation.

As an aside, Rebecca Traister's much earlier article (not a direct response to Merkin) gives an alternative answer to Merkin's worry about young women seeing themselves as victims:

On one side are women who came of age before Anita Hill’s groundbreaking testimony against Clarence Thomas, who were perhaps raised to assume they’d encounter harassment and resolved to tough it out. To this contingent, younger women’s complaints can sound hand-wringingly excessive: What did those girls expect? What they expected was the world they’d been assured had arrived: a postfeminist one, in which they were something close to equal, in which their career paths were no longer supposed to be determined by big, swinging dicks — real ones.