Power, Harassment, and Sexism Today

Anti_harassment_poster_working_womens_centre_auckland-
From an anti-harassment poster produced by the Auckland Working Women's Resource Centre, c. 1989.

An urgent, freely downloadable ebook, Where Freedom Starts: Sex Power Violence #MeToo brings together new and previously published articles on sexual harassment and sexual violence in the wake of #MeToo. Leading activists, feminists, scholars, and writers describe the shape of the problem, chart the forms refusal has taken, and outline possible solutions. Importantly, they also describe the longer histories of organizing against sexual violence that the #MeToo moment obscures — among working women, women of color, undocumented women, imprisoned women, poor women, among those who don’t conform to traditional gender roles — and discern from these practices a freedom that is more than notional, but embodied and uncompromising.

Included in the collection is Linda Gordon's classic 1981 text "The Politics of Sexual Harassment." Below we present her new introduction to that essay. 

This is a slightly revised version of the opening speech at a public forum on sexual harassment, sponsored by a group of feminist activists in Boston, February 1981. It originally appeared in print in the magazine Radical America, in a 1981 special issue on sexual harassment. That it is republished now serves as a painful reminder not only that second-wave feminism failed to create a lasting guarantee of women’s safety and freedom but also of the more recent cultural climate that supports male aggression.

Some issues raised in the 1981 speech bear reconsidering in the current climate, a climate that includes both encouragement and legitimation of sexual aggression and the more recent women’s revolt against it.

First, reiterating what is now a common feminist understanding, sexual harassment is an assertion of power or entitlement. That Donald Trump could brag about harassing women matches his well-documented propensity for lying: both carry the message “I am so powerful that I can do or say anything I want, and others must acknowledge that power and defer to it.” That message has spread.

Still, emphasizing that the issue is power requires distinguishing harassment from flirtation — we don’t need a return to nineteenth-century feminist fears of women’s sexuality. But the line between flirtation and harassment is not always obvious, and will vary for different people and in different circumstances. Flirtation is great. Often, both parties can enjoy it. Participants may send ambiguous signals. Clearly, however, the thousands of complaints we are hearing today are not ambiguous. Rather, they identify and challenge a power imbalance that constrains the less powerful person from saying, or shouting, “Stop!” or that allows perpetrators to ignore the instruction to stop. Power over others and an overweening sense of entitlement stem from all kinds of inequities — not only of sexism but also racism, class status, homophobia, even physical strength. Just as we have statutory rape laws to protect young people from adults, just as many universities have prohibited professor/student sexual relations to protect the less powerful person, so in parallel we need to understand that pressure from a more powerful person to submit to sexual activity is assault — if not rape, then rape-like.

Second, harassment falls along a continuum from a dumb sexist joke to a dirty joke to an unwanted hand on your leg … all the way to rape. Even the mildest of these behaviors could constitute harassment depending on the context, and there can be infinite variation in actual experience. No set of generalizable categories will be able to encompass all possible infractions.

Third, sexism remains a massive problem that intersects with sexual harassment in complex ways. When Vice President Mike Pence responded to harassment allegations by describing his rule not to meet alone with any woman, thereby removing women from equal participation in politics and governing, his “solution” to harassment punished victims and confirmed male dominance. Pence’s proposal also illuminated his underlying premise — that he is not responsible for controlling his aggression or horniness. His stance is a continuation of the victim-blaming Victorian directive ordering women to stay in “safe” places, a premise repeatedly challenged by Take Back the Night demonstrations. (Pence’s “solution” ignores homosexual harassment, of course.)

Just as in 1981, today we want criminal enforcement against harassment. Harassers will stop only when they fear penalties; diagnoses of sex addiction and prescriptions for therapy are toothless. But it will not be easy to translate all variations of harassing behaviors into laws and criminal prosecutions. Since most harassment occurs in private, substantiating allegations is not always possible (though we already have useful evidentiary standards in this regard — for example, that the victim told someone else at the time of the offence, or that several women corroborate the charges). So stopping harassment requires not only legal remedies but fundamental social and economic change. The change we need includes reducing inequality and, particularly, putting more women in positions of power. It also requires us to create a culture of sexual respect, stigmatizing harassment so strongly that perpetrators feel shame and humiliation.

But if the shaming becomes a witch-hunt, a process of trial by accusation, or an assumption that all forms of harassment — from rape to an awkward come-on or lewd joke — are equally serious, we are in trouble. Even if only one in a thousand complaints is false — and it is inevitable that some will be false — that one will feed the right-wing claim that men are the victims of spiteful women. Punishing men for allegations then proven false will also intensify victims’ fear that they will not be believed. However great the misogyny, we have a moral obligation not to allow accusations by themselves to strip alleged perpetrators of their jobs or reputations. The civil liberties that we need to protect our own freedom of speech and freedom to mobilize have to be applied universally. The current political climate makes it imperative to figure out what might count as “due process,” notably the rights of the accused, in cases that do not involve criminal prosecution.

A major part of eliminating sexual harassment is making it safe for victims of harassment to complain, and the #MeToo movement is a step toward that end. The feminist strategy should focus not only on punishing offenders but also on protecting complainants from retaliation. Vindictive employers and career gatekeepers who retaliate, cover up, or issue big money settlements with non-disclosure clauses are comparable to the Catholic hierarchy who shield child abusers. We need to target these enablers as well as the harassers.

Linda Gordon is a professor of history and a University Professor of the Humanities at New York University. Her early books focused on the historical roots of social policy issues, particularly as they concern gender and family issues. More recently, she has explored other ways of presenting history to a broad audience, publishing the microhistory The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Harvard University Press, 1999) and the biography Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (W.W. Norton, 2009), both of which won the Bancroft Prize. She is one of only three historians to have won this award twice. Her most recent publication is The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition (Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2017).