Sexual Harassment Litany

I am filling out paperwork for a new job I'm starting, and part of the requirement is reading and understanding the company's sexual harassment policy. It's just not a sheet you read and fill out, it's many pages and a test at the end.

The policy is perfectly acceptable—in fact, in today's legal climate, you'd be a fool not to have one. Most of its points are reasonable, until:

At its core, sexual harassment is not about sex, it is about power.

Catharine MacKinnon, one of the foremost writers on the topic, describes sexual harassment as an "explosive combining of unacceptable sexual behavior and the abuse of power."

Sexual harassment is about keeping others, particularly women, "in their places" by creating a threatening and hostile environment.

Whoa now. This is far from established scientific fact. In fact, the majority of the scientific evidence seems to promote the idea that sexual harassment is in fact about sex.

Steven Pinker wrote that the position given above stems from the naturalistic fallacy. Things that are natural are good, and sex is natural, so sex is good. But sexual harassment is bad, so it must not be about sex. The naturalistic fallacy ignores all the non-consensual sex in the animal kingdom, as well as all the other behaviors that would be immoral if performed by humans.

Ironically, the naturalistic fallacy seems to ignore man's evolutionary past. I doubt traditional Judeo-Christian explanations of man's origin and morality are acceptable to most people who hold the position in question.

In the quote above, the name Catharine MacKinnon links to another page that includes:

Catharine A. MacKinnon wrote SEXUAL HARASSMENT OF WORKING WOMEN in 1979 as a legal scholar at Yale University. The book advanced the notion that there is no such thing as consensual sex between a woman and her supervisor at work.

These are factual statements, of course. The book did advance that notion. But the position is far from fact, and it seems like a bad idea to present it that way.

All entity names withheld to protect my job security.

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Look I'm not debying that

Look I'm not debying that sex plays a role, but there are some odd factors that must be contended with- for one thing I've been read that for most rapes the victim is not the most attractive girl that the rapist has an opportunity to rape (to the rapist), and that as such their choices don't seem to be purely based on sexual attraction but also perhaps an element of "feeling above them" or something. I also think that you guys are considering violence and sex to be mutually exclusive, as if it has to be one or the other. It could be that the rapist considers raping a woman the most disempowering thing he can do to her, and that rapes her out of hatred of disrespect as expressed through the window of his sexual desire. As I've heard the argument, sex always plays a role but it's usually assumed that sexual desire is a channel through which these other things are expressed. This position is immune to the "why doesn't the guy kill her" sorts of arguments put forth above.

I also might ask why I woman would be less cautious is she thought rape was about violence- I didn't think the argument was convincing at all. She might be suspicious because you never know who'll be violent any more than you know who'll be sexually agressive- I don't see how one's an advantage over the other. Of course I agree with Randall that if it's untrue there's no good reason to tell women that rape is violent, but I don't think we can conclude that it's untrue. The act of rape probably requires a level of pathology and aggresiveness toward the woman in most cases. You might argue that it's analogous to a really hard foul in basketball- suppose you elbow someone in the face with all of your might so you can make a layup. I would argue that the elbowin required a level of insensitivity and agressiveness such that it should characterized as violent. Arguing that because the person really just wanted to make the layup, you guys might conclude that the elbow was about making the layup. While I wouldn't dispute that making the layup was an important factor, the clearly relevant factor was the aggresiveness displayed by wanting to make the layup so much that you seriously injure another person.

matt, basketball analogy extraordinaire

Nobody thinks that because

Nobody thinks that because rape is about sex, and sex is natural, that rape is ok. There are no actual "biological determinists." People have violent urges all the time, but we expect adults to contain them, and rightly so.

It seems to me a great disservice to counsel women who have been raped with the bromide that rape is about violence, not sex. If rape is motivated by sexual urges and not violent urges, as I believe it is, why tell a woman that it is not? If your path to recovery rests on a falsehood, how secure is that recovery?

Last, I wonder if MacKinnon wrote about boss-employee relationships where it's not a male boss and a female employee. Are other consensual arrangements possible?

I'm not sure that I see the

I'm not sure that I see the argument here. Do you disagree that sexual harrassment exists, as defined? Do you think it actually "is about sex", and what then would be the consequences fo that new understanding?

If the definition is not one

If the definition is not one of power but one of sexual drive then it is more difficult to either demonize or clearly say "this person is bad in an objective sense" since they can fall back on the "the devil/hormones made me do it." Also I think for truth's sake we should recognize what the studies tell us rather than what some people would rather believe, since strategies to combat it may differ based on whether you think its about power relations or about a maladjusted sexual drive.

Ultimately I don't think it matters, since I'm unpersuaded by biological determinist excuses- we have impulses to kill and beat people, too, but we don't excuse that. A certain level of self restraint is assumed among all people in polite/civil society regardless of biology.

Ultimately I don’t think

Ultimately I don’t think it matters, since I’m unpersuaded by biological determinist excuses- we have impulses to kill and beat people, too, but we don’t excuse that. A certain level of self restraint is assumed among all people in polite/civil society regardless of biology.

I completely agree. I actually think the increse of your argument (implied by Randall) is what's really guilty of the naturalistic fallacy, because to pretend that secual harrasment as caused by a "natural" impulse like sex as opposed to an "unnatural" impulse like power (ha!) is somehow better would be the textbook example of the fallacy.

you're right that the strategies for dealing with SH might have to change a bit, assuming it was true that it was about sex. I'm still not convinced of the dichotomy though, as it seems like the real premise of most analysts is that it's about manipulating one's power to achieve one's sexual desires and as such is about sex and power.

matt

Brian, nobody said anything

Brian, nobody said anything about excuses. To understand is not to forgive.

Women have a right not to expect sexual abuse in the same way that we have a right not to expect our property to be stolen. Violators should be punished, but women also have a commonsense obligation to act prudently to avoid situations which make it likely. The idiotic belief that sexual harassment is about power and that rape is about violence leads a lot of women to put far too much trust in men and then be surprised when they get taken advantage of. You wouldn't leave your keys on the dashboard of your car, and likewise a woman shouldn't, say, get drunk with a bunch of males at a frat party and expect nothing to happen.

The idiotic belief that

The idiotic belief that sexual harassment is about power and that rape is about violence leads a lot of women to put far too much trust in men and then be surprised when they get taken advantage of.

how is this so? I've never heard an argument that date rape is about violence, at least totally. Stranger rape has been said to be about violence, and that argument is pretty convincing. Why would this lead to women putting faith in men? That doesn't make any sense to me.

"There is no such thing as

"There is no such thing as consensual sex between a woman and her supervisor at work".

I'd be willing to bet that of all subordinate-supervisor sexual relationships at the workplace (assuming here the woman is the subordinate), a decent percentage of the women are also willing participants with her own motives, be it for pure pleasure, career advancement, perks, the risqué thrill, or a combination of these. To claim that none of it is consensual seems ridiculous.

Well Doug, I think the

Well Doug,
I think the argument is that tricky issues like authority muck up a concept like "attraction" to such a degree that "consentual" isn't an applicable term. I don't think the sentence you quote is an empirical claim so much as a theoretical one.

-Matt

"I've never heard an

"I've never heard an argument that date rape is about violence, at least totally."

I submit Google as my evidence. The idea that "rape is about violence, not sex" has long been an article of faith in feminist circles.

"Stranger rape has been said to be about violence, and that argument is pretty convincing."

No, it isn't. If it was about violence, they'd just assault or murder the woman. It shouldn't need pointing out that clearly sex urges play a large role here.

"Why would this lead to women putting faith in men? That doesn’t make any sense to me."

If a young woman believes that rape is about violence and not sex, they are far more likely to be incautious and let their guard down more easily when they're around men who are friendly and show no signs of violent tendencies. Hence, greater chance of rape.

Your typing, on the other

Your typing, on the other hand...

Lucky for me, I have

Lucky for me, I have Infallible Insight. It least it says it's infallible, and who am I to argue?

Roderick- True. Finding the

Roderick-

True. Finding the right spot in the middle (perhaps contingent upon a given context) is the hard part.

incidenatlly matt, from what

incidenatlly matt, from what I looked at of the google search, half of the entries were opposing the idea and were using the phrase you googled as a characterization. 134 is alos not a lot of google results, especially when the phrase "rape is about sex" gets 419 results. There was also a weird article (in your linked google search) about an ugly STD that makes people really horny:

http://nepenthes.lycaeum.org/Sex/clam.html

which is probably worth a look.

matt

I agree Joe, it does have to

I agree Joe, it does have to do with knowledge. Certainly we can imagine scenarios in which a lambish boss is seduced by an aggressive subordinate and the power issue are non-existant (or even reversed) and so there'd be no objection. Additionally, it does feel that saying a man or woman's seemingly free decision (in the best scenario) is actually not free reeks of paternalism. Despite these tricky issues, I think there's an element of truth in the final assertion and there's certainly alot of truth in the "we can't know" point you make in your last post.

Matt

Matt, _The issue is whether

Matt,

_The issue is whether all sex within the context of a heirarchical power system has power implications and that argument seems pretty reasonable to me._

Well, yes, this certainly seems to be true. The question, of course, is whether sex which does have power implications is inherently nonconsentual. Surely it's unreasonable to think that _all_ sex acts performed between a superior and a subordinate are nonconsentual. From the fact that one partner _could_ compell the other to comply it doesn't automatically that s/he _did_ so compell.

The more relevent problem here seems to be knowledge. It will always be hard, if not impossible, for an outsider (including half of the parties to the sex act itself) to determine whether or not the act really was consentual. That seems a good reason for having a policy that prohibits sex between people in a supervisor/supervisee relationship. One needn't posit that all such relationships are nonconsentual; only that they might be and that it will be nearly impossible to tell when they are or aren't.

Brian- I don't agree that

Brian-
I don't agree that all sex has power implications, and that claim isn't what's at issue here. The issue is whether all sex within the context of a heirarchical power system has power implications and that argument seems pretty reasonable to me.

Matt

In my experience, it is

In my experience, it is Dworkin labelled as saying "all sex is rape," though that does not seem to be her actual position.

Roderick- I'm not sure how

Roderick-

I'm not sure how that position is much better than what Randall is objecting to. Perhaps it is a clarification, but Randall's objection (and others) is the idea that sex inherently has power implications that are inherently anti-woman (or at least, by nature or current social climate, take your pick). Speaking for myself, I'd object to that idea, at least to this strong version. If the claim is simply "sex involves social & personal aspects other than simple orgasm generation & reproductive effects, and thus can impact relations beyond it" then that's true but unremarkable.

The claim that "sexual

The claim that "sexual harassment is about power, not about sex" is often attributed to Catharine MacKinnon but it bears little resemblance to her actual position. What MacKinnon actually argues is that sex is about power -- not inherently, but the way that gender roles are structured in our society imbues sexual relations with power meanings. (She is then read as claiming that all heterosexual sex is rape, which is not what she said either, but that's another story.) Hence MacKinnon would never dream of saying that "sexual harassment is about power, not about sex"; on the contrary, she would be more likely to say that "sexual harassment is about power, because it is about sex" (or maybe vice versa).

Brian Doss wrote: > I’m

Brian Doss wrote:

> I’m not sure how that position is much
> better than what Randall is objecting to.
> Perhaps it is a clarification, but Randall’s
> objection (and others) is the idea that sex
> inherently has power implications that are
> inherently anti-woman (or at least, by nature
> or current social climate, take your pick).
> Speaking for myself, I’d object to that idea,
> at least to this strong version. If the claim is
> simply “sex involves social & personal
> aspects other than simple orgasm generation &
> reproductive effects, and thus can impact relations
> beyond it” then that’s true but unremarkable.

Well, there's a lot of space between the very extreme claim that "sex [as it is constructed in our current social climate] inherently has power implications that are inherently anti-woman," and the very moderate claim that sex merely "involves social and personal aspects other than simple orgasm generation." MacKinnon is a lot closer to the extreme position than I am, but she and I would both be somewhere in that middle space rather than at either end.