'We are so aware of how powerless we are'
My daughters debuted a new parlor game over Thanksgiving weekend: “Creep, or Not A Creep?”
Someone names a historical or fictional male figure – Ben Franklin, Nelson Mandela, Ronald Reagan, Popeye – and the group decides how likely he would be to end up accused now of sexual harassment.
Some names were slam dunks. (Albert Einstein cheated on his wife with his cousin – creepy. Thomas Jefferson? Two words: Sally Hemings.)
Some names raised debate. (Jesus – great guy, but of all the things he could have turned that water into, why an alcoholic beverage?)
Sexual harassment is just one way among many that women are blocked from advancement; it’s part of a dynamic that goes far beyond drunk male managers cornering interns at office parties.
It soon became clear that the benefit of the doubt is passé, that just about nobody is automatically “not a creep” now. It was both an awakening and a kind of loss: Remember the years under President Barack Obama, when Americans all more or less seemed fundamentally decent?
Now the age of “yes we can” has given way to the era of “grab ’em by the pussy.” Everyone is presumed debased: Aging ex-presidents, earnest state lawmakers, PBS talks show hosts, FX comedy whizzes. Gay actors, straight tech nerds, Republican judges from Alabama, Democratic senators from Minnesota. Young turks at the New York Times. Middle-aged music producers. Matt Lauer from the Today Show. Garrison Keillor.
It’s a game in itself – Name That Harasser. A muddled game, too: Here an alleged criminal rape, there a textbook unwanted back rub. Over there, more bosses than you’d think sashaying in open bathrobes.
The transgressions aren’t the same, and neither is the impact. And neither are the rules, one set for most of us, enforced by courts and Human Resources departments, and another set for the Capitol and Congress and White House, mainly protecting politicians.
Worse, if it’s a game, then with it comes the risk that we’ll all lose interest. Women can’t afford that, not before this conversation gets where it needs to go.
That destination is what this moment in history is really about: Power. Never in modern memory have so many men in positions of authority made it so clear that they want women put in their place. Sexual harassment is just one way among many that women are blocked from advancement; it’s part of a dynamic that goes far beyond drunk male managers cornering interns at office parties.
It isn’t necessarily even confined to men – I once worked for a woman who, for fun, would sit around making Top 10 lists of attractive male subordinates just so she could flirtatiously tell them their rankings. It was a creepy thing.
Federal laws, workplace rules and cultural norms can discourage abuses. Under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, for instance, employers can’t discriminate on the basis of sex. Bosses can’t overtly favor one gender over another in hiring and promotion, can’t disqualify people for jobs just because they might get pregnant, can’t reassign women to seemingly “feminine” jobs, can’t grope subordinates or retaliate against those who sexually reject them. Companies can’t allow boorish and sexist behavior to devolve into a hostile workplace.
But the law is weak, scholars say, due in part to the way it was interpreted decades ago by judges of a less enlightened generation. Claims get dismissed unless sexual harassment is deemed to be “severe” or “pervasive,” a murky standard that overlooks all sorts of outrageous workplace behavior. So far, not much has been done to force Congress to bring that law into the 21st century.
Similarly, legislators and members of Congress can only be “fired” by the voters who elected them. But there’s no excuse for the systemic ways in which lawmakers in California and Washington have exempted themselves from rules that apply to every other workplace.
Only in recent days, and under immense pressure, for instance, have the House and Senate mandated standard training to prevent sexual harassment. Otherwise, Congress’ system for “handling” harassment complaints has been the same since 1995, when Republicans dominated and one of their own, Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood, was clinging to power amid horror stories from nearly 20 women.
A congressional staffer harassed on the job can’t even file a complaint until she has endured some three months of mandated “counseling” and “mediation,” and of course the whole business must remain confidential. If the complaint is borne out, taxpayers foot the settlement bill.
The system in California’s Capitol isn’t much better. Jaws dropped last week as testimony revealed that the Legislature doesn’t track sexual harassment complaints, only completed investigations. There, too, the taxpayers pay and anonymity is the order of the day.
That needs to change. The public has a right to know if they’re electing bullies, and settlements should come out of harassers’ pockets. Good for Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, who is trying again, as she has for years, to overhaul the complaint process.
But again, this situation, complicated by partisan political polarization, is just a variation on a theme.
Pay scales that over-reward men and chronically underpay women also are part of the problem. So are health care restrictions that make it harder for women to choose when and whether to have children.
So is the refusal to mandate paid maternity and paternity leave so that mothers have a fair shot at advancement. So is the tolerance in low paying jobs for workplace abuses: If you think women get weary in Hollywood and politics, check out the kitchen of a fast food restaurant some time, or a sports bar, or the housekeeping shift at your nearest hotel.
It’s all about an imbalance in power that diminishes prospects for half the population. And women will have no one to blame but themselves if we don’t use these scandals to shine a light beyond the #MeToo movement and the salacious issue of sexual harassment.
Women need clout across the board, from workplace protections to pay equity to boardrooms, and if nothing else, this should be seized on as a teachable moment.
Because cultures can change. Not overnight, but it does happen. I’m old enough to remember when people told racist jokes openly at office water coolers. To the extent that that largely has stopped, it’s not because people are less racist but because companies can be sued for it. Pedophile priests abused their power in the Catholic Church for generations; then the naming of names gave way to a hard look at the ways the institution was enabling abusers.
Creeps may think we’re all under their thumb, but creeps, too, are only human. And they’re a liability. As Dana Nessel, a Detroit lawyer running for Michigan attorney general, put it in a campaign ad that has gone viral, “Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting?”
Name That Harasser is fun, but it’s not the only diversion.
We could connect the dots. That’s a good game, too.