A man walks into a conference room, where two women are planning the company’s booth at an upcoming trade show. (Sit tight, this is eventually going to turn into a story about gender, despair and whether our society is completely busted.) “Hey girls, we need to prep for this show,” the man says. “So unless the plan is to stop traffic with thigh-high boots and halter tops, we’re going to need strong messaging and branding.”
The above scene is from one of those workplace sexual harassment training videos you have probably seen if you’ve had a job. Specifically, it’s from a California-based firm called Emtrain, which specializes in such trainings and which, to facilitate open discussion, encourages clients to code inappropriate behaviors as yellow (problematic), orange (moderate), or red (toxic). The thinking being, it’s easier to say, “Oof, Jerry, that joke was a little orange,” than it is to say, “Jerry, that’s harassment.”
Anyway. The video above is coded by Emtrain as orange. But in recent weeks, Emtrain’s founder, Janine Yancey, has noticed something. When viewers watch the video — which goes on to show the male boss ranking the hotness of female workers — they can submit questions and comments. “Women are writing in saying, that’s red, that’s red!” Yancey says. “And men are saying, is that really orange? It looks yellow to me.”
Yancey once practiced employment law; she thinks in terms of legalities. She knows juries in the past wouldn’t have thought of that incident, in singularity, as toxic. “But we don’t really have a mechanism to figure out how the current news cycle might impact juries,” she says. In other words, we can’t figure out how behaviors that once were considered yellow — or even green, a healthy work environment — can transition to red.
So that’s the legal conundrum. The sharper point in this thigh-high anecdote is that men and women do not even appear to be watching the same video.
Which means we are in trouble. We have been for a while; some of us just didn’t realize it. The news cycle Yancey speaks of is, of course, the era of #MeToo, five weeks old and instead of losing steam, gaining momentum.
As we type this, a photo surfaced of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) making like he’s grabbing radio anchor Leeann Tweeden’s chest, while she slept in a flak jacket on a USO tour (Franken apologized and said he was “ashamed”). Two more women just accused Senate candidate Roy Moore of coming on to them when they were teens and he was in his 30s (he denies it). These anecdotes will feel stale soon because there will be new ones and new men.
It would be easy, as a woman, to look around at this point and worry that every male was a hyena.
What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Three centuries ago would be nice, but we’ll take it now, thanks. And: What’s next?
“In a strange way, figuring that out is exhilarating,” says Kristi Coulter, a writer who lives in Seattle. “It’s also exhausting. And then I’m bracing for a backlash, though I don’t know yet what that would look like. Or I’m wondering, will things quiet down and everything will be back to the way it was? So I feel a mix of excitement and wariness. And weariness. Both wariness and weariness.”
She’s been asking herself the question that women have spent the past month asking. Who is the powerful man who, if accused, would be a crippling blow? What theoretical harasser would break her? Tom Hanks? Dick Van Dyke? “Thank God Mr. Rogers is dead,” she found herself thinking at one point.
Finally it came: “Bob Newhart,” Coulter says. “For some reason I’ve settled on Bob Newhart as the one that would push me over the edge.”
It isn’t about Bob Newhart. It isn’t even about Harvey Weinstein; it never was. It’s about the rot that we didn’t want to see, that we shoveled into the garbage disposal of America for years. Some of the rot might have once been a carrot and some of it might have once been a moldy piece of rape-steak, but it’s all fetid and horrific and now, and it’s all coming up at once.
How do we deal with it? Prison for everyone? Firing for some?
As Rebecca Traister pointed out in a recent New York Magazine essay, there has been some lamenting over the fact that some accused men might lose their careers. But what about the women, she writes, who never got careers to begin with because they chose personal safety over their own dreams?
Should we create a transgression hierarchy — an acknowledgment that shoving a hand up a woman’s skirt is worse than leering, once, at her butt? If so, who gets to decide the order of operations?
A few weeks ago, following allegations about Kevin Spacey, we spent days contacting crew members from “House of Cards” (Spacey has since checked himself into a clinic for sex addiction). Some people said the actor’s on-set habit of hitting on extras was disturbing. Some said it was merely eyeroll-worthy. Sometimes these two camps were describing the exact same behaviors.
Do we question whether both men and women have been infiltrated by such a systemically misogynist culture that, conceivably, some men didn’t realize how wrong they were? Could we divide those men into categories?
What’s the category for a 76-year-old ad man who spent the 1960s pinching secretaries’ bottoms at the office Christmas party because the women always seemed to laugh, and he somehow didn’t realize it was terrible? Can we say, “It was terrible. Old men, raise your hand if you ever did this. Don’t do it again. Now go away; we have bigger fish to fry.”
“I really don’t think so,” says Aminatou Sow, a host of the podcast “Call Your Girlfriend,” when I raise the possibility. She recognizes that there are gradients, “But, those ‘small’ things add up to a lot.”
Meg Bond, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell who served on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s task force on sexual harassment, confirms that psychologically speaking, small things do add up — to a hostile work environment. “I worry that the attention to really egregious cases is going to make us think the other types of harassment aren’t such a big deal.”
What’s happening now, she says, “is this posturing around zero tolerance, which has a positive side and a potential negative underbelly.”
It sounds wonderful to be able to tell bad men to just stop what they’re doing. But important transformations don’t happen by handing out detailed lists of 54 no-no actions. There’s always going to be the dude who skirts the rules by coming up with action 55. (“I didn’t offer her a shoulder rub, I offered a deltoid adjustment.”) There’s also going to be the one who says, “If I were 30 years younger!” Women might not want him fired, they just want him to stop.
Bond thinks that a large portion of the answer lies in the workplace; it’s where most adults spend their days. But, “the real work is hard, and it has to deeply permeate organizations,” says Bond. “Interventions, if you really want to get into it, have to be across life spans. The entire educational system. How we pass on values to everyone from childhood on up.”
We’re only asking for the entire universe to change. That’s all.
But first: Is it yellow, orange or red?
It seems like that should be baseline for all discussions. An easy judgment to make. It’s alarming that it’s not.
You need only to hop on Twitter to find an army of guys arguing that this wave of awareness means they’re “not even allowed to flirt anymore.”
“Are they serious?” asks Sow, the podcast host. “Everyone knows the difference between flirting, and assaulting women. The stories that people are getting upset about — they are not about flirting. The stories we’re hearing are about people who have ejaculated in flower pots.” (Harvey Weinstein, allegedly, after forcing a woman to watch him masturbate.)
Regarding Louis C.K.’s confessed masturbating in front of female comedians, columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter John Podhoretz queried his followers: “What did he do either as a criminal or actionable matter that merits this exposé, aside from being unspeakably disgusting?”
He later deleted the tweet, saying he hadn’t been trying to defend C.K., merely to ask about the legality of the situation.
Which might get to the core of the problem. Women are not talking about what is “criminal or actionable.” The criminal justice system is slow, unwieldy and designed to protect the rights of the accused. This cultural moment is designed to talk about what is wrong, and what we can’t stand, and how it needs to be fixed right now.
The notion that harassment could be confused with flirting is as baffling to many women as the notion that football could be confused with ping-pong. Yes, there’s a ball in both games. It’s a very different ball. If you cannot tell it is a different ball, one must conclude that you are either willfully obtuse, or you cannot be trusted around balls of any kind, because you might actually be conking women in the head with a large piece of pigskin.
“I’ve been really struck by how many men have been defending Louis C.K. because ‘he asked,’ ” before masturbating, says Coulter, the Seattle writer. “Like, this wasn’t an agreement. He didn’t make an appointment.”
We’d just as soon hang out with people who don’t throw footballs at our heads, thanks. We’d just as soon not have to explain why.
“It’s our role to be accountable,” says Neil Irvin, the executive director of Men Can Stop Rape, a nonprofit dedicated to educating men around issues of violence against women. “It’s our role to be accountable so that women and girls are not again held as the gatekeepers for this information.”
Irvin thinks of harassment as a public health issue. Like seat belts. Or smoking. “We have to be talking about the things that are going to sustain activities around these issues, so that we change societal norms,” he says.
This is the business that Irvin’s organization has been in for the better part of 20 years, he says. He’s still plugging away, seminar after seminar. As far as the level of discussion happening now, “I’ve certainly never seen it in my lifetime.”
But as for what happens next, and how this all gets fixed?
It’s hard, because we can’t repair the garbage disposal while it’s still spewing. We won’t sweep up the china, while — oh, another new headline: “The TED talks empire has been grappling with sexual harassment.”
We can’t fix this while women still want to grab men by the collars and say, “That. Offense. Was. Red.”