The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This is why sexual harassment can’t truly be rooted out

We’ve come a long way on stopping workplace sexual harassment. The work we’ve done is not the problem. (iStock)
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In 1907, a female factory worker who had lost her job for resisting her supervisor’s advances wrote to a New York City newspaper, the Jewish Daily Forward, asking for help: “The girls in the shop were very upset over the foreman’s vulgarity,” she wrote, “but they didn’t want him to throw them out, so they are afraid to be witnesses against him. What can be done about this?” Around that same time, Rose Schneiderman, a venerable union organizer, confronted New York garment shop owner about his habit of casually groping his female employees’ rears. “Why, Miss Schneiderman,” the man reportedly replied, “these girls are like my children.” (A woman employee present at the meeting remarked they’d rather be orphans.)

Looking back on these and similar accounts, it’s striking how little effort perpetrators used to put into hiding or denying their abuses. They sexually accosted and mocked female employees on crowded factory floors and during ordinary business hours, and when confronted, sought to excuse themselves rather than rebut the accusations. They had little reason to do otherwise. There were neither procedural (that is, official laws, rules or regulations providing for punishment or penalties) or many persuasive (that is, unofficial, informal, cultural) barriers against those kinds of abuses: Labor laws were nascent and cultural attitudes toward working women were negative, put lightly.

Women are angry because of men. Again.

Since then, women and labor activists seem to have won the war of persuasion. In a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, only 21 percent of respondents said they didn’t think sexual harassment in the workplace is a problem, and it’s not clear whether those respondents simply don’t think sexual harassment happens much anymore or if they believe it does but aren’t bothered by it. On the other hand, 64 percent of respondents — a solid majority — said they consider sexual harassment at work a serious problem.

Today’s predators might try to explain themselves with mentions of old-fashioned upbringings. But their actions belie their words. Exorbitant sums of hush money, clandestine notes, private hotel rooms and careful victim scouting (“He was good at figuring out which things he could say to which people,” said Rachel Morris of Leon Wieseltier, the New Republic’s former literary editor) are not the precautions of heedless old-timers. They’re the triangulations of people who know they’re doing something wrong and want to get away with it. (It’s worth noting, of course, that recent allegations range widely in severity, from the deeply inappropriate to the outright felonious.)

Maybe the realization that these predators had already been persuaded what they were up to was wrong is what led so many commenters to try to think up procedural solutions to the problem. On Twitter, veteran labor reporter Timothy Noah suggested workplaces make one-on-one, closed-door meetings between any employees a fireable offense. Conservative pundit Erick Erickson argued we should revisit the Mike Pence rule, a 2017 update of what was once called the Billy Graham rule — essentially a personal habit of refusing private meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex.

And yet, as critics of Noah and Erickson’s suggestions noted, effectively banning private communication between colleagues puts a tremendous burden on workplace productivity, and doing it in specifically gendered terms disproportionately affects female employees. There doesn’t seem to be a clear procedural fix — no official rule, regulation or penalty — for the kinds of abuses now being revealed daily; at least, none that wouldn’t tremendously damage women’s employment prospects in other ways. This doesn’t mean there are no procedural tweaks worth making to effectively bar and penalize sexual harassment. Catharine MacKinnon has argued, for instance, that educational institutions should be held legally liable under Title IX for the environments they foster when it comes to sexual harassment, and law professor Minna Kotkin recently suggested in The Post that employment attorneys and civil rights organizations ought to aggressively battle the climate of silence around harassment. These are worthwhile adjustments to existing laws and legal practices that could reduce sexual harassment. But they’re not the kind of radical procedural shifts that would’ve necessarily prevented all of the recent cases, wherein perpetrators seemed largely to have elected to ignore procedure, or buy or bully their way out of it.

Don’t be so sure Harvey Weinstein is gone for good.

In short, we seem close to exhausting our procedural strategies against sexual harassment. We are left with circumstances vastly improved from the earliest days of women’s employment, but also with inveterate predators — the rich and cunning kind, who know they are doing wrong and do it anyway, who violate procedures and vault over rules thanks to power or money or both. We have run again into the problem of persuasion.

But this time the problem is different. With employers spending resources on anti-sexual harassment training programs and the very public disgrace of so many high-profile men from various industries, it seems unlikely there are really any men left — dinosaurs, writers tend to call them, an insult to the megafauna — who honestly don’t know sexually harassing women at work is considered wrong and ought not be done. What remains are people who know what they’re doing is wrong and that there are penalties and either don’t care or are excited by their transgressions, people like Harvey Weinstein and Wieseltier, who seem to get something special out of causing women sexual distress. (“Whatever else he was aiming for, Leon delighted in making young women sexually uncomfortable,” former New Republic staffer Michelle Cottle wrote in the Atlantic last week; likewise, it’s hard to read Weinstein’s drop-the-robe routine as anything other than fetishistic.)

Society has never had a good answer for what to do with people whose pleasure depends on the pain of others. Even the most extreme procedures and deterrents (say, banning all contact between male and female colleagues, an unserious proposition) likely won’t stop them, and they’re immune to persuasion. Theologians call them “hardened sinners” — people who are so morally damaged they no longer even want to do good; unlike the rest of us, doing good has ceased to be pleasurable for them. Theologically, they’re a challenge. Socially, they’re an intractable sort of problem.

I went public with my sexual assault. Then the trolls came out.

Their uniqueness is important to observe because, if missed, their crimes can be misleading. Their infractions don’t tell us anything about general categories: There is no problem with men and women working together, or meeting together, having private conversations inside work or out; there is nothing deeply broken about our efforts to address workplace sexual harassment, and nothing irrevocably sick in our cultural attitudes toward it, as recent polls and the outrage directed at these revelations indicate. Women are willing to take a lot of blame for a lot of things, but the problem in these recent cases is not that women haven’t worked hard enough or advocated well enough for ourselves.

Once we exhaust our tools of procedure and persuasion, those who still offend are of a different moral sort. It isn’t clear what to do about them; it never has been. But it seems obvious that we shouldn’t build our public consciousness around their uncommon deficits, or abandon efforts that are generally working (the long-term legal and cultural campaigns against workplace sexual harassment) in favor of procedures designed to do the impossible. With small tweaks — the kind MacKinnon and Kotkin suggest, designed to collapse the structures that protect repeat offenders — we may not be able to stop this strange and eerie lot from offending, but we may be able to stop them from offending again. And that might be the best we can do.