In light of a handful of high-profile local and national instances of sexual and racist harassment, I have decided to focus this, my first regular column, on issues of sexism and racism, what causes these ugly expressions of prejudiced behavior and what we as a concerned public can learn from these instances.
In December, when the News and the Hippolytic blog both wrote about the charges of sexual harassment filed against professor Joseph Schlessinger of the Yale School of Medicine (“Univ. faces harassment lawsuit,” 12/1), I spent some time thinking about Schlessinger and the nature of sexual harassment. Schlessinger was charged with sexually harassing a female subordinate by discussing with her his sexual exploits and by showing her pornography on the Internet, among other things.
Feminists hold that sexual harassment is not about sex or sexual desire, but instead is a sexual perversion of an assertion of power. That is, the perpetrator uses sexuality as a method of humiliation and domination. Thus, in a prototypical sexual harassment case, a male boss wants power and seeks that power by using sexually explicit language or advances to dominate his female employees. Power is what is sought, and sex becomes the social outlet for that quest.
Simple enough, right?
No. Sexual harassment is tricky because of three considerations: the nature of the activity, whether the action is welcome and, most importantly, the context. Noam Rudnick, writing for the Hippolytic blog, compared Schlessinger’s actions to instances of unwanted sexual advances perpetrated on a female undergraduate by a male undergraduate at Toad’s Place. But unwanted sexual advances and sexual harassment are not the same. A guy inappropriately grabbing a girl at Toad’s is not an example of sexual harassment because Toad’s is a social space where it is reasonable and expected that people are making sexual advances toward one another. Because of its context, such an action is harassment of a sexual nature, not sexual harassment.
Basha Rubin, writing for the Broad Recognition blog, countered Rudnick’s comments by saying that it does a disservice to women in the workplace to compare Schlessinger’s actions to sexual advances at a nightclub, because it gives credence to the idea that a male boss who sexually harasses a female employee is simply incapable of controlling his sexual desire. The workplace is not a space where it is typically appropriate to express one’s sexual interest. For this reason, harassment at the workplace is critically different from harassment at Toad’s.
So if sexual harassment is based on a drive for power, why does it so often take a sexual form? I find that comparing sexism to racism is instructive because it allows for a case study in which sexual desire is not a factor. To answer this question, I would like to compare these instances of sexual harassment to the Michael Richards case. This past November, Richards, who played Kramer on “Seinfeld,” gained notoriety for shouting racist slurs at audience members during a stand-up comedy performance. Apparently frustrated by what he deemed to be rude interruptions by a group of black male audience members, Richards stopped his act to yell angrily at the men, calling them all sorts of names, including the N-word.
In this instance Richards was trying to gain power and control over audience members he deemed unruly and disruptive. Backed into a corner and lacking the maturity and intellect to deal with the situation in a reasonable manner, Richards used the easiest and most powerful weapon he could: He recalled centuries of American racist violence by hurling the most notorious racial epithet at these black spectators. What Richards did was employ a social script. With one word, he invoked a historical hierarchy of the powerful white man imposing his will on blacks through enslavement or lynching. I don’t mean to suggest that Richards was literally threatening violence. However, racism is a firmly entrenched part of American culture and our history, and racist language carries all of that history and all of that threat.
Sexual harassment works in the same way. Women live in a culture where men often rape women, and if not rape, harass them in other unwanted sexual ways. Part of the female experience is to live with a certain amount of fear and uncertainty regarding your sexuality and sexual control of your body. I don’t mean Schlessinger was threatening rape when he said sexually explicit things to his employee, but a male boss who makes unwanted sexual advances toward a woman in the workplace inspires that fear. And inevitably, the victim of his harassment has more difficulty asserting her autonomy in other ways because he has made it clear that the workplace is not safe from the ubiquitous threat of sexual violence.
Adda Birnir is a senior in Morse College. This is her first regular column.