For many of us in the science blogging scene, yesterday was a pretty lousy day. We learned that a guy who many of us had known for a long time, who we'd trusted, who we considered a friend, had been using his job to sexually harass women with sleezy propositions.
This led to a lot of discussion and debate in twitter. I spoke up to say that what bothered me about the whole thing was that it's easy to not harass people.
This has led to rather a lot of hate mail. But it's also led to some genuine questions and discussions. Since it can be hard to have detailed discussions on twitter, I thought that I'd take a moment here, expand on what I meant, and answer some of the questions.
To start: it really is extremely easy to not be a harasser. Really. The key thing to consider is: when is it appropriate to discuss sex? In general, it's downright trivial: if you're not in a not in private with a person with whom you're in a sexual relationship, then don't. But in particular, here are a couple of specific examples of this principle:
- Is there any way in which you are part of a supervisor/supervisee or mentor/mentee relationship? Then do not discuss or engage in sexual behaviors of any kind.
- In a social situation, are you explicitly on a date or other romantic encounter? Do both people agree that it's a romantic thing? If not, then do not discuss or engage in sexual behaviors.
- In a mutually understood romantic situation, has your partner expressed any discomfort? If so, then immediately stop discussing or engaging in sexual behaviors.
- In any social situation, if a participant expresses discomfort, stop engaging in what is causing the discomfort.
Like I said: this is not hard.
To touch on specifics of various recent incidents:
- You do not meet with someone to discuss work, and tell them about your sex drive.
- You do not touch a students ass.
- You do not talk to coworkers about your dick.
- You don't proposition your coworkers.
- You don't try to sneak a glance down your coworkers shirt.
- You don't comment on how hot your officemate looks in that sweater.
- You do not tell your students that you thought about them while you were masturbating.
Seriously! Is any of this difficult? Should this require any explanation to anyone with two brain cells to rub together?
But, many of my correspondants asked, what about grey areas?
I don't believe that there are significant grey areas here. If you're not in an explicit sexual relationship with someone, then don't talk to them about sex. In fact, if you're in any work related situation at all, no matter who you're with, it's not appropriate to discuss sex.
But what about cases where you didn't mean anything sexual, like when you complimented your coworker on her outfit, and she accused you of harassing her?
This scenario is, largely, a fraud.
Lots of people legitimately worry about it, because they've heard so much about this in the media, in politics, in news. The thing is, the reason that you hear all of this is because of people who are deliberately promoting it as part of a socio-political agenda. People who want to excuse or normalize this kind of behavior want to create the illusion of blurred lines.
In reality, harassers know that they're harassing. They know that they're making inappropriate sexual gestures. But they don't want to pay the consequences. So they pretend that they didn't know that what they were doing wrong. And they try to convince other folks that you're at risk too! You don't actually have to be doing anything wrong, and you could have your life wrecked by some crazy bitch!.
Consider for a moment, a few examples of how a scenario could play out.
Scenario one: woman officemate comes to work, dressed much fancier than usual. Male coworker says "Nice outfit, why are you all dressed up today?". Anyone really think that this is going to get the male coworker into trouble?
Scenario two: woman worker wears a nice outfit to work. Male coworker says "Nice outfit". Woman looks uncomfortable. Man sees this, and either apologizes, or makes note not to do this again, because it made her uncomfortable. Does anyone really honestly believe that this, occurring once, will lead to a formal accusation of harassment with consequences?
Scenario three: woman officemate comes to work dressed fancier than usual. Male coworker says nice outfit. Woman acts uncomfortable. Man keeps commenting on her clothes. Woman asks him to stop. Next day, woman comes to work, man comments that she's not dressed so hot today. Anyone think that it's not clear that the guy is behaving inappropriately?
Scenario four woman worker wears a nice outfit to work. Male coworker says "Nice outfit, wrowr", makes motions like he's pawing at her. Anyone really think that there's anything ambiguous here, or is it clear that the guy is harassing her? And does anyone really, honestly believe that if the woman complains, this harasser will not say "But I just complimented her outfit, she's being oversensitive!"?
Here's the hard truths about the reality of sexual harassment:
- Do you know a professional woman? If so, she's been sexually harassed at one time or another. Probably way more than once.
- The guy(s) who harassed her knew that he was harassing her.
- The guy(s) who harassed her doesn't think that he really did anything wrong.
- There are a lot of people out there who believe that men are entitled to behave this way.
- In order to avoid consequences for their behavior, many men will go to amazing lengths to deny responsibility.
The reality is: this isn't hard. There's nothing difficult about not harassing people. Men who harass women know that they're harassing women. The only hard part of any of this is that the rest of us - especially the men who don't harass women - need to acknowledge this, stop ignoring it, stop making excuses for the harassers, and stand up and speak up when we see it happening. That's the only way that things will ever change.
We can't make exceptions for our friends. I'm really upset about the trouble that my friend is in. I feel bad for him. I feel bad for his family. I'm sad that he's probably going to lose his job over this. But the fact is, he did something reprehensible, and he needs to face the consequences for that. The fact that I've known him for a long time, liked him, considered him a friend? That just makes it more important that I be willing to stand up, and say: This was wrong. This was inexcusable. This cannot stand without consequences..