KJ, I want to agree with all your points in your rebuttal to Katie Roiphe’s piece in the New York Times, and I want to add one more: I dispute the notion that we need to have men saying cruel things to women and using sex as a weapon to initimidate women in order for our lives not to be drab or quiet. On the contrary, I believe that our lives are more fun, more colorful, and yes, far sexier if sex is seen more as a way to have fun between consenting adults and not as a way for the easily provoked man to put a woman in her place. This is doubly true if you believe women share a right with men to lives where sex is fun, interactions with colleagues are pleasant, and work is a productive, creative place to be. After all, if you work in a place where men freely intimidate you with faux-jokes about your body, and pester you for dates after you’ve been clear you don’t want to date them, work can’t be fun anymore, but a place where you keep your head low and hope to get through the day without drawing any attention to yourself.
I’ve worked in many different environments since I was legally able to draw a paycheck, and I can safely say that the only people who benefit when harassment is free-wheeling are those men with a sadistic streak who enjoy watching women squirm. I’ve seen a lot of men harass women in my time, and it’s never once added to the joyfulness in a room. On the contrary, it tends to discourage interactions for fear of being harassed. It’s especially lethal to humor. When you have a harasser in your midst, you tend to avoid telling jokes or being visibly merry, because you may attract him and his desire to assert power over you by saying something bullying, disguised as a joke or not. When I’ve worked in places where clear boundaries were set and sexual harassers had a short lease, the opposite happened: Setting expected minimums of respect for your colleagues freed the majority of people from fear, and made them happier, jokier, and more likely to socialize—even date! The one time in my working career where I had to discipline someone for sexual harassment (he insisted on making gross comments about every woman’s body who walked by in front of two female co-workers who ranked below him), you could see an immediate improvement in everyone’s relationships and mood after the harassment stopped. Even the harasser didn’t seem too put out about having to keep his running commentary about strangers’ breast sizes to himself.
If this doesn’t make sense, consider the world outside of work and the work done to make sure sadists and bores don’t ruin it for everyone else. Most bars throw out men who grope because they recognize that they detract from the fun for everyone else, after all. If women can’t wear miniskirts to social occasions without getting harassed, they probably will stop wearing miniskirts … or showing up at all. Nothing sounds more drab to me than the sausage fest environment created when women avoid a social situation for fear of harassment. Even Occupy Wall Street can provide a quick lesson in this: The self-centered drummers, using the “we just gotta be free!” arguments, are ruining it for everyone else and putting the protest itself in danger. My God, we even kick people who talk during movies out for ruining it for everyone else! Surely restraining the behavior of men who get a rise out of harassing women can’t cross a line in the very same world that’s littered with “no cell phone” signs. After all, unlike if someone takes a cell phone call during a movie, being sexually harassed can cause you ongoing stress and threaten your livelihood.
As for the notion that there’s some sort of conflict between being sexually assertive and/or having a ribald sense of humor and social, legal, and ethical requirements not to harass, I’m sorry, but I’m skeptical. I have a filthy mouth and an assertive, unapologetic sexuality. (Interestingly, the people who complain about this in my writing overlap almost completely with the same kind of people defending Herman Cain.) Somehow I manage not to sexually harass anyone, usually by remembering the concept of “consent” and not imposing unwelcome attention or jokes on people who haven’t indicated any consent. Since I, a mere female, am capable of not sexually harassing, I feel certain that we can hold men to the very same standard.