The Harvey Weinstein moment is making us all a little more aware, and it’s safe to say Americans are finally grappling with a complex but crucial idea: “Sexual harassment,” as Gretchen Carlson said in a recent TED talk, “is not about sex. It’s about power.” The behaviors we’ve heard described — through accusations against men such as Charlie Rose and MSNBC’s Mark Halperin — stem from the notion that women should be the subjugated and submissive objects of male power and dominance.
But if “sexual harassment” and “sexual assault” are not sexual, the modifier is problematic. It seems to minimize the severity of the act or even reclassify it, suggesting that it’s not just a type of assault but also a subcategory of sex. This is what Fox News correspondent-at-large Geraldo Rivera implied when he said media is a “flirty business” and fretted that we may be “criminalizing courtship & conflating it (with) predation” — as though flashing one’s penis at work is just a clumsy way of asking someone on a date. In such a universe, women supposedly can’t tell the difference between mutual, respectful flirtation and harassment, because the difference is a blurry line that clueless men with good intentions have a hard time discerning.
We have to stop seeing sexual harassment and sexual assault as some sort of flattery of women gone awry. In truth, sexual assault has nothing to do with sex, or sexuality, or flirting, or courtship or love. Rather, sexual assault is a kind of hate. The men who gratify themselves by abusing women are getting off not on those women but on power. These men don’t sexually assault women because they like women but because they despise them as subordinate creatures. We should call it misogynistic harassment and misogynistic assault, not sexual assault. These are hate crimes.
I don’t mean this in the formal, legal sense.
But if we understand that these crimes are the result of targeted hate, rather than misguided lust, we can devise better solutions. The way to combat hate is not (only) through enforcement against individual perpetrators. We need to fight the misogyny, sexism and systemic marginalization of women and disproportionate empowerment of men. That’s what creates the society-wide dynamic in which men think they’re better than women. This dynamic is evident in gender pay gaps; in the unequal burden of domestic chores; in the election of overt misogynists to the presidency; and in the subjection of women to harassment, assault and rape. The truth is that none of these are aberrant behaviors by aberrant men, or even aberrant forms of affection. They’re the predictable dynamics of a society that hates women.
We need to examine how our boardrooms and stockrooms and classrooms and family dining rooms teach, incentivize and perpetuate misogynistic hate. And then rather than focusing on the tawdry details of each scandal, the media and all of us should talk about the structural power imbalance within companies and the culture of misogyny.
Specifically, employers shouldn’t focus only on accountability. Employers also need to address misogynistic hate that is deep within corporate culture and rooted in business policies — in stingy parental-leave rules, in recruiting and promotions and even in male-oriented staff rituals at golf clubs or steak houses. Companies would recognize that the issue isn’t just how women are discouraged from coming forward but how men in some companies are encouraged to minimize and marginalize women.
Misogyny ends up infecting and affecting all of us. Studies show both women and men have unconscious bias against women. For instance, some studies suggest that both women and men more readily associate men with positive attributes and women with negative. Such evidence suggests that any of us may be more likely to grant a job interview to a man than a woman, or think a successful man is talented while a successful woman is just lucky.
That’s because we’ve all grown up inside the rotten barrel of a society that automatically grants men disproportionate power and privilege. Even those of us who are women, are married to women or have daughters absorb cultural messages and norms about the inherent inferiority of women. That’s the rot at the core of misogynistic harassment and assault — a rot that has nothing to do with sex or affection and everything to do with hate.
Analysis by Sally Kohn, chicago tribune