In the space of about 24 hours I encountered three contributions, not necessarily toward a “solution,” but at least toward perspective, on the sexual harassment tsunami.
The most prominent and lengthiest was Claire Berlinski’s The Warlock Hunt at The American Interest (metered paywall; one freebie per month).
As the title foreshadows, she thinks things have gone too far. Excerpts:
Mass hysteria has set in. It has become a classic moral panic, one that is ultimately as dangerous to women as to men.
It now takes only one accusation to destroy a man’s life.Just one for him to be tried and sentenced in the court of public opinion, overnight costing him his livelihood and social respectability. We are on a frenzied extrajudicial warlock hunt that does not pause to parse the difference between rape and stupidity. The punishment for sexual harassment is so grave that clearly this crime—like any other serious crime—requires an unambiguous definition. We have nothing of the sort.
In recent weeks, one after another prominent voice, many of them political voices, have been silenced by sexual harassment charges … Some of the charges sound deadly serious. But others—as reported anyway—make no sense. I can’t say whether the charges against these men are true; I wasn’t under the bed. But even if true, some have been accused of offenses that aren’t offensive, or offenses that are only mildly so—and do not warrant total professional and personal destruction.
The things men and women naturally do—flirt, play, lewdly joke, desire, seduce, tease—now become harassment only by virtue of the words that follow the description of the act, one of the generic form: “I froze. I was terrified.” It doesn’t matter how the man felt about it. The onus to understand the interaction and its emotional subtleties falls entirely on him. But why? Perhaps she should have understood his behavior to be harmless—clumsy, sweet but misdirected, maladroit, or tacky—but lacking in malice sufficient to cost him such arduous punishment?
In recent weeks, I’ve acquired new powers. I have cast my mind over the ways I could use them. I could now, on a whim, destroy the career of an Oxford don who at a drunken Christmas party danced with me, grabbed a handful of my bum, and slurred, “I’ve been dying to do this to Berlinski all term!” That is precisely what happened. I am telling the truth. I will be believed—as I should be.
But here is the thing. I did not freeze, nor was I terrified. I was amused and flattered and thought little of it. I knew full well he’d been dying to do that. Our tutorials—which took place one-on-one, with no chaperones—were livelier intellectually for that sublimated undercurrent. He was an Oxford don and so had power over me, sensu stricto. I was a 20-year-old undergraduate. But I also had power over him—power sufficient to cause a venerable don to make a perfect fool of himself at a Christmas party. Unsurprisingly, I loved having that power. But now I have too much power. I have the power to destroy someone whose tutorials were invaluable to me and shaped my entire intellectual life much for the better. This is a power I do not want and should not have.
Revolutions against real injustice have a tendency, however, to descend into paroxysms of vengeance that descend upon guilty and innocent alike … This revolution risks going the way revolutions so often do, and the consequences will not just be awful for men. They will be awful for women.
Not long ago we firmly convinced ourselves that our children were being ritually raped by Satanists. In recent years, especially, we have become prone to replacing complex thought with shallow slogans …
Given the events of recent weeks, we can be certain of this: From now on, men with any instinct for self-preservation will cease to speak of anything personal, anything sexual, in our presence. They will make no bawdy jokes when we are listening. They will adopt in our presence great deference to our exquisite sensitivity and frailty. Many women seem positively joyful at this prospect. The Revolution has at last been achieved! But how could this be the world we want? Isn’t this the world we escaped?
Who could blame a man who does not enjoy the company of women under these circumstances, who would just rather not have women in the workplace at all? This is a world in which the Mike Pence rule—“Never be alone with a woman”—seems eminently sensible. Such a world is not good for women, however—as many women were quick to point out when we learned of the Mike Pence rule. Our success and advancement relies upon the personal and informal relationships we have with our colleagues and supervisors. But who, in this climate, could blame a venerable Oxford don for refusing to take the risk of teaching a young woman, one-on-one, with no witnesses? Mine was the first generation of women allowed the privilege of unchaperoned tutorials with Balliol’s dons. Will mine also be the last? Like so many revolutions, the sexual revolution risks coming full circle, returning us right where we started—fainting at bawdy jokes, demanding the return of ancient standards of chivalry, so delicate and virginal that a man’s hand on our knee causes us trauma.
So for Berlinski, a little sexiness in the workplace, and even (or especially) in one-on-one sessions is fun, and energizing, and only objectionable when it goes too far, the boundary of “too far” being about as clear as the famous “I know it when I see it” definition of obscenity. She is on the right track, though, when she writes of the tendencies of this kind of panic being bad for both men and women, albeit in different ways. The article is worth a full reading.
I included Berlinski on the “Mike Pence rule” (more properly the Billy Graham rule) specifically for the contrast to Tish Harrison Warren‘s An Open Letter to Men Who Broke the Billy Graham Rule, at The Well back in April, when the hot topic was not toxic lewdness but toxic prudery:
In light of the Vice President’s revelation that he does not eat meals alone with women (besides his wife) and the widespread discussion of the “Billy Graham Rule,” I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for meeting with me — some of you years ago, some of you last week — to disciple me, befriend me, love me, and honor me as a fellow follower of Christ and as a human being.
So thank you.
You, men-who’ve-met-with-me-one-on-one, who’ve eaten with me, had coffee with me, mentored me, encouraged me, and befriended me — you have changed my life. I am a Christian because you poured into me. I am a pastor because you pastored me. I am, I hope, a better wife and mother because you are in my life.
You did not see me as a sexual threat to be avoided, but as a human being, even a sister. And you were safe. You never hit on me. You never made me feel weird or uneasy. If you ever struggled with sexual temptation, you’ve dealt with that by talking with your wife, male friends, or a counselor so that you could be a friend, brother, and pastor to women around you. Because of that, I have the gift of having men in my life who are trustworthy and who are true, dear friends.
So for Warren, who is pretty conservative if graded on a curve, there’s no perceptible sexiness in these one-on-ones, because there’s nobody here but us sincere Christians, who know how to sublimate any unwanted sexual feelings.
I don’t know what Warren would say today, in the midst of this alleged moral panic. I dare say her opportunities for one-on-ones would be reduced significantly at the moment. I don’t recall any Evangelical figures being nationally exposed in the current round of scandals, but there’s a regional offender (albeit of less exalted religious tradition than Warren), and Ravi Zacharias, who travels in somewhat the same Christianity Today circles as Warren, is pretty rueful about letting his guard down:
Today, Zacharias and his eponymous Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) released their first statements specifically addressing a personal lawsuit involving a married woman who sent nude photos to the popular author and speaker …
“I have learned a difficult and painful lesson through this ordeal,” Zacharias said. “I failed to exercise wise caution and to protect myself from even the appearance of impropriety, and for that I am profoundly sorry. I have acknowledged this to my Lord, my wife, my children, our ministry board, and my colleagues.”
Last month, Zacharias settled a lawsuit with a Canadian couple he claimed had attempted to extort him over messages he had exchanged with the wife.
The federal lawsuit—which was filed by Zacharias, not the couple—alleged that his “friendly correspondence” with the wife evolved over the course of 2016 to her sending him “unwanted, offensive, sexually explicit language and photographs.” In April 2017, the couple sent a letter through their attorney demanding millions of dollars in exchange for keeping the messages a secret.
“In the alternative of protracted and public litigation, [the couple] will sign a release of you and your church and ministry in exchange for a certified check in the amount of $5 million,” stated the letter from the Bryant Law Firm ….
That seemingly extortionate demand would get my attention.
Finally, at Public Discourse, Mark Regnerus:
Recent revelations about sexual harassment, assault, and abuse underscore certain blunt realities about men, women, and sex. How can we confront those realities in a way that leads to less sexual violence?
He states and briefly elaborates “three blunt but essential truths:”
- First, men’s sex drives are, on average, stronger and less discriminating than women’s.
- Second, men have the upper hand in the contemporary mating market, even as—and partly because—women are flourishing economically and educationally. These are not criticisms; they are observations.
- Third, women are usually physically smaller and weaker than men, and—as already noted—more discriminating in their sexual choices. Hence women are more prone to find themselves in situations of sexual risk with regard to men.
Regnerus then critically engages an early-2017 scholarly article that deals with male sexuality in terms of “fly zones” and “no-fly zones, concluding:
These are liminal times in male-female relationships. Treating men as if only threats of shaming, expulsion, and litigation will beat back their urges is not only an erroneous theory, Fleming asserts, “it’s downright dysfunctional for everyone, because it distorts the rules in such a way as to disorient men and women alike.”
Women should not silently put up with men’s boorish and aggressive expressions of sexual interest. But as we combat that we must ensure that men and women do not come to fear and suspect (and then avoid) each other, where we lean on law and regulation over convention. Now is the time for men to exhibit—and women to reinforce—norms of interaction that respect women’s dignity, bodily integrity, and security, while preserving the capacity to express (when appropriate) romantic interest and handle rejection. It is not rocket science. We know how to do this.
I also thought the “fly zone” versus “no-fly zone” model was interesting, but couldn’t help but notice the ambiguous areas:
Fleming argues that it’s the border between “fly” and “no fly” zones—a party, for example—that is most apt to foster confusion and tempt risk, not the classroom or the bus. This is the social space in which most problems, ranging from sexual badgering to diminished consent to downright rape, are apt to occur. Comparable dynamics can occur at after-work gatherings, professional conferences, on a first date, or after texting to “hang out.”
Cf. Claire Berlinski’s “drunken Christmas party” in Oxford.
Considering some of the points Regnerus made as he moved toward his conclusion, his confidence that “We know how to do this” seems a nonsequitur. I’m not at all sure we do know how to do this any more, unless he means that all married men should accumulate a year of rust on their courting skills every calendar year, which might be a good place to start.
Pre-Publication Update: An NPR poll featured at the top of Thursday’s All Things Consider reports 86% Americans support “zero tolerance for sexual harassment.” I trust that these lemmings feel virtuous for having no tolerance whatever for something they almost certainly cannot define. NPR made no effort to define it, either.
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I would a thousand times rather have dinner with secular liberals of a certain temperament than with a group of religious conservatives who agreed with me about most things, but who have no sense of humor or irony.