In recent days, the once-shocking accusation of workplace sexual harassment by famous men like Harvey Weinstein have been joined by increasingly reckless, attention-seeking complaints of long-ago “misconduct.” While many such charges are legitimate, evaluating decades-old sexually tinged workplace behavior using today’s standards is arrogant and ethnocentric – not to mention unfair.
When a woman alleges that in 1985 Dustin Hoffman used an anatomical reference while chatting with her, or a teenage singer says 60 years ago Burt Lancaster touched his thigh and offered him a role in exchange for sex, it’s easy to denounce such incidents as obscene examples of sexual harassment, given the way they would be perceived today. And some of them were, are, and will always be obscene.
But sexual harassment is socially constructed – it has no fixed, timeless definition. To understand the contingent nature of today’s verboten workplace behavior, consider what sexual harassment will look like thirty years from now. Anyone who thinks the list of offensive workplace behaviors in 2047 will precisely match today’s either doesn’t understand how history works or has an aggressive ideological agenda.
Thinking about the future of sexual harassment should humble today’s activists (though it probably won’t). Some everyday workplace interactions will later be considered piggish, actionable, even illegal – and some of what upsets us today may no longer raise eyebrows.
Think about it: what, exactly, is offensive about a man whistling at a female colleague? He’s moving air through his lips to make a sound. It’s only inappropriate because our society has assigned that noise the sexualized meaning of a degrading “compliment.” In the future, whistling may be as unremarkable as a handshake – or a handshake may be considered sexual misconduct.
(In fact, in some workplaces dominated by Orthodox Jews, male and female employees regularly seen shaking hands with each other might be accused of inappropriate conduct for making other employees uncomfortable.)
Many recent sexual harassment complaints involve men “propositioning” co-workers. Certainly, a boss soliciting sex from an underling can put undue pressure on her to participate in unwanted sexual activities. But millions of marriages started when one worker asked another on a date – including when the two had unequal power. Should the women in those marriages “expose” their husbands for the sexual harassment they experienced? Should they sue, or bring charges?
Of course not. Context matters, and thus the very same action might, or might not, be inappropriate depending on lots of factors, including the year in which it occurred.
It’s natural to feel sympathetic toward women who recount still-vivid traumatic experiences from long ago. But #MeToo has gone well beyond sympathy. The accused are losing work and having their reputations ruined, sometimes for doing things that seemed innocent at the time.
Aggressive feminists have argued that workplace jokery and violent assault are on the same spectrum. They present sexual harassment as a timeless feature of the workplace, the only difference being that today’s women have the confidence to speak up.
That’s not fair. The very meanings of sex, work, and romance in American life have changed, sometimes dramatically, since the 1950s and 1960s. And they’ll continue to change.
Just as we don’t want our granddaughters to accuse us of hurting women by doing things we don’t yet know are “wrong,” let’s ease up on our grandfathers who, in the 1950s, treated their secretaries the way men treated their secretaries in the 1950s.