Sexual Harassment & Power

by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

My high school English teacher was an expansive man, ensnared by the vagaries of a congenital defect. The first class that watched him thrash across the room dragging his clubfoot behind him dubbed him “The Galloping Guinea,” effectively vilifying his ethnicity and his physique in one cruel gesture.

But in the privacy of his office, he claimed the intimacy he could not find in the unforgiving mass of the classroom. Each year, amid stacks of classic tomes and contemporary teenage drivel, he approached a favored student, she seated tentatively before his literate desk, he standing behind her. With his hands on her shoulders, he leaned into the back of her head and quoted Walt Whitman’s narcissistic celebration of self.

This is the press of a bashful hand, this is the float and odor of hair,
This is the touch of my lips on yours, this is the murmur of yearning,

Then he directed her performance.

“So what does Whitman mean? How would you feel if I put my lips on yours, if I pressed my bashful hand to your breast? Would you guess I have some intricate purpose?

Back then, we didn’t have words for such murky behavior, other than “yuck-o,” and I opted for an equivalency diploma.

Some years later I had a boss, quite confident in his prowess with female subordinates in the field. After a presumable business dinner, I found myself pressed to the door of his rental car, with his tongue and thigh in places they didn’t belong. I declined his offer of glory and grind, and suggested an alternate placement for that promotion.

By then, the first sexual harassment cases had been heard and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had issued guidelines prohibiting sexual harassment. But still, just what specific behaviors were we now allowed to challenge?

Absent a clear understanding, sexual harassment law was an unplumbed resource for resolving bad-boy behavior in the workplace and school. Subsequent efforts to refine the definition have produced mixed results, and fear of retaliation has squelched reporting, although the incidence of cases tends upward with increased awareness and mandated training.

Mary Ann Ellis, a California-based human resources consultant, says of the confusion, “People have different levels of sensitivity and different interpretations of what sexual harassment is.” Unlike pornography, we don’t necessarily know it when we see it.

Today, harassers come in all genders and orientations, but women remain the most common targets, and fear of retaliation remains an effective deterrent to reporting, although the consequences of reporting can be as ambiguous as the harassment.

Ellis says, “There can be no retaliation, but there are always consequences for exercising your rights.” She relays the case of a young waitress who was harassed by a cook to the point of reporting his abuse. The cook was properly dealt with, but the waitress’ orders no longer received the attention they previously had and the other cooks shunned her. Neither an ideal outcome nor an uncommon one.

In fact, I once reported a colleague’s crowing about pumping his wife’s various orifices, not because I felt harassed by his idiocy but because I knew the inevitable retaliation would accelerate my exit from an unpleasant company with some severance in hand. Still, the offender and I knew his favored topic was unseemly, and I had told him so. What was he trying to achieve? What is it harassers actually want?

Ellis describes two categories of harassment. “The nastiest kind is quid pro quo: you have to grant me sexual favors or you won’t receive a promotion. Is that really more about power than it is about sex? The ultimate sexual harassment is rape and rape is about power, not about sex.… The other type is hostile environment, and that sometimes isn’t so much about power as it is about people just being oblivious to what is offensive to other people. On the other hand, sometimes it is about power — men wanting to dominate, intimidate the women in [what the men perceive as] their environment. Maybe it’s all about power!”

Okay, maybe it is all about power. To one extreme, harassers are indeed akin to rapists and should be treated as such. But other offenders, maybe they’re just oblivious nincompoops, driven by unevolved biology and insecurities, trying to prove themselves the alpha dogs by marking as many women in their territories as possible.

No reasonable person wants to be the recipient of that mark, but formal complaints don’t always solve the problem. So imagine teaching girls this: When an idiot at work tries to cop a feel or talk trash about his significant other, just whop him upside the head and tell him to bug off.

That is power, without ambiguity.

(Editor's Note: This piece is cross-posted from Kit-Bacon Gressitt's personal blog, Excuse Me, I'm Writing.)

(The graphic was created with the Despair, Inc. parody generator.)

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