Let’s Not Split the Difference This Time

Ophelia Benson

We have “Me Too” and “Time’s Up,” and of course we have the backlash against them as well—we have “Me Too” and “Not Me Too.” Naturally. We have women saying stop sexually harassing and assaulting women in the workplace, and we have men and a few women saying “Oh come on, let’s not go overboard here, let’s hang on to some sexual harassment in the workplace, because balance in everything.”

Is saying “stop sexually harassing and assaulting women in the workplace” an ideological claim that should be balanced by an opposing ideological claim? Or is it just a fundamental social rule of the kind children are expected to learn when they start school? We’re told as toddlers: don’t hit, don’t push, don’t grab, never bite. Don’t try to collar all the toys, don’t take more than your share of the snack—don’t bully, don’t ostracize, don’t mock.

That’s not really an ideology we feel the need to debate, is it? We don’t conclude that the free exchange of opinion has been stifled if we all just accept and adhere to social mandates of that kind. So why aren’t rules about sexual harassment and assault the same kind of thing? Don’t hit, don’t push, don’t grab her by the pussy—it’s not that complicated, surely.

Even Trump’s boast tacitly acknowledges that, even as he flouts it. “When you’re a celebrity, they let you”: in other words, normally they don’t let you. That little burst of laughter that cost Billy Bush his job was a laugh of surprise, of slightly shocked (or admiring) surprise. Everyone involved knew Trump was boasting of violating a rule, a rule as basic as don’t hit, don’t push, don’t bully.

But there are those who say it’s not a rule or who dispute what the rule actually covers. It forbids grabbing people between the legs, yes, but it permits slightly less crude advances. It’s a kindly, tolerant, relaxed sort of rule that wants to see everyone free to cop the occasional feel. There’s that open letter in Le Monde signed by one hundred French women intellectuals and artists, for instance, that says the campaign has gone too far now, when all anyone did was “to touch a woman’s knee, try to steal a kiss, talk about ‘intimate’ things during a work meal, or send sexually-charged messages to women who did not return their interest.” There are similar “let’s not go crazy here” reactions in Anglophone outlets too, solemnly reminding us that a “stolen” (that is, forced) kiss is not rape and that women are not swooning Victorian waifs.

It’s a bit like saying we can have rules against biting and kicking, but hitting and pushing are acceptable. We all understand that some things are worse than others, but we still think we get to rule out the whole category of sexual demands in the workplace.

This isn’t a matter of playing victim or delicate flower or puritan (although let’s not pretend an unwanted kiss is actually pleasant, because it’s not). It’s about messages. What message do sexual demands in the workplace send? Put it this way: say a law firm hires its first ever African American attorney, and her colleagues tell her to clean up the break room. That would send a very clear message. It’s the same with all these knee-grabs and stolen kisses: the message is that you’re here to serve us, you’re of the server class, you’re an outsider and not as good as we are. You don’t have the right to basic respect that real people like us have; you are the Other, and you are ours to fondle and grope as we choose.

This is why the claim by the “wait, slow down” party that “Me Too” portrays women as perpetual victims is so wrong. The assumption that women are up for grabs once they’re out in public is a social assumption, not a personal or individual one. Workers who organize to get better pay and safer working conditions are not playing victim; they are combining forces.

The novelist Daphne Merkin offered one example of the “playing victim” claim in the New York Times:

Perhaps even more troubling is that we seem to be returning to a victimology paradigm for young women, in particular, in which they are perceived to be—and perceive themselves to be—as frail as Victorian housewives.

But how is it possible to report and attempt to remedy a wrong without … well, reporting it? How is it a victimology paradigm to point out that men in powerful positions both forced sexual overtures on women employees and punished them if they said no or complained? How else are women supposed to deal with sexual predators who control their careers?

Merkin says that most of the women she knows have been in that situation and have “routinely said, ‘I’m not interested’ or ‘Get your hands off me right now.’ And they’ve taken the risk that comes with it.” But the risk that comes with it can be the end of that career. Why should women have to pay that price? And why are they accused of acting like frail Victorian housewives when they object to such a system?

Strength and resilience are fine qualities, and everyone should have them, but we don’t consider it a good idea to teach it to children by encouraging bullying in school. Women and men in the workplace need to be able to overcome obstacles and deal with problems, but it doesn’t follow that bosses should create an atmosphere red in tooth and nail.

That of course is not to say that every single allegation is automatically true or that there is no absurdity in any part of the campaign, because no human endeavor can be that clean. It’s just to say that women are at work to do the work, not to be sexual opportunities, and it would be nice if that could be accepted now.

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).