In the past few weeks, powerful men who work in media — including, most recently, New Republic publisher Hamilton Fish, former New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, and political journalist Mark Halperin — have been exposed as serial sexual harassers. The fact that these men were able to get away with assault for decades has raised some important questions. Why did it take so long for these so-called “open secrets” to be made public? How many other men — and surely, there are others — have coerced, harassed, intimidated, and assaulted their colleagues and subordinates? How many women feel unsafe in their workplaces because of these men? Why did many feel like they couldn’t come forward until now?
It’s reassuring that these conversations are finally happening, but they’re also being co-opted by commentators who are using this several-industries-wide reckoning as an opportunity to talk about, well, literally anything else. The result, as always, is the de-centering of victims’ experiences, the implicit exoneration of those who have abused them, and the idea that victims are responsible for preventing predators from harassing them.
After The Washington Post reported last week that Mark Halperin once asked a female colleague to sit on his lap while he had an erection, Politico editor Timothy Noah tweeted making closed-door meetings a “fire-able offense” would be a “small, practical” way of reducing workplace sexual harassment. Federalist co-founder Sean Davis similarly suggested that more men should follow the “Pence rule,” i.e., that they should refuse to meet alone with any woman for any reason, unless their wife is present. After the Weinstein allegations were first reported earlier this month, Business Insider editor Josh Barro claimed that more “less ‘fun’ office cultures” could deter workplace harassment. Formal norms about how colleagues interact make it harder for a harasser to act like his behavior is ‘just the way things are done in the industry,’” Barro wrote.
Small, practical step to limit sex harassment: Make holding closed-door meetings with ANYONE a fire-able offense. https://t.co/zIAvlRxf8D— Timothy Noah (@TimothyNoah1) October 27, 2017
If recent news is any indication, a lot of men in media should have been following the Pence rule.— Sean Davis (@seanmdav) October 27, 2017
This is a new twist on the same useless advice women have been given for decades. Don’t walk alone after dark, don’t wear revealing clothing, don’t drink too much, don’t come on too strong — otherwise you’re asking for it. By this logic, the best way of reducing sexual harassment, short of cloistering women away, is by encouraging them to always think of themselves as would-be victims instead of as human beings. Even if you were to give Davis and Noah the benefit of the doubt, they’re still ultimately blaming Halperin’s lechery on the fact that he was alone with these women — and they’re partially blaming his victims for allowing themselves to be alone with him, too. And though Barro claims the “responsibility falls on men in positions of power,” his suggestion for limiting workplace harassment focuses more on the incidental — like after-work drinks — than on the fundamental problem. Centering discussions of harassment on “impropriety” fails to address that men harass women not because they’ve had too much to drink or because they’re alone in a closed room, but rather because they feel entitled to women’s bodies and because they’ve been conditioned to think their actions don’t have consequences.
The underlying theme in these conversations is a desire to rationalize and sanitize discussions about sexual assault. A few weeks ago, an anonymous group of women created a crowdsourced spreadsheet of “shitty” men in media. The list was shut down in less than a day, but in that time it had amassed about 70 allegations, ranging from inappropriate DMs to sexual assault and rape. Some suggested it was “really harmful to lump men who send ‘creepy DMs’ in with serial sexual assaulters,” as if those with access to the list weren’t able to differentiate between the two.
More recently, The Daily Beast’s Erin Ryan said she was “more than a little troubled” by those who compared George H.W. Bush — recently accused of groping several women — to serial sexual abusers like Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, and Donald Trump. “Women who have been groped by men like George H.W. Bush deserve support and respect,” Ryan wrote, but “So do the families of people of advanced age, who are often dealing with unpleasant and out-of-character symptoms in a world sorely deficient in empathy.” Of course there’s a difference between groping a woman and raping her. No one is pretending otherwise. But there’s no good reason to muster up empathy for a man who joked about his favorite magician being “David Cop-a-feel” before grabbing a woman’s ass.
After the Halperin news broke last week, Boston Globe tech columnist Hiawatha Bray similarly said some sexual harassment allegations may be overblown. Some allegations might merely be “healthy sexual impulses deployed in the wrong time and place, and towards the wrong people,” he wrote in a Facebook exchange before admitting that he hadn’t bothered to read up on what Halperin had done and saying that it sounded "pretty bad.” Instead of stopping there, Bray continued to raise questions about when it’s acceptable to accuse men of harassment.
“When does this kind of misbehavior cross over from jerkiness to perversion?” he asked, noting that Halperin “pretty clearly crossed it.”
The underlying theme in these conversations is a desire to rationalize and sanitize discussions about sexual assault.
In a conversation with The Outline, however, Bray continued to pontificate on what does constitute harassment. “I’m not sure I would call what [George H.W.] Bush did sexual assault. Is that kind of thing really assault?” Bray wondered aloud. And even if it constitutes the legal definition of assault, Bray asked, is it “perversion?”
“If you’re going to be strictly Catholic about it, any sexual activity outside the bounds of marriage is perverted. I wasn’t asking whether what he was doing was right or wrong, but how does one morally and philosophically define perversion? Is what he did creepy and immoral? Yes. Is it perverted to touch a woman without her permission?” Bray said.
Touching a woman — or anyone else — sexually without their permission is absolutely, obviously, undoubtedly perverted. It’s inappropriate. In most of the world, it’s illegal.
Instead of listening to those who have come forward with their stories, Bray and others have turned the necessary discussion about sexual assault in the media into yet another opportunity to hear themselves talk. This isn’t the time for philosophical conversations on the nature of evil, nor is it the time to come up with “solutions” for workplace sexual harassment that aren’t “punish men who harass their coworkers, and protect their accusers instead of doing the opposite, i.e., what we have been doing for decades.”
These thought exercises — should we prevent men from meeting with women? Is it actually perverted for men to harass their female colleagues? Should women even talk about this?! — obscure the important, fraught conversations that need to be had about sexual harassment. Worse, all of these statements are just a reframing of centuries-old ideas about assault that absolve men of all wrongdoing while placing the blame squarely on their victims. These conversations aren’t revolutionary; they’re just another silencing tactic.