A report in Sunday’s New York Times demonstrated how the spate of sexual harassment revelations has an increasing number of men worried and unsure of the new rules. One lawyer interviewed said he was “now fielding odd questions from men about how to behave at work.”
“What flirting is O.K.? asked Owen Cunningham. “Was I ever taking advantage of any meager power I had? You start to wonder.”
This confusion was pretty predictable. In fact, more than a month ago, l raised this very question. I noted that rape and groping and quid pro quos (things Harvey Weinstein was specifically accused of) are all obviously evil and wrong. (We don’t need to have a conversation about these black and white areas—we can just condemn them.) But then, speaking of lesser transgressions that might occur in a workplace, I asked “What are the rules?”
The reason I asked this question was that I sensed this story would take other forms. And it has. Let’s take Louis C.K. for example, the comedian who is accused of a different sort of creepy conduct. There’s really no way to excuse his behavior. But his public statement highlights the fact that “the rules” are still not clearly defined or understood.
Let’s take this line from his statement, for example: “The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly.”
A Facebook friend (who is male) took particular umbrage at this line, writing: “Attractive people get more promotions, they get paid better, and of course they are generally the most sought after sexually. Is that also power? Does Scarlett Johansson have power over every man she's been with?”
He was making the point that some forms of power are God-given, and these forms seem to be OK to wield. On the other hand, if you work hard to be funny or otherwise successful in order to compensate for physical disadvantages, that is somehow off limits. “[Influence and being attractive to the opposite sex is] a huge motivating factor for people to even attempt those careers in the first place,” my Facebook friend wrote. “It's basically the whole benefit to being famous, isn't it?”
These are interesting and nuanced (if secondary) arguments that we are going to have to grapple with. The problem is that nobody wants to talk about them. The things that Weinstein is accused of are so horrific that any attempt to discuss the larger societal impact of changing expectations opens you up to accusations that you are making excuses for inexcusable behavior. If you suggest that a lot of guys simply don’t understand the new rules, this is taken as an admission against interest. It is perceived that you are out of touch. But as Sunday’s Times story indicates, a lot of normal guys (not just people like Weinstein and Louis C.K.) are wrestling with whether they have inadvertently crossed the line—and whether they, too, might be publicly shamed.
“There’s apprehension on the part of men that they’re going to be falsely accused of sexual harassment,” Al Harris, who runs workplace equality programs, told the Times.
So how does this end?
There are a couple of versions of how this all shakes out. There’s a positive version where these scandals highlight a huge problem, and men and women go on to treat each other as equals. In this scenario, women feel safe and secure in the workplace, and lecherous cads who cross the clearly-defined lines are not tolerated.
But there is another version where every man feels guilty, even if enforcement is selective. In this version, you’re always waiting for another shoe to drop—always wondering if that time you rubbed someone’s shoulders in 1998 will come back to haunt you.
The former version would breed cooperation and trust; the latter would lead to a world where the sexes don’t trust each other, where women continue to feel vulnerable, and where an increasing number of men continue to check out of work and relationships.
“The answer to harassment cannot be avoiding women,” Jonathan Segal, who runs anti-harassment training,” told the Times. But that is one possible outcome. One of the trends we have seen in the Trump era is the perceived victimhood of men, which has led to their effectively checking out of work and relationships. This might sound ridiculous when it has clearly been women who were clearly victimized in these instances, but it’s hard to argue with the trend.
It’s in everyone’s best interest to address this problem and live (and work) in harmony. This means we must foster an environment where everyone feels free to discuss these issues without fear of being attacked. This will also require new leaders to emerge and help facilitate this healthy dialogue. We have enough divisions in America already. The last thing we need is a battle of the sexes.