Katie Roiphe’s NYT Op-Ed Dismissive That Sexual Harassment Actually Exists

As my 68-year-old, Fox News-watching, Republican-voting father tells it, once upon a time you could compliment a woman in the workplace. You were allowed say “nice dress” or “you look nice today” and it was not a big deal. Everyone would smile pleasantly and go back to clacking on their typewriters. Then the ’70s came along. Hairy-pitted fists were raised and all of a sudden you were afraid to say “nice earrings” out of fear you’d be thrown in the pokey. Or, as the tone of his voice insinuated,  you’d be accused of “sexual harassment.”

I wish I were exaggerating this narrative, but I am not: it’s a real conversation I had with my dad last weekend when we chatted about the accusations against Herman Cain. I also wish that the New York Times op-ed written by Katie Roiphe had not misrepresented sexual harassment as boneheaded-ly as my nearly-septugenarian father does. But, sadly, that really happened also.

Katie Roiphe is an author, NYU professor, and critic of mainstream feminism who’s most well-known for her 1994 nonfiction book, The Morning After: Fear, Sex & Feminism. The book took aim at the idea of “date rape,” mocked Take Back The Night marches and accused mainstream feminists of over-emphasizing the incidences of sexual assault on campus to further their own cause. She also took issue with the way she felt mainstream feminists constantly portrayed women as victims and men as rapists, which she found to be a detrimental side effect of the women’s movement in general. (You can learn more about the book here.)  

I say all that to explain that Katie Roiphe writing about sexual harassment in the Times likely made a lot of people suspect from the get-go; Amelia pointed out to me this morning that because of who Roiphe is, a lot of readers will probably just dismiss her ideas without even considering possible merits. But even with an open-minded reading, I found Katie Roiphe’s op-ed not only problematic but intellectually lazy — which you really shouldn’t be if you’re writing for the New York freakin’ Times op-ed page. 

Roiphe used the Herman Cain accusations as a launching point, but quickly took aim at “sexual harassment” in general, writing:

“… our Puritan country loves the language of sexual harassment: it lets us be enlightened and sexually conservative, modern and judgmental, sensitive and disapproving, voyeuristic and correct all at the same time.”        

The rest of the piece is just as dismissive, complaining about how sexual harassment as a concept is far too vague and “umbrella-like” and the words women are taught to use to describe it — “uncomfortable,” “inappropriate,” “hostile” — are too “subjective” and “slippery.” She makes it sound as if any and all sexual harassment is this fuzzy grey area that’s constantly entrapping poor, victimized men.  Roiphe writes:

“Feminists and liberal pundits say, with some indignation, that they are not talking about dirty jokes or misguided compliments when they talk about sexual harassment, but, in fact, they are: sexual harassment, as they’ve defined it, encompasses a wide and colorful spectrum of behaviors.”        

Yet despite alluding to a “spectrum of behaviors,” she purposefully doesn’t get more specific. Throughout the entire piece, she never actually says what sexual harassment is or isn’t, she only complains that other people — she specifically quotes the American Association of University Women, unspecific sexual harassment “workshops,” and Princeton’s guidelines from “the ’90s” — have made it too vague and complains about its vagueness. That’s an entirely self-serving argument for her dismissiveness because there are, in fact, really specific definitions for what sexual harassment is and is not. 

As defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment includes “unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” It does not include “simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents.” Rather, it is defined as behavior that is “so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision.” You can read much more specifically about policy on sexual harassment on the EEOC web site. 

It’s pretty clear from that definition what sexual harassment is and what it isn’t. Is that definition not specific enough for Roiphe? Does she disagree with it? Or does she just think it’s not being applied as the standard definition for sexual harassment and that a more “vague” definition has taken precedent? It’s unclear because Roiphe never addresses that such a specific definition does indeed exist.

Perhaps that’s because doing so wouldn’t serve Katie Roiphe’s argument — that workplaces should not be “drab, cautious, civilized, quiet and comfortable.” Instead, they should be “colorful,” filled with “irreverence, wildness, incorrectness, ease” — and I would imagine, although she does not explicitly say it, flirtation. Here is where Katie Roiphe could benefit from her own tactic of seeing shades of grey instead of black and white. No one is suggesting that workplaces become staid, colorless environments filled with shivering automatons, fearful to speak up, let alone crack a joke. If a person’s need to exert their power over others in the workplaces makes him feel so strictly corseted by sexual harassment regulations that he “becomes a dull boy,” so to speak, it sounds like he should be in therapy, not status meetings.

Likewise, no one is trying to legislate anyone else’s sense of humor: It’s possible for workplaces to still be “irreverent” and filled with “ease” without saying it is permissible to send around an email ranking the hotness of all the women in the office on a scale of 1 to 10. That kind of “humor,” if you could call it that, is for after-hours and if that’s a problem for you then you need to deal with it. (As blogger Amanda Marcotte put it on the blog Pandagon, “Oh my god, the feelings of old men, no matter how rude or bigoted, must be protected at all costs.”)

Rather than acknowledging that not sexually harassing people is fundamentally about affirming the dignity of other human beings and having good manners (good manners! remember that idea?), Katie Roiphe tries to make it fit into her victimization narrative.  When she writes, “the majority of women in the workplace are not tender creatures and are largely adept at dealing with all varieties of uncomfortable or hostile situations,” she is completely ignoring the fact that women are adept at dealing with uncomfortable and hostile situations because we have legal protection against them and most of us have been raised in a society that taught us to speak up for ourselves when we are harassed. And besides being glib, her comment, “Show me a smart, competent young professional woman who is utterly derailed by a verbal unwanted sexual advance or an inappropriate comment about her appearance, and I will show you a rare spotted owl,” makes it sound as if, say, a female intern is “derailed” by the office creep repeatedly keeping her late after work, telling her she’s got a great body, and propositioning her to get a drink, why, she’s just too feminine and weak to handle it! Who’s insulting to women now, Katie Roiphe?

The phrase that kept tossing in my head as I read — and re-read — the op-ed this weekend was, Lady, you do not speak for me. I, for one, am not too weak or feminine to handle sexual harassment. I have stood up for myself at least twice when sexually harassed at various jobs in the past. I also have a dirty mouth and a lewd sense of humor. But I also know when and with whom it’s appropriate to make a joke about vaginas and when it’s not. That’s called having tact. I do not want to work anyplace where I’m humiliated, creeped out, or more focused on fending off sexual advances than I am at doing my job. 

Most women, I think, feel the same way I do. We want to be treated with dignity. We want to treat others with dignity. And we want to be left alone so we could just do our jobs. It’s not that complicated.

[NY Times]


[EEOC: Sexual Harassment]

[Pandagon: Amanda Marcotte]

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