Allison Benedikt is the reason we can’t have nice things. The patriarchy’s basically working for her, so she felt compelled to speak out on the good side of sexual harassment at work.
When I was 23 years old, my boss would look down the gap at the waistband of my jeans when he walked past my desk. I was an entry-level fact-checker at my first magazine job, and he was an older and more powerful editor. My career, at the time, was in his hands. Once, when we had finished working on a story together, he suggested we get a drink to celebrate. It was a Friday night, and I remember feeling extremely nervous as we sat across from each other in a dark bar. He was flirting with me, I could tell. The next weekend, he asked me out again. A few days later, he kissed me on the steps of the West 4th subway station without first getting my consent. We’ve now been happily married for 14 years and have three children.
Wow, do they also have picket fences and a dog?
I’ve thought back on that origin story several times over the past weeks, as horrific allegations of sexual assault and harassment have piled up alongside murkier stories of older men “forcibly kissing” younger women who didn’t want to be kissed, men planting “unexpected” kisses on female colleagues, men being “creepy AF” in Twitter DMs, men asking women if they are single in quasi-professional settings, men touching female colleagues in bars, men being “gross”—basically, stories of men, often men with some power, trying to get with women who are not interested. If I had not been interested in my husband’s advances, would that have been harassment? Was it harassment anyway, since he was my boss? Today, many people seem to think the answer is yes.
The answer is yes. I’ve had petty authority over hundreds of women as a TA. I didn’t talk to them about anything except what’s going to be on the test. Office hours were held in these tiny little closet offices, and the door was always open. Not sexually harassing my students was not a difficult problem for me. By simply doing my job, which was asexual in nature, I miraculously avoided even the appearance of impropriety. That’s not to say I didn’t get comments from other men about how I should have sex with my students. It’s a topic the grad students would sit in someone’s living room and have opinions about. Someone expressed the right one: “In the entire metropolitan area, you can’t find anyone to have sex with that you don’t directly have power over? That’s creepy.”
At my tech job, when Token Hot Chick worked there for a while, the entire office culture seemed to revolve around competing for her attention. Awkward Mormon guy saying shit to her like, “You’re soooo not fat.” My understanding through the grapevine is that she did go to HR for something or another, and she definitely wasn’t our longest-lasting employee. There was great drama after some drunken party hookup situation involving a chunk of the office, which she disapproved of. If only she’d just picked one of us to fuck, amirite? Everyone’s entitled to a shot.
If a younger woman asks an older and more professionally powerful man for job advice, and that man ends up hitting on the woman, is that on its own harassment? Is it always wrong when a man is attracted to a woman at work, and acts on that attraction? If that man tries to, say, kiss the woman he is attracted to, and she’s not into it, and they leave it at that, was that forcible kissing? If a woman is not attracted to a man who comes on to her, and that man is in a position of any sort of power, is that clearly a fireable offense? I don’t think the answer to these questions is definitively yes. And yet, these tales and others like them have been stitched into the narrative of behavior that’s truly beyond the pale, and at times punished accordingly.
When in doubt, you can try using Kant’s Categorical Imperative to figure out ethical conundrums:
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.
If a younger woman asks me for job advice, can I will it that unwanted sexual attention is the implicit price of mentorship?
Benedikt doesn’t venture to explain why men should be entitled to kiss subordinates first and find out whether they’re into it later. She just doesn’t like the implication that she married a creep.
Attempts by men to express confusion about where the lines are have largely been met with derision. When one guy told the New York Times that workplaces should cancel their holiday parties “until it has been figured out how men and women should interact,” he was dismissed in my work Slack. When a sheriff in Texas wrote on Facebook that he would no longer be hugging his colleagues, because he’s worried that now hugs will be taken as threatening behavior, the Twitterati laughed. “I have an idea! How about just not harassing women?” the flippant response goes. But that reaction is too simplistic. The sheriff and the guy who talked to the New York Times are telling us that there is confusion in the culture about what is and isn’t OK. We certainly shouldn’t elevate those concerns over the need to protect women, but why ignore that confusion with an eye-roll?
Because part of adulthood is knowing how to detect and call bullshit. To the extent that male confusion is legitimate, it’s because Allison Benedikt is mixing the signals. It would be clear as fucking day if she wasn’t making it true that women just don’t know they want your dick yet.
The public scorn certainly does nothing to help men privately exploring these questions in their own lives. A friend of mine told me about a recent date he went on with a woman he met online. After dinner, he asked her if she wanted to go back to his place. She declined. They went on several more dates, though, and eventually she told him that the reason she didn’t go back to his apartment that first night was that he didn’t ask forcefully enough. That same friend told me of a memorable line he’s seen in several Tinder profiles: “likes to be chased.” I laughed, because who doesn’t? But what my friend saw in this current moment were mixed messages: It’s good to be aggressive if your date is interested, but read the room wrong and you are done. It feels great to be chased when you are attracted to the person doing the chasing. Otherwise, the chaser might be seen as a predator.
And this is the crux of it. If this is how it is, the meaning of feminism is the deeply principled and compelling statement that “I’m way too good to ever fuck you, loser.” Because there is no clear set of rules about how to behave. It doesn’t matter how you behave. Every conceivable thing is fine as long as you just know she wants your cock. For men, the contemplation of this topic is the birth of misogyny. Feminism is the expression of disgust at unattractive men, if this double standard is recognized as legitimate and fun. It’s an incredibly manipulative way of getting people who like you to leave you alone because they know they’re beneath you.
What’s actually needed is a clear, ritualized protocol for respectfully expressing interest, and violations of that protocol must absolutely become taboo. Women are responsible for the murkiness in this area, to the extent that it’s real. Right when clear, bright lines were being established, Allison Benedikt romanticizes “the chase.”
She has full awareness of all of this:
When my husband, John, and I started dating, we weren’t sure it was OK. We kept it secret from our colleagues for awhile, though we did ask another editor to manage me. Brushing past each other in the office and sitting with our legs touching under the table at after-work gatherings where no one knew we were together was the most exciting time in our early relationship, a glorious phase that ended when a colleague spotted us holding hands on the sidewalk outside of a West Village bar and blew our cover. We eventually told our bosses that we were in love, and they were happy for us. It wasn’t until years later that John told me he used to look down the back of my jeans at work. I was surprised—I guess he had been discreet—but filed that little nugget away as cute, not creepy. It turns out a long, long time ago, he thought I was hot.
But when John took me to a dark bar after we closed our first story together, or when he made his move on the steps of the subway station, in the romantic glow of the Duane Reade sign, why wasn’t that harassment? Though he wasn’t the editor of the magazine or anything close, he controlled which assignments I got, and which I didn’t, and would have been the person to write my evaluation, had we done those back then. There were the steps John took to evaluate my interest before leaning in for that kiss, like asking me out for drinks after work. But what if I had felt pressure to say yes to his invite? Or what if, when he did kiss me, I had pulled away? At the time, our work and our social lives were all mixed up in wonderful, messy, risky ways. I know John wouldn’t have punished me at work had I not been interested in his advances; if he had, that would have been harassment, and not OK. Even so, life at the magazine might have become uncomfortable for me, or for him, if things hadn’t worked out. Maybe I would have wanted to find another job, or maybe he would have. Maybe, because I was younger and less established, it would have fallen on me to figure that out, which would have been hard, but no harder than needing to find a new job because I wasn’t advancing or because I hated my boss for nonkissing reasons. Maybe I wouldn’t have cared at all that this weird dude kissed me. Maybe I would have been flattered. Or maybe it would have really sucked. In none of those scenarios, though, would John have been a sexual harasser simply because he had more power in the office than I did and made a move. He took a risk. I was capable of evaluating his advances for myself. In my case, I welcomed them. If we had just met today, though, I fear there’s no way he would have even tried.
They knew it was wrong and did it anyway. That made it more fun and exciting for them.
“He took a risk,” the risk of getting rejected. He took it upon himself to risk all of those other negative possibilities on her behalf. Because he wants to fuck somebody, it’s acceptable if weird sexual awkwardness is part of paying rent for her. It’s almost like there’s an imbalance of power!
Women can’t keep their boyfriend at the top of the patriarchal hierarchy and otherwise get rid of the patriarchy. We live in a hierarchical society or we don’t. This cannot ever be an acceptable way to behave, certainly not for the sake of some woman’s inability to be satisfied with non-creepy sex:
If those were the rules, a lot of men would appreciate it. We could just stop considering “alpha maleness” to be a good thing. It worked for baboons.
I was, however, attracted to my husband. And before I was attracted to him, I had a crush on another guy at work, who sometimes wanly flirted back but clearly wasn’t interested. I kept trying anyway, in my own awkward and fumbling way, despite him having a girlfriend. I’m sure I touched his hand in a bar or tried to get close to him when I could, even though deep down I knew he wasn’t into me. Maybe I even made him feel uncomfortable. There was also another guy, the office flirt and star writer, who recently emailed to ask if he had ever harassed me. I get why he wrote—it is cliché at this point to note that men are rethinking their old behavior—but no, that wasn’t harassment. It was fun.
See? She’s a toxic would-be homewrecker who fucks her boss. Rather than confronting the reality of her marriage, she’d sooner help the anti-feminist backlash and defend the world’s gropers. The self-absorption and apparent lack of contact with any real problems! She writes more than once about how surprised she is: her husband looking down her pants, everybody looking down everybody’s pants. It sounds like she’s not very familiar with the issues under consideration, then, so maybe it’s early to start derailing the agenda.
I remember the night I first realized John might be into me. The magazine had invited the staff on a booze cruise. We were all on this boat—me, John, the guy I had a crush on, all of our colleagues who were also my best friends—tooling around New York Harbor, getting drunk and talking shit. John was probably getting the drunkest and talking the most shit. We eventually docked and ended up at a karaoke bar on the Far West Side. People started to peel off. It was getting late. My friend asked me if I wanted to share a cab home, but John was singing “Sweet Child of Mine” very poorly and for some reason I wanted to stay. I’m not even sure I liked John that night, but I know that neither of us was in a position to use our best judgment. Alone at a bar with my drunk boss: It reads today like a nightmare situation for any young working woman. But for me, it was the start of something good.
You know what this is? This is the time I was invited to participate in a focus group on my undergrad school’s racial diversity efforts. I had a full-ride diversity scholarship, so I didn’t really see the problem. For that matter, Republicans donated to the scholarship fund. I’m no longer 20 years old, though. I understand being used as the token the system worked for.
This is how I picture her husband, based on this article:
I don’t want to have to behave in this undignified way to get women’s attention. If those are the rules, women are using their agency all stupid.
This defense of him is currently the third most read article on Slate. It’s what people want to hear.
If it weren’t for men raping slaves, I wouldn’t exist. That doesn’t mean they should, as a general principle for everyone. It doesn’t mean there should even be a gray area.
Today’s New York Times published more of this same crap:
SAN FRANCISCO — In Boston, the leader of a businesswomen’s group said that some women were so angry about the wave of sexual harassment revelations that they no longer wanted to hire more men. In Kansas City, Mo., a women’s career center is urging women not to throw caution to the wind when making public allegations involving harassment. And in Silicon Valley, one of the best-known female executives in the technology industry is celebrating the moment while advising that accusations must be followed by a fair process of punishment.
This is agitprop. “No longer hiring men” is plainly illegal discrimination under the same laws the movement is trying to enforce and strengthen. Anonymous scary woman in a pantsuit taking away our jobs oh noes our dicks will be next! Can we all just slow down a minute and talk more about unrepresentative cases of false accusations?
The article is about women’s shameful lack of solidarity over this simple issue.
Some women caution that men need to be encouraged to join the conversation; others argue that men will change only if women collectively demand it. Some argue that making accusations on social media could become more dangerous for accusers, potentially exposing them to lawsuits; others see airing such accusations online as the only option. Older women said they were stunned at how little tolerance those just graduating from college had for toxic gender dynamics that had long been considered pretty normal; college students asked why women had tolerated sexual harassment for so long.
Nancy from PA comments:
I feel compelled to say something about this that’s been bugging me, based on my own experience. Consent is itself a gray area for women, tainted by patriarchy. As a Baby Boomer, I was raised in a society that taught me to think that men were inherently more important and valuable and that my self-worth depended to a large extent on attracting them. Male attention was associated with personal value. At the same time, due to the sexual revolution, women of my generation learned that sex was an easy (and acceptable) way to get that attention. I know that in my youth, I had lots of sex that was certainly “consensual” in a legal sense, but that felt degrading and terrible to me because I was doing it for the wrong reasons: guilt, emotional neediness, and fear, primarily. So to assume, as some people seem to be doing, that there’s some sort of clear line between consent and refusal is I think not quite right. Until we change the entire culture in a way that truly makes women feel equal (equal pay would be a start), we women are going to continue to feel conflicted and confused in situations that don’t technically involve harassment, and that makes it possible for men to take advantage of us without maybe even knowing it.
Incredible amounts of bullshit are written about women’s agency to deny this obvious fact. Women doing this and proclaiming to the heavens that everything’s cool.
What needs more and more repeating is that other people perceive and learn from it when this happens. Women not dealing with their own internal shit has serious consequences for all women. Lauren from NY wants to escape to a paradise where nobody is allowed to have an opinion:
As a woman, I’d love to be able to just casually flirt with a senior coworker without worrying about how it would be perceived. But instead I have to think 1) Will people think I’m trying to use my sexuality to advance? 2) If I end up not wanting to go further than flirting, will the man be angry and will that negatively impact my career? 3) Is this person going to take my flirting as an invitation to stalk me, expose himself to me or grope me?
I’ve worked in male-dominated spheres most of my life. The majority of men I’ve known would never want to make a woman anxious or uncomfortable. The problem is that we can’t identify the one guy who’s going to take it too far. Those guys look like every other guy. Most of us have already had multiple experiences with a “nice guy” who couldn’t take a simple ‘no’ for an answer. Many of us have experienced sexual assault. The few of us who reported that assault got to experience men asking if we invited it, if we made it up or if it happened at all.
It’s not fair to either gender. But that’s how it is right now, and if men and women want to stay out of trouble they need to think carefully about what they say and do.
All of those complexities would go away if we agreed to desexualize the workplace. You don’t fuck or flirt with your boss. It’s like the exogamy of some tribe whose way of life was recorded by 19th century Victorian travelers.
It’s rude to second-guess these things, but I do have my doubts when women write about how you can never tell about a guy until he whips his dick out at you whether he’s like that. He wasn’t otherwise saying mean and dehumanizing things about people? He wasn’t pushy? He wasn’t trying to project some alpha male dominance crap? He didn’t mention his traditional family values? It’s hard to believe, because all of those things come from a similar place psychologically, and life is like painting an enso: how you do everything expresses who you are.
What I suspect is that there’s a lot of wishful thinking going on, willfully denying and avoiding truths about these dudes that they actually perceive.
It’s like…all these white ladies watched their husbands whip the slaves (“toppy”). They would have sworn on the Holy Bible about how gentle and Christian he was.
People don’t realize the mental freedom that comes with things like being vegan or even being Jehovah’s Witness, in a sense. You could actually just make a good faith effort to live by your principles, and accept the consequences. Alienation is the cost of freedom.
Everyone has to do their part and try to stop fucking all stupid like they taught everyone. This is serious. They’re raping people. It’s not cute when your boyfriend does it, and men in uniform look like evil demon soldiers that we seek to legally abolish. You’d never fuck one until they change into something else. You’ll have to accept the existential burden of freedom and forego the relief of submission. We need a revolution if we’re serious. We can simply…change our behavior! Scary! New! Different! Untested! Angst!
You have to choose which of these is the correct mindset for fucking.
Prevailing social conditions are much more conducive to the first feeling than the second, but it’s spiritually unhealthy.
Even The Guardian is admitting the conservative reasonableness of anarcho-primitivism:
Most people regard hierarchy in human societies as inevitable, a natural part of who we are. Yet this belief contradicts much of the 200,000-year history of Homo sapiens.
In fact, our ancestors have for the most part been “fiercely egalitarian”, intolerant of any form of inequality. While hunter-gatherers accepted that people had different skills, abilities and attributes, they aggressively rejected efforts to institutionalise them into any form of hierarchy.
So what happened to cause such a profound shift in the human psyche away from egalitarianism? The balance of archaeological, anthropological and genomic data suggests the answer lies in the agricultural revolution, which began roughly 10,000 years ago.
The extraordinary productivity of modern farming techniques belies just how precarious life was for most farmers from the earliest days of the Neolithic revolution right up until this century (in the case of subsistence farmers in the world’s poorer countries). Both hunter-gatherers and early farmers were susceptible to short-term food shortages and occasional famines – but it was the farming communities who were much more likely to suffer severe, recurrent and catastrophic famines.
Hunting and gathering was a low-risk way of making a living. Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers in Namibia traditionally made use of 125 different edible plant species, each of which had a slightly different seasonal cycle, varied in its response to different weather conditions, and occupied a specific environmental niche. When the weather proved unsuitable for one set of species it was likely to benefit another, vastly reducing the risk of famine.
As a result, hunter-gatherers considered their environments to be eternally provident, and only ever worked to meet their immediate needs. They never sought to create surpluses nor over-exploited any key resources. Confidence in the sustainability of their environments was unyielding.
In contrast, Neolithic farmers assumed full responsibility for “making” their environments provident. They depended on a handful of highly sensitive crops or livestock species, which meant any seasonal anomaly such as drought or livestock disease could cause chaos.
And indeed, the expansion of agriculture across the globe was punctuated by catastrophic societal collapses. Genomic research on the history of European populations points to a series of sharp declines that coincided first with the Neolithic expansion through central Europe around 7,500 years ago, then with their spread into north-western Europe about 6,000 years ago.
However, when the stars were in alignment – weather favourable, pests subdued, soils still packed with nutrients – agriculture was very much more productive than hunting and gathering. This enabled farming populations to grow far more rapidly than hunter-gatherers, and sustain these growing populations over much less land.
But successful Neolithic farmers were still tormented by fears of drought, blight, pests, frost and famine. In time, this profound shift in the way societies regarded scarcity also induced fears about raids, wars, strangers – and eventually, taxes and tyrants.
We need a plan to get from here to…nobody knows, but we need to start using more of the Old Ways. People just need to understand that everything we experience as normal is an extreme, unprecedented, fucked up emergency situation.