Wednesday, September 04, 2013

"Teach Naked": Sexual Harassment?


tl;dr: Instructor gives evaluations to students. One question is: what can I do to keep students' attention better? One student responds: "teach naked." Instructor freaks the f*ck out, claims sexual harassment. Metafilter (aka: Tumblr for grown-up otherkin) does likewise, of course...and notes, inter alia, that anyone who doesn't is probably a sexual harasser himself...

So I put it to you:

Sexual harassment, yeah or nay?

Proportionate response by the instructor, yeah or nay?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Short answer is no, since sexual harassment implies a power differential. Whatever power Jimmy the undergrad gains from being male and anonymous* is trumped by Tenure-she-wrote's being his professor. But: While TSW might be wrong to label this an instance of sexual harassment, she is right to rake Jimmy over the coals in class. If he's stupid and sexist enough to try such a thing on someone who can smack him down easily, he'll be worse in a situation where he does have authority, and what he will do to his classmates and future subordinates will be sexual harassment. TSW is right right that failure to object to is tacit acceptance. Who knows, Jimmy may think that his professor will find his remark hilarious/flattering. By shaming Jimmy publicly, but under the nominal cover of his anonymity, TSW might cause him to think twice about such behaviour in the future.

TSW's overreaction is mostly in her subjective impression of the whole affair. She seems to have taken a clumsy pass from one of the 19 year olds in her charge like a shot in the gut, and to believe that, if one of her students does not take her authority seriously, her authority is empty. She also, self-flatteringly, seems to think that taking time out of class to call out one of her students is unusual and required a great deal of courage.** TSW reacts, throughout the piece, not like a professor having to deal with a student's remark on a feedback sheet, but as a student reacting to a similar remark from a professor on a paper. In that situation, TSW's devastation would make sense, and her reaction would be very brave and newsworthy. But not here. TSW seems blind to her own power.

So who cares, right? TSW wants to look in the mirror and see Nelson Mandela, but doesn't everybody? The reason I can't just write this off as a harmless bit of self-dramatization is that power blindness. There is something very creepy about authority figures who see themselves as victimized by those they, to a degree, control. After all, if a substantial power advantage is not enough to protect TSW from her students, what is? TSW's attitude remainds me of the guy DuTois you wrote about a few years ago, in which male authority, which for DuTois was total, was always one wifely remark away from collapse. It is dismaying to see this kind of attitude displayed in a teacher toward her students, and worrying if it is widely shared.

* But not really. Has any professor ever gotten a notably positive or negative feedback sheet and not immediately figured out who it was?

** The bit where TSW thinks she sees her female students sitting up in their chairs, newly empowered, is pretty hard to accept as accurate. I've been present at student call outs in very similar situations by both male and female professors, and the reaction of the students has always been one of general awkwardness and vicarious embarrassment from students of both genders.

12:44 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

"Sexual harassment implies a power differential"

If that's true, I can't be sexually harassed by a coworker in, say, another department with no authority over me. Yet, obviously (so it seems), that's false. If I walk down a hall at work every day and I am, say, harangued in sexually explicit ways by these coworkers who exert no authority over me, that's still sexual harassment.

12:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I reject the counterexample. Power differentials are not captured by the org chart; they are a question of actual control. A nominal coworker can be more powerful by virtue of physical size, social prestige, or by being part of a majority. A simple act of aggression often takes advantage of the difference the act itself creates, relying upon the norm against aggression to prevent response. In the case of the hostile workplace harassment you describe, Mystic, the coworkers have the advantage of numbers and the norm against you making a scene in response. They also, if this is recurring, have the tacit endorsement of workplace managers.

In the case of Tenure-She-Wrote, none of these mechanism apply. TSW was in control of the situation from start to finish, manifest in her decision to make the whole thing a "teachable moment". It's not as though the classroom authority figure endorsed the action of the student by ignoring it; she was the authority figure and she did not ignore it.

4:19 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Ok, so you'd claim that a single, tiny, wimpy coworker, acting without the knowledge of any other person in the organization, cannot sexually harass me regardless of what is said and/or done?

8:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, Mystic, I'll bite: No, he can't, not if there's not the power differential.

But, yes: he can still rape people in the car park, assault people in the elevator, hide cameras in the women's bathroom, and commit any number of other sex crimes against his coworkers. Those sex crimes just won't be sexual harassment.

Here's how I understand the genesis of the concept of sexual harrasment: If I remember the 70s correctly (and by that I mean "facts about the 70s correctly"), it was then that feminists and other right thinking people began to object to the treatment of women in the workplace as office wide sexual resources. The Don Drapers of the world reacted to the suggestion that they could not force their secretaries into sex by saying that feminists wanted to make it illegal to date, to proposition, or to have sex. The concept of workplace sexual harassment, and the law behind it, emerged to explain why actions that were permissible in other contexts should be proscribed at work.

This is why I do not think a workplace rapist is also a sexual harasser, since rape is an action that is never permissible, while sexual harassment consists of activity that would be permissible in some situations.

8:49 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Well, for a fish willing to bite...

I think maybe the most important point is: That's fortunately not how our law is written.

It's very specific and clear. So, are you arguing that we ought to interpret the idea of sexual harassment differently from the current legal form? If so, why would we want to do that? Your definition is both counter-intuitive and so narrowly construed that it fails to capture seemingly obvious instances of sexual harassment which do not elude the legal definition.


9:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know what "specific and clear" definition you are referring to, since the link you offered was to a list of possible of behaviors that are stated as sometimes amounting to sexual harassment, followed by that caveat that it is necessary that the behaviors create a hostile work environment. If the EEOC's language there is meant to be a definition, it's a very poor one.

I've sat through several workplace sexual harassment seminars. Something they have all had in common* is that the instructor, usually a lawyer, divides sexual harassment into two kinds: 1) Quid pro quo, where the harasser demands sexual favors for something the harasser can withhold. This straightforwardly implies a power differential. 2) Behaviour sufficiently pervasive that it creates a hostile workplace, which, as I said above, depends upon tacit acceptance by management and therefor a power differential.

So, what are these obvious instances of sexual harassment that do not meet this necessary condition? What are the crimes fortunately prevented by the law that would not be prevented if interpreted in my counter-intuitive way?

You might think I am insisting upon the power difference condition out of sheer stubbornness, or maybe a desire to come on to my boss. It's neither, I hope, but because I do not like to see laws needed to protect the weak against the strong being used to protect the strong against the weak. In the case of Tenure-She-Wrote, the difference in strength between her and her student is a minor one, so the situation is just a bit off. But if she were a cop, and the student kind on the street? CEO/disaffected mailroom kid? Senator/angry constituent?

* Other than videos in which the harasser is the always least physically attractive person in the scene, including the woman-harasses-man scene.

3:48 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Ok. I guess I steered us wrong initially. I shouldn't have even mentioned the law first.

What I should've pointed out is that your definition eliminates things that should be considered sexual harassment.

The term consists of two words: "sexual" and "harassment." Neither of these concepts imply nor require for their presence a mention of a "power differential."

The reason is not that sexual harassment is unrelated to situations where the means to harm the other party is genuinely unevenly distributed among the involved parties. The reason is that the term "power differential" is here being so broadly defined as to almost get away with fitting all situations despite being wrongly included in the definition. In this way it manages to sort of stealthily avoid critique, but it's really not helping to make clear the concept of sexual harassment. In fact, it's corrupting of the concept, inappropriately limiting the scope.

Simply: your position restricts sexual harassment to occurrence within a specific sort of situation. However, the concept is and should be construed as being broader than the limit imposed by your position.

It's not required for someone to have meaningful power over another person apart from the power any common person shares over her fellow common person in order someone to commit sexual harassment against another.

9:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We're near the nub of the thing. I think you can agree with this: behaviors that are sometimes sexual harassment, eg: propositioning someone, are not always sexual harassment. The point of the law and concept is not to ban sex or dating, whatever some people say. So, what element or elements make propositioning someone in one case permissible and in another case not? I say it's the coercive element that comes in with workplace (and other) hierarchies, the power difference between the participants. You say it's not that. Right, what is it? I can think of two obvious candidates: 1) Wherever the there's a professional relationship. It's always sexual harassment when these behaviors take place in places hat are not "for" that, or take place with people who whose role in your life is not "for" that. The problem I see with that is that is is too strict, since it would ban actions that are fine with both parties in many cases. It's also extremely vague, given how mixed our social and professional roles are. Office no, office party yes? Office party no, convention yes? 2) It's sexual harassment when the harassee experiences it as such. This is the dangerous one. People's experiences are highly variable. Some people's experiences, in a world of "trigger warnings", are idiosyncratic and unpredictable. If the only difference between an acceptable remark and one that amounts to sexual harassment is how the recipient of the remark feels about it, you're giving a great deal of power to the highly sensitive. You are downright encouraging sensitivity, as a means of controlling others. Wasn't this something that happened to Winston, where he was accused of sexual harassment because he was expressing opinions that some of his fellow grad students simply found, by their own criteria, demeaning?

12:30 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Hey man, I appreciate the clarity and focus of your post. I think we're staying close to the issue, and it's a good conversation.

That said, I think our disagreement is right there in your second sentence (with which you think I can agree!).

I don't think the definition of sexual harassment should include much of a contextual requirement. I think sexual harassment is a form of harassment which is derived from or based on perceived or alleged sexual characteristics of the victim. It does not seem to me to matter whether the victim is in a bar or a workplace environment; people can harass and be harassed in either location. I think there are differences of etiquette and social conventions to be followed in both places, and I think that this may need to be taken into consideration when judging behavior to be harassment or not, but honestly, I don't think it matters too much. That would be in regards to harassment, anyway, and we're talking more specifically about the sexual form of harassment.

Take your example; I don't think the mere act of asking someone out* in a reasonable manner is sexual harassment in a workplace or a bar. I think that continually making unwanted advances, however, would be sexual harassment both in a workplace and in a bar. I'll agree that there are differences of etiquette between the locations, and certainly much can happen in a bar which should not happen in most workplaces, but I cannot think of an example of behavior which would be sexual harassment in one location but not the other.

Human beings can harass other human beings based on perceived or alleged sexual characteristics pretty much anywhere.

As for your candidates for definition, I do agree with you that your proposed (2) is right out the window. I believe I'm putting forth a superior alternative to your proposed (1).

*I hesitate to grant my assent to the term "proposition" but that might be out of my own private negative connotations with the term; I'm not sure how widely they're shared.

10:37 PM  

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