the body politic

This Moment Isn’t (Just) About Sex. It’s Really About Work.

Photo: Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos

It would be easy — a hard kind of easy — to understand the painful news happening all around us to be about sexual assault. After all, for weeks now, each day has brought fresh, lurid tales. And if our typically prurient American interests have led us to focus on the carnal nitty-gritty, the degree of sexual harm sustained, the vital questions of consent, that’s fair enough; there has been, we are really absorbing for the first time, a hell of a lot of sexual damage done.

But in the midst of our great national calculus, in which we are determining what punishments fit which sexual crimes, it’s possible that we’re missing the bigger picture altogether: that this is not, at its heart, about sex at all — or at least not wholly. What it’s really about is work, and women’s equality in the workplace, and more broadly, about the rot at the core of our power structures that makes it harder for women to do work because the whole thing is tipped toward men.

Sexual assault is one symptom of that imbalance, but it is not the only one. The can-opener here — the sharp point that pierced the aluminum that had sealed all this glop in — was indeed a story about a man, Harvey Weinstein, who committed professional harm that was also terrible sexual violence. And yes, many of the stories that have poured forth since — from James Toback’s unsolicited ejaculations, to the playwright Israel Horovitz’s alleged forced encounters with much younger women — have turned on nonconsensual contact, violent physical and sexual threat, the stuff of sex crimes. But even those tales — the ones about rape and assault — have been told by accusers who first interacted with these men in hopes of finding professional opportunity, who were looking not for flirtation or dates, but for work. And they have reported — they have taken care to clearly lay out — the impact of the sexual violence not just on their emotional well-being, not just on their bodies, but on their careers, on their place in the public sphere.

Masha Gessen has written for The New Yorker with perspicacity in past weeks about how this moment risks becoming a sex panic, that one of the perils at hand — as we try to parse how butt-groping or unsolicited kissing can exist on the same scale as violent rape — is a reversion to attitudes about women as sexually infantilized victims. Her concerns are valid, pressing. Yet I fear that the category collapse that makes Gessen anxious is being misunderstood in part because we are making a crucial category error. Because the thing that unites these varied revelations isn’t necessarily sexual harm, but professional harm and power abuse. These infractions and abuses are related, sometimes they are combined. But their impact, the reasons that they are sharing conversational and journalistic space during this reckoning, need to be clarified. We must regularly remind everyone paying attention that sexual harassment is a crime not simply on the grounds that it is a sexual violation, but because it is a form of discrimination.

The term “sexual harassment” was used for the first time in public in 1975 by feminist scholar Lin Farley, when she testified at a hearing on women in the workplace before the New York City Human Rights Commission. Farley, who was teaching a class on women and work at Cornell University, coined the term after hearing about Carmita Wood. Wood was an administrative assistant at Cornell and quit her job after years of having been rubbed up against, groped, and kissed against her will by her boss. In 1977, an appeals court upheld decisions defining sexual harassment as sex discrimination, barred by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Supreme Court upheld this view in 1986, when it ruled in favor of Mechelle Vinson, the assistant bank manager who was assaulted and raped by her boss in the bank’s vaults and basements more than 50 times. Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the unanimous decision, “Without question, when a supervisor sexually harasses a subordinate because of the subordinate’s sex, the supervisor discriminates on the basis of sex.”

In other words, sexual harassment may entail behaviors that on their own would be criminal — assault or rape — but the legal definition of its harm is about the systemic disadvantaging of a gender in the public and professional sphere. And those structural disadvantages do not begin or end with the actual physical incursions — the groping, kissing, the rubbing up against. In fact, the gender inequity that creates the need for civil-rights protections is what has permitted so many of these trespasses to have occurred, so frequently, and for so long; gender inequity is what explains why women are vulnerable to harassment before they are even harassed; it explains why it’s difficult for them to come forward with stories after they have been harassed, why they are often ignored when they do; it clarifies why so many women work with or maintain relationships with harassers and why their reactions to those harassers become key to how they themselves will be evaluated, professionally. Gender inequity is cyclical, all-encompassing.

We got to where we are because men, specifically white men, have been afforded a disproportionate share of power. That leaves women dependent on those men — for economic security, for work, for approval, for any share of power they might aspire to. Many of the women who have told their stories have explained that they did not do so before because they feared for their jobs. When women did complain, many were told that putting up with these behaviors was just part of working for the powerful men in question — “That’s just Charlie being Charlie”; “That’s just Harvey being Harvey.” Remaining in the good graces of these men, because they were the bosses, the hosts, the rainmakers, the legislators, was the only way to preserve employment, and not just their own: Whole offices, often populated by female subordinates, are dependent on the steady power of the male bosses. When a prominent alleged abuser loses his job, he’s not the only one whose salary stops; it often means that his employees, many of them women, also lose their paychecks, which are smaller to begin with. When men hold the most politically powerful posts, people who are less powerful than they are depend on them for advocacy and representation; complaints that imperil these leaders immediately imperil entire political parties, and ideological agendas on both the left and right.

What’s more, to cross powerful men is to jeopardize not just an individual job in an individual office; it’s to risk far broader professional harm within whole professions where men hold sway, to cut yourself off from future opportunity. Lauren Greene, an ambitious congressional staffer who accused her former boss, the Republican congressman Blake Farenthold, of sexual harassment after he reportedly told another aide of his wet dreams about Greene and commented on her nipples, says that her complaints against her boss left her blackballed from politics, the profession she wanted to succeed in. She now works part time as an assistant to a home builder in North Carolina, babysitting on the side to make extra money.

These are the economics of sexual harassment, but also, simply, of sexism.

It’s worth considering why those Harvey allegations caught the public’s attention where little else had. As hard as it is to stir concern over women’s sexual autonomy, we do have a long history of wanting to protect (some) women’s virtue. It is also true that we still rile ourselves up more about a woman’s sexual violability than we do about her professional autonomy or rights to public and economic equality. Or at least we rile ourselves up if the woman in question is white and well-off: Two decades of settlements and accusations against the singer R. Kelly, who is alleged to have serially assaulted young black women, have fallen on deaf ears. (It is also worth noting that the professions that remain still unexamined in this reckoning are those populated by poorer women, disproportionately by women of color.)

One of the reasons that the story about former New York public radio personality John Hockenberry was so arresting was because it made clear that there was a web of ill treatment, a connection between his comparatively mild but still discomfiting come-ons to colleagues, and his ugly treatment of his co-hosts. To one of them, Farai Chideya, he reportedly said, “You shouldn’t stay here just as a ‘diversity hire’”; another, Celeste Headlee, complained of how he’d interrupt and sabotage her on air. This man literally broadcast, on air, his disdain for the women — notably women of color who were his professional peers. Headlee said she was told that her poor performance was to blame for Hockenberry’s bullying behavior; she, like the two women who preceded her, eventually lost her post as co-host, while Hockenberry retained his position. All of that was public record. But none of it would have made it to print last week had there not also been an accusation of sexual impropriety.

We need to understand that the sexual harm is not always at the heart of a gendered power imbalance, and is not always about the sexualized act itself. The case of New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush, who is accused of making unwanted advances outside of his workplace, against colleagues he did not directly supervise, would seem to give fodder to those worried about a sex panic: It raises the concern that bad passes, made between adults at a bar, might get condemned as sexual harassment in a way that assumes the women in question to be incapable of full sexual participation. But the damaging part of the story written in Vox about Thrush, by Laura McGann, one of his former colleagues at Politico, was, to my eye, not about the unwanted kissing, though that did sound bad. The worse part was McGann’s recollection of how Thrush had later characterized their encounter to colleagues, making it sound as though she had pursued him, and he had rejected her, as opposed to her view, which was the opposite. (Thrush denies that he disparaged McGann to colleagues.)

The damage wasn’t exactly sexual in nature, at least not sexual in the physical sense; it was in how the woman in question might be viewed by her colleagues, based on the account of a man who was allegedly mispresenting the encounter. In this story, even Thrush’s allegedly retouched tale isn’t crime or sexual trespass; it’s gossip. And surely women in offices are as likely to participate in hookup gossip as their male colleagues. But here’s where double standards come into play: When men’s sexual appetites are regarded as healthy, a sign of confidence and appeal, and women’s sexual appetites are understood very often as trashy or desperate, all gossip is not equal. A man telling a story about how a female colleague came on to him and he put a stop to it has the potential to do damage to the woman’s professional standing — rendering her as needy, undesirable, and showing professional bad judgment — while bolstering the man’s, by framing him as responsible, mature, professional, and ultimately desirable to the opposite sex.

None of this is to say that Thrush should face consequences commensurate with, say Charlie Rose or Harvey Weinstein. In fact, the focus on the repercussions to prominent men — the professional and reputational damage done to them — takes the revelations of this moment further away from the reputational and professional prices paid by generations of women. While understanding that the threat of actual repercussion is crucial to getting men to stop behaving this way, I also find myself almost wishing that we could have a moratorium on firings and resignations, in exchange for the full stories, from every woman, about the ways in which she feels she has been harassed and discriminated against, and not only sexually.

Buried in one of the reports on Matt Lauer is a detail from a woman who recalls him speaking about how unattractive her cold sore was. Farai Chideya has recalled how John Hockenberry urged her to lose weight while she was his co-host. These are not sexual traumas. But they show how women are evaluated aesthetically by men whose evaluations matter more than women’s work, in contexts that have nothing to do with aesthetics.

My frustrations hit an early high point when I read the apology from Louis C.K. in the wake of a story about how he masturbated in front of women. Several of them told the New York Times that after they had spoken openly about their experiences with him, they had heard that his powerful manager was furious with them. They decided to take themselves out of the running for any projects involving that manager. “The power I had over these women is that they admired me,” Louis C.K. said in his statement. “I learned yesterday the extent to which I left these women who admired me feeling badly about themselves and cautious around other men who would never have put them in that position.” No, you dope, I yelled in my head. The power you had over those women was professional. What you should have learned how your actions damaged their careers. The harm done to women simply doesn’t begin or end in the hotel room with the famous comic masturbating in front of them. It shades everything about what women choose to do — or not do — afterward; it has an impact on those who weren’t even in the room.

What makes women vulnerable is not their carnal violability, but rather the way that their worth has been understood as fundamentally erotic, ornamental; that they have not been taken seriously as equals; that they have been treated as some ancillary reward that comes with the kinds of power men are taught to reach for and are valued for achieving. How to make clear that the trauma of the smaller trespasses — the boob grabs and unwanted kisses or come-ons from bosses — is not necessarily even about the sexualized act in question; so many of us learned to maneuver around hands-y men without sustaining lasting emotional damage when we were 14. Rather, it’s about the cruel reminder that these are still the terms on which we are valued, by our colleagues, our bosses, sometimes our competitors, the men we tricked ourselves into thinking might see us as smart, formidable colleagues or rivals, not as the kinds of objects they can just grab and grope and degrade without consequence. It’s not that we’re horrified like some Victorian damsel; it’s that we’re horrified like a woman in 2017 who briefly believed she was equal to her male peers but has just been reminded that she is not, who has suddenly had her comparative powerlessness revealed to her. “I was hunting for a job,” said one of the women who accused Charlie Rose of assault. “And he was hunting for me.”

A woman who is harassed, or who is in a workplace where other women are, might feel vividly the full weight of the system that’s not set up with her in mind, and see with clarity how much more difficult her professional path will be at every turn, how success might not be on her terms, but on terms set by powerful men. She might feel shame, or embarrassment that worms its way into her head, affects her confidence. She will likely spend time and energy focusing on how to maneuver around the harasser, time and energy that might otherwise be spent on her own advancement. Some women decide to play along; maybe their careers will benefit from it or maybe they will suffer, but they may long wonder whether their success or failure was determined not by their own talents or even by a lucky break, but rather by how they responded to a man. This is especially difficult for very young women, those with fewer economic or social resources, who lack professional networks and professional stability; it’s these women who are most likely to be targeted. The whole thing might begin to feel overwhelmingly difficult, hopeless, perhaps not worth the fight. It can mean a sapping of ambition.

At the end of the New York Times report on Horovitz, accused by nine women of having sexually assaulted them, some of whom when they were in their teens, and he was their professional mentor or employer, the reporter Jessica Bennett noted that one of Horovitz’s accusers, despite being a promising playwright, has struggled with depression and writer’s block, while others left the theater altogether. “He took this thing that was such a beautiful thing,” one of the accusers told Bennett of Horovitz’s effect on the aspirations of the young women he is alleged to have molested, “and he just ruined it.” Here’s another example: In response to a story about Alex Kozinski, now a judge and formerly chief judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, who allegedly showed female clerks pornography in his office, civil-rights attorney Alexandra Brodsky tweeted, “In law school, everyone knew, and women didn’t apply to clerk for Judge Kosinski [sic] despite his prestige and connections to the Supreme Court.”

All this, while networks — sometimes, literal television networks — of male power work to build, protect, and further reinforce male power. Recall how the Fox News chief, Roger Ailes, protected Bill O’Reilly, keeping him in a multimillion-dollar berth for years after public claims of harassment surfaced; O’Reilly in turn defended Ailes when Ailes was accused of serial harassment of the women on his network; the president, Donald Trump, whose roles as birther and politician were built in part by the Fox News team, in turn defended both O’Reilly and Ailes, even as their network was providing Trump his own robust defense against harassment charges. Meanwhile, the female accusers of all these men received no such support, no such defense; instead they were called liars from public, political, and media pulpits, as they were chased out of the news business, hushed up with settlement money and nondisclosure agreements, insulted by the man who is now our president as being too ugly to grope. That same man was given a free pass from Lauer at the presidential forum in which the anchor grilled Hillary Clinton about her emails and interrupted her repeatedly but failed to challenge Trump at all, even on outright untruths.

Little of this cycle itself directly entails sexual incursion. But it is central to understanding the story unfolding around us. Women’s access to work and to power within their workplaces is curtailed, often via the very same mechanisms that promote, protect, and forgive men, the systems that give them double, triple chances to advance, and to abuse those around them, over and over again.

A few weeks ago, the CNN reporter Dylan Byers was harshly criticized for a (quickly deleted) tweet, in which he bemoaned the fact that in the purge of accused harassers and predators “never has so much talent left the industry all at once.” But the point is that the pool of men in whom we’ve been able to discern talent to begin with is pre-poisoned by sexism. These men are known to us in part because they, and the system in which they’ve risen, have cleared the field of female competition. So of course theirs are the voices and faces that reach us every morning via our televisions and radios, they are the ones we understand to be talented. Of course they’re the ones we rely on to explain the world; to be the politicians we trust — that we must depend on — to legislate on our behalf. That means that when they fall, we feel for them, even as we recoil from them, because their power has allowed them to be made known to us, admired by us. Meanwhile, the women they’re alleged to have harassed remain mostly nameless, faceless, having had so many fewer opportunities to become icons. We don’t consider all the women who — driven out, banished, self-exiled, or marginalized — might have been more talented or brilliant or comforting to us, on our airwaves or in our governing bodies, but whom we have never even gotten the chance to know.

Then of course there’s how we feel about the women who did manage to ascend within these structures. When stories about the webs that protected Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose get published, the women — often women who are themselves anomalies within male-dominated institutions and cultures — get the most attention: Hillary Clinton’s (rather than Bill’s) friendship with Harvey Weinstein is craven, while Nancy Pelosi’s words about John Conyers are parsed more closely than anything uttered (or not uttered) by any one of his male colleagues. Rose’s producer Yvette Vega, who didn’t address the complaints of women who’d been harassed is seen as a more sinister villain than her dick-flashing boss.

None of this is an exculpation of those women, or of any of us who have, frankly, lived in the world ruled by men and tried to make our way in it. When individual women, no matter how powerful, climb to their perches through a system that was not built by or for them, then their grip on power has never wholly been their own. It’s always existed in relation to the men they must work with, protect, acquiesce to, apologize for, or depend on for support.

When a group of female Democratic senators, kicked off by Kirsten Gillibrand and followed quickly by dozens of her colleagues, urged Al Franken to resign, they made a wildly risky choice: Open challenge and rebuke to a beloved and powerful man has rarely endeared women to us. But it’s easy to imagine, as allegations against Franken trickled out, day by day, that it was Franken’s female colleagues who felt the heat. According to one Democratic aide, the frustrated conversations between some Democratic women in the Senate had gone on for a week, held sometimes, literally, in the Senate’s women’s restrooms: What should they do?

Those women surely knew that if they did not speak out against Franken, they would be tarred as self-interested hypocrites; they probably also understood that if they did speak out against him, they would be viewed as self-interested executioners. That they chose the latter path speaks volumes about the unprecedented shifts in possibility this moment seems, at least right now, to be heralding. (Startling polling released by Perry Undem the day before Franken announced he was stepping down showed that 86 percent of those surveyed said they believed that men harass women out of “desire for power and control over women,” more than because they want to date them.)

But it should also tell us about the shitty position women are so often put in: as the designated guardians, entrusted —whether as colleagues or wives — with policing men’s bad behaviors, they will get dinged for complicity if they don’t police it vigilantly enough, and risk being cast as castrating villainesses if they issue sentence. The women senators’ call for the end of Franken’s tenure may, in the end, make them feminist heroines, or it may backfire terribly, confirming them as leaders of a ravening mob and lighting the fuse for the looming backlash. But let’s not ignore the fact that on the same day that many were side-eyeing Hillary Clinton’s friendly dinners with Harvey Weinstein, in the same weeks in which many commentators have cast critical eyes back on the feminists who defended Bill Clinton, the New York Times Metro section’s Twitter account promptly asked of Kirsten Gillibrand, a woman who did rebuke a man in her own party: “Is courage or opportunism at play?”

None of this is simple; none of it is easy; it’s increasingly difficult to parse and to live through. That’s precisely because what we’re picking apart is not some single thread; it’s the knotted weave of inequity that is the very stuff of which our professional and political and social assumptions and institutions are made. Having this conversation as if it’s about sex, and not about equality, involves trauma and pain in its own ways: memories of the visceral fear, physical pain, emotional suffering of nonconsensual contact that so many of us have experienced, to one degree or another.

But even with all that pain, a focus on sex also lets us off the hook, permitting us to look away from broader horrors, whole complex systems of disempowerment and economic, professional vulnerability. Understanding the moment, and women’s reaction to it, as only about sex crimes does contribute to a comfortably regressive understanding of women as perpetually passive victims of men’s animal sexuality run amok. And while I share Masha Gessen’s fear that this moment will end with a recommitment to patrolling women’s virtue and undermining their sexual agency, I am just as worried about what we will not do — the thing that is harder and more uncomfortable and ultimately inconceivable: addressing and beginning to dismantle men’s unjustly disproportionate claim to every kind of power in the public and professional world.

*A version of this article appears in the December 11, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

This Moment Isn’t (Just) About Sex