What does the current outrage about sexual harassment show?
It’s hard to know, partly because the term is open-ended and can refer to behavior that is odd, fleeting, hard to classify, and subject to interpretation. Beyond that, public life today is consistently irrational, so everything in it becomes hard to make sense of on its own terms.
“Harassment” seems to suggest something continuing that makes normal activities difficult. Even so, “sexual harassment” is said to include not only continuing pressure or misconduct, as well as crimes such as actual sexual assault, but any unwanted comment, attention, or other conduct that feels sexual to the woman involved. It can thus become extraordinarily subjective.
So there are no reliable statistics, and it’s not clear how big the problem is or how the specific concerns stack up. Some of the reported instances constitute rape. On the other hand, thirty percent of younger British millennial women think that if a man winks at them or comments to them on their attractiveness that’s harassment. Ten percent of their male peers think the same about asking a woman out for a drink.
Also, the situation seems quite different in different settings. Industries in which stars are important for the success of whole enterprises seem more likely to have problems. A star can get away with anything because so much depends on him, and over time his idea of what he is due can expand endlessly.
That’s one reason show business has always had a bad reputation. Also, it deals with illusions, so appearances are deceptive. It rewards adventurousness, and that makes people less likely to follow rules. It draws people who are driven or psychologically needy, and are likely to make bad choices. It takes publicity very seriously, and that means people want to hush problems up. And it is extremely competitive, and draws a great many very ambitious and attractive young women who count on their charm and appearance to help them get places.
The situation is made for abuse. What applies to show business also applies to other glamour businesses, like politics, publishing, and the media generally. It’s not clear that the remedies that have been suggested, apart from awareness of the problem and willingness to put integrity before career, would help much in such settings. We can talk about imposing rules or changing attitudes but the difficulty is that some people get away with ignoring rules—that’s true even in very rule-abiding and politically-correct societies like Sweden—and so far the most spectacular problems have come up among male feminists working in pro-feminist environments.
Even so, institutions and attitudes are indeed a problem, but not in the way generally thought. To all appearances, feminism and other changes over the past fifty years that have eliminated sexual standards and put career far more at the center of women’s lives have made things worse.
At one time sex roles and sexual standards gave people definite positions and a way to defend themselves. If a guy got fresh with a girl people thought she should slap him and he had no right to complain. The guy himself wouldn’t usually contest the point unless he was a psychopath—a situation that is not exactly rare but nonetheless atypical. And the girl usually wasn’t that dependent on the guy because she had a family position she could rely on.
Changing standards change women’s situation. An actress in the Restoration theater was presumed available. Stricter standards that came with the rise of middle-class respectability made it possible, beginning in England in the late eighteenth century, for actresses to pursue their careers while maintaining their integrity.
Further developments have reversed the trend. If the sky’s the limit on what constitutes popular entertainment, it’s not clear what’s wrong with off-color comments. Also, the current progressive view is that no differences can be assumed between the sexes, and women’s sexual choices are always justified. But a man can’t get out of line if there are no lines. It’s not obvious on current ways of thinking what’s wrong with asking a woman to do something it would be perfectly fine for her to do, that’s presented neutrally or approvingly in school textbooks and popular entertainment, and that many women, sex workers for example, would do without a second thought. What grounds are there for presuming that the particular woman is so very attached to an opposing view that any contrary suggestion would constitute harassment?
Consent is said to be the line not to be crossed, but how can consent be determined without exploring whether the woman is interested or might be persuaded? In any event, consent seems a weak shield. It’s rarely wholly consensual, since there are any number of things that shape what response seems appropriate or even possible by defining situations, expectations, and the meaning of this or that answer. If there is no right or wrong in these matters, and sex has no intrinsic significance, so refusal is simply an arbitrary decision, then why—for example—shouldn’t a man treat it as an affront when he’s rebuffed?
Such ways of thinking about the relations between the sexes are inhuman in the very basic sense that they show no understanding of human life. But current thought intentionally excludes common-sense understandings of how things are, especially with regard to sex and the sexes. I have an undoubted right not to invite you to my annual Christmas party. You may see the neglect as an insult, and that’s also your right. The case of sex is evidently different, but we need an understanding of human nature to see that.
The problem is that current thought rejects “human nature” as an oppressive social construction. People now insist that the sexes are interchangeable, and a man becomes a woman by saying he’s one, and sex has whatever meaning each of us constructs for himself, and middle-school girls should accept having a man who says he’s a woman in the shower room. In such a setting, where is human nature? And if there are no standards as to what makes sense with regard to sex, then what short of physical compulsion does “sexual harassment” even mean?
That’s why we live in a very odd world that talks about “inappropriate” conduct without a way of explaining why something is inappropriate, eliminates courtship while complicating pairing up for people who get to know each other in the work settings where that happens today, and abolishes standards for consensual conduct while imposing absurdly demanding standards with which no one is likely to comply for what constitutes consent.
It seems obvious that current understandings of sex and the sexes—which after all are fundamental to human society—are unrealistic, irrational, and nonfunctional. The obvious way forward would be an approach that takes natural human tendencies, goods, functions, and flourishing seriously, and tries to establish standards that promote those things. Why not try to live the good life, and develop standards that help us do so together? In other words, why not try a natural law approach?
As it happens, the Church has always had such an approach. Since that is so, it seems that a pastoral Church, one that loves mercy and social justice, and wants to offer a better life to ordinary people, especially the poor, the marginalized, and women and children, would emphasize her traditional approach toward sex and the sexes. Let us hope and pray that her pastors all come to see that is so.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!