As revelations of sexual harassment, lewd workplace behavior, and sexual assault continue to come to light, I’ve been seeing the question again and again, “Who’s next?” Some people ask it in fear. Some people use the question to imply that a lot of the accusations are false. Others are just genuinely wondered when the next allegation is coming. Last week I shared a link to an amusingly written op-ed that advised people who have been sexual harassers in the past to save themselves some trouble and pain and come forward on their own. I’ve seen a number of amusing memes and cleverly phrases variations on the notion that it’s easy not to be a harasser—just don’t harass.
That last is both true and horrifically misleading. I’m going to explain it by switching to a related topic, and tell about one of my cousins…
This cousin was known, when he was younger, as a lady’s man. Every family holiday he brought home a new girlfriend, and the two of them couldn’t keep their hands (or mouths) off of each other the whole time. He used to drive a truck everywhere (now he favors jeeps). He has a lot of redneck, he-man stereotypical behaviors. He is, not surprisingly, homophobic. But if I or his gay step-brother ever even hint that something he says is offensive, he insists emphatically that he isn’t the slightest bit prejudiced.
And he sincerely believes it.
Whenever he runs into me, my husband, or his step-brother, he is polite to us, after all. He welcomes us to family gatherings. He tells us anecdotes he thinks we’ll find amusing. He behaves perfectly civilly whenever we are there. Never mind that he refers to me and his step-brother in a very sneering tone as “fags” when we aren’t around. Never mind that this cousin has told other family members that he can’t believe my husband is a “big fag” because my husband doesn’t act in ways he thinks of as gay. Never mind that he voted against marriage equality when it was on the ballot in our state. Never mind that he has said that god is going to destroy America because fags are being given some legal rights now. None of that, in his mind, is homophobic because he doesn’t feel a burning hatred for any of the gay people he knows personally. If anything, he would say, he feels pity, because he knows it isn’t really our fault we are depraved abominations—we’re sick, in his mind, that’s all. But that’s merely an observation, it isn’t prejudice.
And he can prove he isn’t homophobic. How, you ask? Well, besides the fact that he doesn’t call us those slurs to our faces (lately), and that he doesn’t spontaneously try to beat us to death on sight, the other proof is that we continue to be polite to him when we run into him at family gatherings. In his mind that proves that we don’t feel oppressed, devalued, disrespected, et al, by his attitude, his comments, or his actions.
To sum up: because is able to remain civil in social situations, that proves he isn’t a bigot. Because we remain civil in social situations, that proves we don’t actually believe he’s a bigot.
He isn’t trolling. He isn’t consciously deflecting. He isn’t intentionally being deceptive to dodge responsibility. He believes it.
The same is true for sexual harassers. In their minds, they aren’t harassing, they are flirting. It doesn’t matter how super creepy and over the top the sexual behavior is, they intend it as flirting. It’s a compliment that they want you, after all! Wanting a person who doesn’t appear to want them back is not their understanding of the word harassment. They are wrong, but they don’t know it. Part of the reason they don’t know it is because their entire lives society has told them that pursuing someone who says “no” is romantic. There are hundreds of incidents in books, movies, and television shows of a guy persistently expressing his interest in a girl until she gives in. And it’s portrayed as a happy ending!
The message of many romantic comedies and similar stories is that if the guy believes that she loves him, he’s right. She simply isn’t willing to admit it, yet.
It isn’t as simply as “no means yes,” and I think that’s what a lot of people don’t quite get. The message is “no means you haven’t proven yourself worthy/sincere/ready yet.” And among the reasons they think that “no” means “not yet” is because their victims continue to behave at least minimally civil to them in work and social situations. In their minds, that proves that she likes them! In their minds, that proves that she doesn’t think they’re a creep!
To shift back to my homophobic cousin for a moment: he believes that his being polite to us in social situations is solely a matter of magnanimity. He is choosing, out of the goodness of his heart, to treat us fags as if we are regular people. He is completely unaware (or dismisses the importance of) the social pressures to make nice. Sure, he knows he should behave around his mother, or our grandmother, and so forth. But he doesn’t see that as a force inhibiting his worst impulses. And because he doesn’t understand the reasons he feels compelled to act with civility in those situations, it never occurs to him that we are compelled to act with civility toward him, despite being offended by his past actions, off-hand comments, and so forth.
So many of these guys really don’t understand that a woman they have made a pass at could possibly fear for her job, or her relationships with mutual acquaintances, et cetera if she raises a stink about his behavior.
Just as they are unaware that not everyone would feel complimented to be desired by them.
Whether you think of it as blindspots, a lack of self-awareness, or double-standards, the bottom line is that many (maybe most) of the guys who have sexually harassed co-workers, acquaintances, friends, and so forth are literally unaware that they did anything wrong. Telling them now that they should never show their penis to someone who doesn’t want to see it doesn’t do any good, because they have been taught that if they think a woman wants them, they are right. She just hasn’t admitted it to him (or herself), yet. Therefore, they’ve never shown their penis to anyone who didn’t want it. They have never touched a woman who didn’t want it. They have never flirted with a woman who didn’t want it.
Therefore, many of these guys are going to be genuinely surprised by any allegations against them. They aren’t going to believe it. They will trot out as proof that it wasn’t harassment because she was polite to him after the incident.
None of this excuses the behavior. And I want to be clear: I’m not saying that they are incapable of understanding that how they perceive these incidents is wrong, I’m saying that this is how they have perceived them. So when they see the stories about other men being accused of these things, they either don’t believe the allegations at all, or they think what happened with these other guys is not the same way that they have ever behaved.
Therefore, they’re going to keep being surprised. Each person is going to claim that that isn’t how they remember it. They don’t see it coming because they don’t see their past actions for what they were.