Sadly, it is nothing new to hear about sexual harassment by men in positions of power. The abuse of power to gain sexual favors in exchange for opportunity – or nothing at all – goes back for millenia. So does the use of women to seduce men to gain favors and learn secrets that have caused the downfall of empires and the creation of others. These tropes are common plots that exist in Bible stories, Shakespearean plays and Hollywood movies.
And despite the decades since women have successfully – an not so successfully – fought for equality of rights at home and in the workplace, it is clear from social media and the 24-hour news cycle that we have a very long way to go.
But how did we get there and how can we fix that past to create a different future?
Policies, Procedures, Laws and Culture
For sure, the creation and reinforcement of policies, procedures and laws with appropriate consequences is integral to any change that women seek with regard to changing what is acceptable male behavior.
Whether it is Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein or the college professor or IT boss, men behaving badly should lead to men getting consequences. And yes, fear is a great motivator for good behavior, but we also need a shift in social norms and expectations that contextualize the expression of desire.
That all said, most men know when they have crossed the boundaries of acceptability and this is why their sexual malfeasance is often followed by coercion into silence through verbal threats and violence. It is the imposition of secrecy that lets us know that men are well aware of their bad behavior and are to be held responsible for their sexual misdeeds.
So what of that not-so-fine line between rejection and aspiration?
From No to Yes
In a culture which teaches that women should say ‘no’ before they say yes and sells the notion that getting to be with the object of our desire means to push past ‘no’ until the desired ‘comes to their senses’ to choose us, it is not hard to see how miscommunication leads to blurred lines, hurt feelings and broken laws.
Whether it be the New York Times Wedding section or the mythology of Disney movies and Hollywood romantic comedies, we have enshrined the idea that women will often say no to their ‘best option’ until the ‘best option’ ignores all rejection and turns a no into a yes. And as problematic as this them of ‘pursuit and capture’ is in an ideal world of equals, it is even more so when there is inequality of power.
Rules of non-fraternization have existed for decades in most places of employment but are often ignored by employees, as evidenced by the common experience of finding love and marriage in the workplace. We are sexual beings and spend much of our day at work so it is inevitable that there will be attraction, unwanted attention and fulfilled desire on the job. Sometimes it is the very essence of power and the disparity between partners that incite and fuel passion.
As a professor, I have seen and heard of various dalliances between teacher and student, and mentor and mentee that have led to firing, marriage, friendship, restricted duties or nothing but awkwardness. But no matter the outcome this is never a good idea. Because even though adults can consent to whatever with whomever, we also know tht the implications of saying yes or saying no can be feelings of violation as well as unfair bias towards those with whom one has crossed the line from student to lover, or against those who refuse to engage.
So how do we get men to listen to the no and empower women to say yes?
Shifting Norms and Changing Culture
By shifting our norms from idealizing ‘the chase’ and instead encouraging clear communication between men and women without feelings of shame or discomfort. By teaching our daughters to be clear about what and who they want and to feel empowered and comfortable saying so. By teaching our sons that no really does mean no, despite all the social reinforcements that say otherwise. And we can also teach men to apologize if they find that they have upset a woman with their expression of desire, and to go away if they have been told no.
There will always be misunderstandings that stem from unrequited lust and love, but they need not result in feelings of harassment and unsafety. Clear, open and honest communication is the immunization against desire gone wrong and clear, consistently-applied consequences should be the reinforcement should things go bad despite our best efforts.
Pulling back the curtains on the misuse of power to obtain sexual will only change society for the better. More women will report such behavior and more men will be held accountable. We will also start to have discussions about desire that our socialization has taught us to be always impolite. And lastly, we will create new norms of behavior that leave us feeling much more comfortable expressing and acting on our desires.