Harassment Loves Secrecy

Back when traumatic sexual abuse was hot news, I asked a therapist friend what sort of distress she was seeing in clients. “Oh, I always ask them first about traumatic abuse,” she said. “They were all sexually abused as children.” All?

When I looked into it, ideas about traumatic sexual abuse were supporting sensational fantasies of victimization such as multiple personality, recovered memories, and Satanic abuse. Those syndromes are discredited now, though not without some damaged lives and wrongful imprisonment.

The furor about workplace harassment recalls the passionate confusion whipped up over traumatic sexual abuse. In Bass and Davis’s bestseller The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (1988, still in print), they advised women to attribute headaches and anxiety, say, to forgotten “traumatic abuse.” As if you’ve narrowly escaped death, you were a “survivor.” And, they assume, all alone. For therapy they recommended revenge. Their vicious recipe promises empowerment, but actually invites self-intoxicating rage:

“Survivors have strong feelings of wanting to get back at the people who hurt them so terribly. You may dream of murder or castration. It can be pleasurable to fantasize such scenes in vivid detail. Wanting revenge is a natural impulse, a sane response. Let yourself imagine it to your heart’s content.” [1]

Feeling victimized, naturally we want to feel bigger, more formidable. But pumping up (“You may dream of murder or castration”) has no upper limit (“imagine it to your heart’s content”). How much rage is enough? How much punishment is enough? Reality-testing is more challenging it’s a solo trip or an echo chamber.

Don’t get me wrong: some real women are hassled at work. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates some 43,000 workplace rapes and sexual assaults a year. And sexual aggression is rife in the military. “Women who come forward are likely to be passed over for promotions and good assignments, or find their jobs mysteriously eliminated. On rare occasions when a boss-harasser is actually fired, the woman who brought him down often gets treated like a leper by his allies. The majority of those who report harassment end up in different jobs.” [2]

Now that the problem has the public’s attention, a “wave” of indignation finds sexual predators in power everywhere. Yet we know almost nothing about particular cases. 

For one thing, the terms used are incoherent. “Harassment” can be “misconduct,” “inappropriate,” “groping,” or a “forcible kiss.” It may also be a “crime” such as rape or assault. There is rarely due process, and punishment may not fit the crime. One politician is hounded out of office while another boasts about sexual assault on tape and is elected president. As someone quipped, “Franken should have announced, ‘I’ll resign right after Trump does.’”

At the same time that #MeToo sees a swamp to be drained, there’s little curiosity about actual behavior. True, managerial secrecy blocks inquiries. #MeToo blames incidents on “power” or “sex.” But what if there’s misinterpretation or self-delusion? What if an insecure top dog wants to masturbate so a woman will reassure him that he really does have the gunpowder to be top dog? Is this a kind of rape? A cry for help? Off the charts?

The uncertainties about harassment entice conspiracy theorists. #MeToo outrage fixates on alpha male predators—editors select photos of Harvey Weinstein looking like a monster. Meanwhile Republicans scoff at allegations against Mr. Trump and Roy Moore as fake news. Who lobbies to improve our ability to find out what’s true?

It’s especially easy to misconstrue behavior when people treat sex as only a matter of gender: a question of power or rules. In fact we’re creatures built around survival appetites. We’re forced to breathe, eat, take shelter, and mate—or we die out. Culture modulates creaturely motives, but men and women are never wholly free. From birth, we’re built to want more life. And while sex promises more life, it takes all sorts of forms, good and bad: from love, families, and kinky romance to wartime rape.  

As “making love” or “making it,” sex means more life and also more self. People do it hoping to feel more loved: more alive, more real. And because intimacy can substantiate you, survival is involved. A relationship can even be a sort of survival contest. (consider the way, after a divorce or a termination, a rejected partner or employee may go on a rampage.)

Business, racism, and reality TV shows are different sorts of survival contest. Mr. Trump became a “star” and eligible for the White House by playing a TV boss who can make you or break you (“You’re fired”). Viewers identified with winners and feel superior to losers. After all, in life as in the workplace, everybody loves to be admired or even loved. Winners are heroes, whereas “You’re fired!” means social death. Bosses embody godlike power over feelings of life and death. As the history of religion shows, it can feel safer to hero-worship gods than to change the channel.

Hero-worship helps to explain why Mr. Trump’s base believe he loves them even when his actions in office hurt them. In this context, #MeToo is a reaction to Mr. Trump’s election. He has systematically worked to destroy policies that women and liberals cherish. His famously insulting tweets make social death personal. In effect, the “wave” calls out workplace predators since Mr.Trump so far cannot be fired.

For the public, harassment is not 43,000 working folks. It’s a racy news scandal or a heartwarming melodrama in which former Miss America Gretchen Carlson uses her phone to tape her boss’s slimy wiles. Her “2016 sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox chairman Roger Ailes netted her a $20 million settlement, an apology from Fox, and Ailes’s head on a platter, handed to her by Rupert Murdoch fils. (Murdoch père then tendered Ailes a $40 million parting gift; Ailes died the following year.)”

In the public eye, Ms. Carlson’s story shows that the little nobody can win. (Jimmy Stewart should play her in the movie.) Although she can’t reform a sleazy outfit such as Fox, she does give the victim heroic status. Oh, and she got a book out of it.

Heroes are exceptional. In popular lore they’re immortal. As The People’s History of the US lets you know [3], however, working folks most successfully overcame exploitation and abuse not by solo heroism, but by organizing. Economic history shows that incomes and fair play improved most when labor unions were strong.

Organized labor could be one remedy for workplace harassment. Unions and labor contracts promote transparency and make it safer to talk back to the boss. In a good union, members watch out for each other’s morale.

Yet the public never hears about this option, not from #MeToo or business. The US has the weakest labor laws of any advanced economy. Parts of the south still hold workers in virtual peonage. It took a ghastly civil war for the nation to give up slavery, and a brutal Great Depression finally to legalize labor rights. And since WW2, business has been killing off unions. As the GOP “tax reform” tells us, the rich own the corporate state and can advertise to sway voters. Reagan signaled the war on unions (cf. PATCO) at the same time women were entering the workforce to preserve a middle class living standard for their families.

Unions could help women say no to harassment, and women can help say no to the war against organized labor. In the process, as members, women would have a better chance to change attitudes in the informal systems that men can form on the job.

Paradoxically, teamwork has flourished most in the US when the struggle to survive was out in the open, as in the Great Depression and WW2. These days “conservative” America scorns teamwork—trust in government and community—as “socialist” or a mob. Don’t trust government: privatize. Don’t rely on police, get a gun. Don’t trust public schools. Don’t make a living: make a killing. Nobody is demanding creation of a congressional ethics standard—that would take teamwork.

Harassment is not just a women’s issue. Appetite for more life doesn’t stop at sex. The gangster who grabs pussy also grabs loot and the kids’ dinner. For decades, jobs and living standards have been under pressure in this country—except at the top. Fake populism, “America first” nationalism, and white power racism tell you that people are lashing out at each other—except at the top. Who will get to make a living wage and feel heroic? The answer lies in negotiation, not in terms dictated from on high like a sticker price (“she’s a 10”) or trash (“You’re fired”).

We can do better than that.


Resources used in this essay:

1. Kirby Farrell, Post-Traumatic Culture: Injury and Interpretation in the 90s (Johns Hopkins UP, 1998), pp. 196, 207.

2. Laura Kipnis, Kick against the Pricks, NY Review of Books (Dec. 27, 2017)

3. Howard Zinn, The People’s History of the United States.  It’s fashionable to belittle Zinn’s polemical history, but he uses the voices of real people for evidence, and this helps to cut through the prejudice



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