Some months back, at a work event in Europe, a man exclaimed how distressing the #MeToo campaign was for him because, as he put it: “Now I can’t even rest my hand on a woman’s knee without being accused of sexual harassment.” My response was: “What is your hand doing there in the first place?” This exchange gets to the nub of what’s at stake in contestations about the handling of sexual harassment claims.
At a time when the realities of sexual harassment are coming sharply into the public spotlight, it is important to note that those violated have known and lived these realities. Knowledge of the nature, experience and effects of sexual harassment has been historically silenced. Yet the voice and space that women increasingly occupy, following hard-won struggles, enable their diverse lived experiences to be heard in unprecedented ways. Far from representing a set of disconnected events, survivor-centred public narratives challenge a systemic culture of sexual harassment in which everyday practices of power are implicated.
Sexual harassment is perpetrated by someone who holds more power than another, and is primarily exercised by men against women. In addition to this gendered dimension, such harassment can be overlaid with other power abuses enabled by inequalities linked to race, sexuality, class, age and occupational statuses.
Understood systemically, sexual harassment pivots on masculine entitlement to women’s sexualities and bodies. This is enabled by men’s perceived right to gain assertion, gratification and identity confirmation at women’s expense. Simply put, masculine power and prowess are affirmed — both for the individual man and for men as a collective — by sexual harassment as a marker of hetero “manliness”.
Paradoxically, some gay men are also seduced by this form of power. Sexual harassment also works in service of a male pecking order that allows those who are perceived as “weaker” or “less manly” to be harassed to establish their inferiority in the patriarchal hierarchy of masculinities. Violence against gay men and trans men are cases in point.
Lesbians, and women in general, are subordinated by dominant men through harassment as an exercise of power through sexuality. As a form of gender violence, sexual harassment keeps women and men in their place in the gender order. As a mode of domination in a wider context of sex and gender discrimination, it also aims to diminish the autonomy of the survivor.
The wider social dynamics that fuel harassment (from the sexist joke to rape) are under severe scrutiny. The male “right” to proposition any women at any time is being directly challenged. The consequences for men, and for hetero patriarchal practices generally, are significant because there is real power to be lost.
But the patriarchy always grabs back. As a form of backlash against the outing of sexual harassment culture, false equivalences are made between the systematic harassment of women by men and instances of women who sexually harass men. In a recent training workshop, someone remarked: “But aren’t women who dress in a revealing way actually harassing men?” This perverse logic naturalises men’s sexual predation to which women are then required to submit by acting and dressing in particular ways. The remark also perpetuates a blaming myth that women bring harassment on to themselves, and conceals the structural power inequalities between men and women.
Another form of backlash is to decontextualise incidents of sexual harassment. This is frequent in formal complaint processes when, drawing on legal discourse, the burden of proof is shifted on to the survivor and their experience of harassment is narrowly investigated in ways that disconnect it from the organisation’s culture and the perpetrator’s broader gender attitudes and behaviours.
The odds are stacked against survivors who seek justice when internal disciplinary processes are invested in upholding the prevailing race, sexual and gender cultures of an organisation, even when that culture aids and abets harassment.
Another form of backlash is when serial harassers insert themselves into political organising against gender violence. Spouting the rhetoric of feminism and gender equality can be a cover for one’s own harassing character and conduct. A case in point is men who occupy high positions in organisations that tackle violence against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, and who themselves abuse with impunity. This shouldn’t be surprising given the common contradiction between individuals’ public politics and their everyday gender practices, which is why the feminist dictum “the personal is political” remains revolutionary.
Sexual harassment doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is enabled by a generalised climate of gender harassment, which includes a range of behaviours that convey hostile, insulting and degrading attitudes towards women. Policy definitions of sexual harassment centre on understandings of sexual attention — presumed to be “wanted”unless otherwise specified.
This normative concept is based on the premise that certain kinds of sexual advances are always already desirable, particularly for women. I argue that “wanted”sexual attention — the unquestionable standard against which the unwanted is judged — demands critique. What are the terms of “wanted”sexual attention and in whose interests is it normatively asserted? “Wanted”sexual attention is mostly defined by heteronormative standards that determine how certain sexual codes, norms and conduct come to be desirable and preferable, frequently without question. These include the rules of (hetero)sexual seduction, the hypersexualisation of women’s bodies for the male gaze and the sexing-up of violence against women.
Heteronormativity hinges on the idea that women should be available to, and should desire, men’s sexual attention. If not, there is something wrong with the woman. Male privilege to make sexual advances towards women is legitimised by this normalisation of sexual (hetero)attention. The inherent heteronormativity of what constitutes “wanted”sexual attention is also exposed when one considers how straight people frequently consider advances by queer people to be offensive. The queer advance, when directed at (seemingly) straight people, is considered unwanted because it is perceived to call into question the straightness of the receiver. This is homophobic to the core. In contrast, women and queer people are compelled to be on the receiving end of the heteronormative sexual advance, seen as “only natural”.
No sexual advance can be presumed to be wanted. Nor should one feel entitled to one’s advance being welcomed. It is because of the central role that sexual harassment plays in propping up unequal power relations that exposing it in the public realm, particularly from the perspective of those who are its targets, is so crucial.
The masculine-feminine binary that underpins common ideas of who wants and should want what kind of sexual attention creates the conditions for sexual harassment. Acting against sexual harassment requires acting against these logics of heteronormativity. This includes transforming gender and sexual codes (not just workplace codes)and renegotiating when and how sexuality — as an exercise of power — is expressed, with attention to interests and boundaries. It is necessary to reconfigure the sexual content of power in more equitable and accountable ways —from boardrooms to bedrooms.
And yes, it does mean,at the very least,that men consider the consequences of where they put their hands.
Melanie Judge is a queer and feminist activist and adjunct associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town. She is also the author of Blackwashing Homophobia: Violence and the Politics of Sexuality, Gender and Race