The Harvey Weinstein Challenge: Combating Sexual Harassment In and Out of School
I don’t know what the world record is, but I’m pretty sure I’m close: My first experience with sexual harassment occurred within the first 10 minutes on my first shift at my very first job.
Newly hired as a hostess for a local restaurant, I was excited to have landed a summer job between college semesters. I was nervous, too, because I had no idea what to expect. What I definitely didn’t expect was Mr. Leonard.
As the restaurant manager, Mr. Leonard, a married man in his mid-40s, made a point of “joking” with every new hire that while he lived on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, once his car crossed the midpoint on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on his way to work every morning, he was “single.”
At first, and in my naïveté, I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. It soon became clear. I heard him repeatedly telling obscene “jokes” about sex, and witnessed him ogling and making disgusting comments about waitresses’ bodies to their faces and from behind them. Once, I saw him snap the bra strap of a woman who bent over to take something out of a case. One day he told me he could see the outline of my bra under my hostess dress (which he was staring at) and then sent me home to put on a slip to avoid “offending the customers.”
I lasted two weeks. While the term “hostile work environment” had not yet been coined, I knew emotionally I was in one. Looking back, my most important lesson was recognizing that I left because I could. The older women did not have the privilege of quitting. Most were caring for children at home, and the loss of income would have been devastating for their families. Their only option was to suffer through it in silence. Besides, to whom could they complain, since the perpetrator was also the boss?
A Pervasive Problem
Sexual harassment was a ubiquitous problem that had no name until the early 1980s, when federal courts defined it as an illegal form of “gender discrimination” in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The U.S. Office of Equal Employment Opportunity (OEEO) was charged with creating mechanisms for filing complaints and procedures for ongoing enforcement. Later court cases made these new rules applicable to school environments as well.
But, it was not until 1991, during Clarence Thomas’s U.S. Senate Supreme Court confirmation hearings—when Anita Hill famously accused Thomas of sexual harassment, while both were working at the OEEO, which he headed, no less—that the entire nation, all at once, received its first meaningful education about this scourge. Now, it had an official name as well as the force of the federal government behind its adjudication.
As recent high-profile events make clear, nonetheless, sexual harassment remains ever-present in our society, even in the lives of women (and men) who are powerful in their own right. This time, however, I’m much more optimistic about the prospects for lasting awareness and change.
The Prospects for Change
First, and really only within the past five years, American society has finally begun to treat the problem of sexual assault—sexual harassment in its most extreme form—with the seriousness it deserves. Moreover, a new standard for defining “sexual consent” has emerged: What counts is no longer “the absence of no,” but rather “the unequivocal presence of an enthusiastic verbal yes.” This is no mere linguistic change, since as a very practical matter it shifts the onus for establishing consent squarely on the person who desires sexual activity, not the person they desire. Verbal permission before crossing another person’s sexual boundaries is required.
These two developments have been hugely important in helping us and our students to better understand and help prevent sexual assault. Now, as our collective attention is drawn to highly publicized disclosures of chronic sexual harassment perpetrated by powerful, well-known men across diverse businesses and professional fields, another new and potentially transformative element is in the mix: public accountability.
The swift, hard fall from positions of enormous power, status, and wealth for many of these men delivers a resounding message: “This behavior, once and for all, is intolerable and will bring serious consequences.” Public accountability inevitably begets more public accountability, because victims feel supported in knowing they are not alone and can recognize, finally, they were in no way at fault; it also exposes to public scrutiny the hidden malignancies that keep entrenched patriarchy and “toxic masculinity” alive.
What About Our Students?
Sexual harassment statutes pertain only to schools and workplaces, because students must go to school and most people have to work. (If someone is the recipient of catcalls on a particular street, on the other hand, they can simply take another route.) Educational institutions, of course, are both workplaces and schools. Without question, it is incumbent upon all schools to establish policies and practices that provide clear, equitable procedures for reporting, investigating, and resolving sexual harassment complaints—involving students of all sexual and gender identities—and maintaining safe school environments. A recently launched campaign, #MeTooK12, aims to lobby and support schools in improving their efforts. Read about it here.
It’s vital to recognize, though, that most of the sexual harassment today’s students perpetuate and/or experience does not occur in formal settings like schools and workplaces, but within their everyday social interactions, much of it in the form of hostile, cruel, degrading, and coercive online communication. Regardless of venue, though, it is shaped and fueled by the very same patriarchal mix that defines “real” masculinity in terms of superiority, entitlement, dominance, winning at all costs, and the conflation of sex and power.
Before men are men, they are boys. Until parents and schools commit to intentionally raising both boys and girls with high expectations and a single standard of values based on empathy and fairness—with sex and gender being no exception—we can expect these harmful and oppressive patterns to continue. Now is a very good time to take on this challenge.