In our speakers series, IWF debates the important domestic public policy issues of our time, especially those issues raised by the sexual revolution and the changing status of women in society. Our speaker, Professor Daphne Patai of the University of Massachusetts, has successfully argued in her new book Heterophobia that the current judicial, quasi-judicial, and administrative application of sexual harassment law-especially as it is practiced in colleges and universities-represents a dangerous shift in both custom and law. Dr. Patai shows us how radical feminists have “latched onto sexual harassment as a means of bringing men to heel.”
~IWF Chairman Ricky Silberman
I have read a great deal about sexual harassment law-“how to” books written for policy-makers and administrators and colleges and workplaces. And I have been astonished to find that, far from the kind of thoughtful, serious consideration that I thought the problem merited, what I very quickly recognized in those readings-since I was trained as a literary critic-was their highly contentious, rhetorical browbeating. The gist of the rhetoric was that sexual harassment is a terrible evil akin to rape. Very often commentators would begin: “Like rape, sexual harassment is an ignored problem. Like rape, women are ashamed to come forward and describe their experiences.” And so on.
Instead of taking it for granted, as readers were obviously meant to, I said to myself, “Ah, inflammatory analogies. That’s the technique here.” Our brains were being invited to flip over the differences between sexual harassment and rape and to see them all as one thing.
I got interested in how something becomes classified as a social problem. Clearly that was what was being done with sexual harassment. It had become a social problem, not because it was suddenly so devastating, but because there was a group of people who had starting agitating about it.
I turned to the work of a very interesting sociologist, Joel Best, who wrote a book called, Threatened Children, in which he talked about the social construction of child abuse as a problem. What I learned from Best was that there’s a predictable process by which a group of claims-makers sets forth a problem and brings it to public attention. There are a series of stages through which the public becomes aware of the problem and begins to accept the terms of the debate as set forth by this group of claims-makers.
They engage in a series of techniques, what Best calls “expansion of the domain of the problem.” The public is told that it’s not simply a specific problem occurring in a specific setting, but that it’s a much broader problem. That way it tends to escape from its borders, so that we become aware that the problem is much, much larger than we thought.
For example, sexual harassment was originally understood as quid pro quo (“this for that”), in other words, sexual extortion. But it has now moved into the realm of hostile work environment. And it isn’t just relationships in which there are power discrepancies-a powerful employer who has coercive power over an employee. It’s now also a whole range of other things, such as harassment between equals, about which the Supreme Court made a decision in May.
We have ended up with a mish-mash of unclear categories. If we look at the definitions of sexual harassment as they are written into specific policies, we find that they’re anything from a look to rape: unwanted touching, looks, jokes, or repeated invitations. The law has accommodated this sensitivity on the part of women to a really phenomenal extent.
I use the term “heterophobia” in my book because I feel that it captures in a nutshell the key problem that is driving a great deal of the legislation about sexual harassment. It is also driving the non-lawyers who are supporting this legislation and who are attempting to implement sexual harassment policies in universities. The trainers, the policy makers, the counselors-the sexual harassment industry-is by now a very large money-making part of our society.
Antagonism Toward Men
I’m aware that there are many feminists and many feminisms. However, there is also an identifiable trend within feminism of antagonism toward men and male heterosexuality above all. There is a fear of heterosexuality, male heterosexuality in particular, and sometimes the heterosexuality of other women.
As I was reading more and more of the sexual harassment industry literature, these how-to books, I became aware of the presuppositions that underlie these texts. And, this is where I have to be careful not to sound loony because I start sounding as if I think there’s a plot out there to abolish heterosexuality. It’s really rather funny because, I don’t for a moment believe there’s a chance in hell that would succeed.
But that already tells you something about what I do believe. I believe that heterosexuality is natural. Isn’t that what everyone thinks? Well, no. Within women’s studies and feminism what you learn is something else. You learn about the social construction of heterosexuality, what Adrienne Rich called “compulsory heterosexuality.” Following this are the types of [negative] attitudes toward men expressed by Andrea Dworkin in very vulgar language and by Catharine MacKinnon in much more eloquent language. We have scholars such as Marilyn Frye, a professor of women’s studies at Michigan State University who says women are “rigorously required to be sexual with and for men.”
There is a new book called The Houghton Mifflin Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History. By its title, you would expect it to be a normal kind of book that anybody could pick up. This is what the entry under “heterosexuality” says: “Sexuality is not private, but is political and related to power. ‘Compulsory heterosexuality’ is part of a power structure benefiting heterosexual males at the expense of women and homosexuals. This inequity is justified by an ideology that sees heterosexuality as natural, universal and biologically necessary and homosexuality as the opposite. The system also is reinforced by legal sanctions and violence against women (rape, battering, incest, and murder) and against lesbians, gays, and transgendered persons (verbal harassment, physical assault and murder).” This is the definition of heterosexuality that has found its way into a standard reference work by a major publisher!
I’ve documented many, many cases of what sound like lunatic statements made by feminists about the unnaturalness of heterosexuality. Some of the more mellow people say you can’t blame a woman for having been heterosexual in the past, because after all she was trained to it, but now that she hears what we have to say, she certainly is responsible for the decisions she makes in the future. So, in other words, heterosexuality is obviously not the thing she should be choosing.
I conclude from all of this, that there is antagonism to heterosexuality within the women’s movement. Now, this isn’t news. It’s just that feminists have spent so much time pretending this isn’t true and insisting that the accusations against them of “male bashing” was just backlash against feminists.
They claim it’s a misrepresentation of feminism, but it’s not a misrepresentation. As someone who spent 10 years in women’s studies, I know that male bashing has always been a very important part of feminism.
This mindset, which has shaped so much public discourse today, has found its way into law. I call it feminist extremism. The language used by feminist extremists has become so ubiquitous that it is very difficult for reasonable people to frame arguments in something other than that language.
I believe heterophobia has played a tremendously strong role in making people accept some truly dreadful laws and policies. Sexual harassment law is a very good case. The problem with the extension of sexual harassment from quid pro quo harassment to hostile environment, is that no one really knows exactly what that is. Sexual harassment legislation is an instrument by which the micromanagement of everyday life is being undertaken. The real aim is to change the relations between men and women in a fundamental way.
Why? Who benefits from this? The only people are those radical extremists who want to disrupt male and female interactions, and they have done just that in the workplace, the colleges, the high schools, the grade schools, and even the kindergartens. Everybody is now on notice. And, it’s not for nothing. As Catharine MacKinnon said in 1986 when hostile work environment was established as a type of sexual harassment, “We made this law up from the beginning and now we’ve won.”
Daphne Patai, Ph.D., is professor of Brazilian literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She spoke to the IWF in September 1999 about her newest book, Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism.