In a must-read Commentary article headlined "The Reckoning," the always interesting Christine Rosen poses an important question: who, in the post-MeToo era, will set the new norms for conduct between men and women in the workplace?
As Christine points out, we are in a period of transition:
We are in the midst of a revolution in our understanding of sexual harassment and assault. We’re told, as we are often told in the midst of media-driven manias, that everything has really changed this time.
As satisfying as this narrative might be for feminists on the warpath against “toxic masculinity” and conservatives who revile the sexual libertinism of the past half-century in America, it isn’t true.
As long as men and women are thrown together in the workplace—and are placed in competition with each other—sex will, in part, be a means to achieve power, a weapon wielded by both men and women. The question is what we can do to mitigate the damage. The record so far—and by so far, I mean over the past four decades—is not encouraging.
Rosen provides a fascinating journey through the development of theory about harassment in the workplace, starting with feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon's 1979 book Sexual Harassment of Working Women. Mackinnon argued that all women were affected by sexual harassment whether or not they had suffered personally from harassment.
Rosen writes that the culture was "ripe" for MacKinnon's arguments. Bourgeois norms had been fading for a decade, replaced by a supposedly more liberated culture. At the same time, women seemed to be experiencing high levels of sexual harassment. A Redbook magazine poll shortly before the MacKinnon book found that 90 percent of women in the workforce has experienced some form of harassment.
I might challenge Rosen's assertion that the era in which MacKinnon came of age intellectually was one that didn't accord women much agency, as reflected in advertisements for such products as Tide ("Tide's got what women want!"). But it's hard to disagree with her that the "competing view" was the sexpot, as personified by doomed uber-blonde Marilyn Monroe.
The sexual revolution changed all this. But Rosen notices something interesting about MacKinnon, who began writing in this norm-shaken world:
Which is where MacKinnon came in—although if we look back at it, her objection seems not Marxist in orientation but almost Victorian. She described a workplace in which women were unprotected by old-fashioned social norms against adultery and general caddishness and found themselves mired in a “hostile environment.” She named the problem; it fell to the feminist movement as a whole to enshrine protections against it.
MacKinnon's work was used in the Supreme Court's Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson ruling that said that if sexual harassment in the work place was sufficiently pervasive it created a hostile workplace in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission created new rules–norms–to prevent and punish sexual harassment. How well did this work long-term?
With new regulations and enforcement mechanisms, the argument went, the final, fusty traces of patriarchal, protective norms and bad behavior would be swept away in favor of rational legal rules that would ensure equal protection for women in the workplace. The culture might still objectify women, but our legal and employment systems would, in fits and starts, erect scaffolding upon which women who were harassed could seek justice.
But as the growing list of present-day harassers and predators attests—Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Michael Oreskes, Glenn Thrush, Mark Halperin, John Conyers, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, et al.—the system appears to have failed the people it was meant to protect. There were searing moments that raised popular awareness about sexual harassment.
So where do we go from here? Rosen writes:
The challenge going forward, now that the Hollywood honcho Weinstein and other notoriously lascivious beneficiaries of the liberation era have been removed, is how to negotiate the rules of attraction and punish predators in a culture that no longer embraces accepted norms for sexual behavior. Who sets the rules, and how do we enforce them? The self-appointed guardians of that galaxy used to be the feminist movement, but it is in no position to play that role today as it reckons not only with the gropers in its midst (Franken) but the ghosts of gropers past (Bill Clinton).
The feminist movement long ago traded MacKinnon’s radical feminism for political expedience. In 1992 and 1998, when her husband was a presidential candidate and then president, Hillary Clinton covered for Bill, enthusiastically slut-shaming his accusers. Her sin was and is at least understandable, if not excusable, given that the two are married. But what about America’s most glamorous early feminist, Gloria Steinem?
. . .
The consequences of applying to Clinton what Steinem herself called the “one-free-grope” rule are only now becoming fully visible. Even in the case of a predator as malevolent as Weinstein, it’s clear that feminists no longer have a shared moral language or the credibility with which to condemn such behavior. Having tied their movement’s fortunes to political power, especially the Democratic Party, it is difficult to take seriously their injunctions about male behavior on either side of the aisle now (just as it was difficult to take seriously partisans on the right who defended the Alabama Senate candidate and credibly accused child sexual predator Roy Moore). Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s initial hemming and hawing about denouncing accused sexual harasser Representative John Conyers was disappointing but not surprising.
Rosen writes that instead of norms we now have "weaponized gossip" and a new form of social media conscious raising that, unlike previous experiments in consciousness raising, doesn't end in hugs and empowerment but in "a brutally efficient form of insta-justice meted out on an almost daily basis against the accused."
But it will be hard to formulate new norms:
New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently argued that “we have to re-examine our toxic, privileged, encroaching masculinity itself. And yes, that also means on some level reimagining the rules of attraction.” But the whole point of the phrase “rules of attraction” is to highlight that there aren’t any and never have been (if you have any doubts, read the 1987 Bret Easton Ellis novel that popularized the phrase). Blow’s lectures about “toxic masculinity” are meant to sow self-doubt in men and thus encourage some enlightened form of masculinity, but that won’t end sexual harassment any more than Lysistrata-style refusal by women to have sex will end war.
Parents should be teaching their sons about personal boundaries and consent from a young age, just as they teach their daughters, and unequivocally condemn raunchy and threatening remarks about women, whether they are uttered by a talk-radio host or by the president of the United States. The phrase “that isn’t how decent men behave” should be something every parent utters.
But such efforts are made more difficult by a liberal culture that has decided to equate caddish behavior with assault precisely because it has rejected the strict norms that used to hold sway—the old conservative norms that regarded any transgression against them as a seriousviolation and punished it accordingly. Instead, in an effort to be a kinder, gentler, more “woke” society that’s understanding of everyone’s differences, we’ve ended up arbitrarily picking and choosing among the various forms of questionable behavior for which we will have no tolerance, all the while failing to come to terms with the costs of living in such a society.
A culture that hangs the accused first and asks questions later might have its virtues, but psychological understanding is not one of them.
Christine suggests that this reckoning might not be the Great Awakening so many see it as being because we have not yet and are unlikely to come to a consensus about sex–mere pleasure or bonding force for marriage?–and developed a new set of norms.
She predicts that, strange as it seems, the current crisis will eventually face to erupt again at a later date because we have yet to decide up norms.
The MeToo movement might have been movement feminism's opportunity to be the leading factor in creating post-MeToo norms–it is certainly trying to do so now–but the movement's failure to take a moral position on Bill Clinton's sexual misconduct, back when he was in the White House, when it would have mattered, put it in a less advantageous position for dictating norms.