It's easy to not harass women

For many of us in the science blogging scene, yesterday was a pretty lousy day. We learned that a guy who many of us had known for a long time, who we’d trusted, who we considered a friend, had been using his job to sexually harass women with sleezy propositions.

This led to a lot of discussion and debate in twitter. I spoke up to say that what bothered me about the whole thing was that it’s easy to not harass people.

This has led to rather a lot of hate mail. But it’s also led to some genuine questions and discussions. Since it can be hard to have detailed discussions on twitter, I thought that I’d take a moment here, expand on what I meant, and answer some of the questions.

To start: it really is extremely easy to not be a harasser. Really. The key thing to consider is: when is it appropriate to discuss sex? In general, it’s downright trivial: if you’re not in a not in private with a person with whom you’re in a sexual relationship, then don’t. But in particular, here are a couple of specific examples of this principle:

  • Is there any way in which you are part of a supervisor/supervisee or mentor/mentee relationship? Then do not discuss or engage in sexual behaviors of any kind.
  • In a social situation, are you explicitly on a date or other romantic encounter? Do both people agree that it’s a romantic thing? If not, then do not discuss or engage in sexual behaviors.
  • In a mutually understood romantic situation, has your partner expressed any discomfort? If so, then immediately stop discussing or engaging in sexual behaviors.
  • In any social situation, if a participant expresses discomfort, stop engaging in what is causing the discomfort.

Like I said: this is not hard.

To touch on specifics of various recent incidents:

  • You do not meet with someone to discuss work, and tell them about your sex drive.
  • You do not touch a students ass.
  • You do not talk to coworkers about your dick.
  • You don’t proposition your coworkers.
  • You don’t try to sneak a glance down your coworkers shirt.
  • You don’t comment on how hot your officemate looks in that sweater.
  • You do not tell your students that you thought about them while you were masturbating.

Seriously! Is any of this difficult? Should this require any explanation to anyone with two brain cells to rub together?

But, many of my correspondants asked, what about grey areas?

I don’t believe that there are significant grey areas here. If you’re not in an explicit sexual relationship with someone, then don’t talk to them about sex. In fact, if you’re in any work related situation at all, no matter who you’re with, it’s not appropriate to discuss sex.

But what about cases where you didn’t mean anything sexual, like when you complimented your coworker on her outfit, and she accused you of harassing her?

This scenario is, largely, a fraud.

Lots of people legitimately worry about it, because they’ve heard so much about this in the media, in politics, in news. The thing is, the reason that you hear all of this is because of people who are deliberately promoting it as part of a socio-political agenda. People who want to excuse or normalize this kind of behavior want to create the illusion of blurred lines.

In reality, harassers know that they’re harassing. They know that they’re making inappropriate sexual gestures. But they don’t want to pay the consequences. So they pretend that they didn’t know that what they were doing wrong. And they try to convince other folks that you’re at risk too! You don’t actually have to be doing anything wrong, and you could have your life wrecked by some crazy bitch!.

Consider for a moment, a few examples of how a scenario could play out.

Scenario one: woman officemate comes to work, dressed much fancier than usual. Male coworker says “Nice outfit, why are you all dressed up today?”. Anyone really think that this is going to get the male coworker into trouble?

Scenario two: woman worker wears a nice outfit to work. Male coworker says “Nice outfit”. Woman looks uncomfortable. Man sees this, and either apologizes, or makes note not to do this again, because it made her uncomfortable. Does anyone really honestly believe that this, occurring once, will lead to a formal accusation of harassment with consequences?

Scenario three: woman officemate comes to work dressed fancier than usual. Male coworker says nice outfit. Woman acts uncomfortable. Man keeps commenting on her clothes. Woman asks him to stop. Next day, woman comes to work, man comments that she’s not dressed so hot today. Anyone think that it’s not clear that the guy is behaving inappropriately?

Scenario four woman worker wears a nice outfit to work. Male coworker says “Nice outfit, wrowr”, makes motions like he’s pawing at her. Anyone really think that there’s anything ambiguous here, or is it clear that the guy is harassing her? And does anyone really, honestly believe that if the woman complains, this harasser will not say “But I just complimented her outfit, she’s being oversensitive!”?

Here’s the hard truths about the reality of sexual harassment:

  • Do you know a professional woman? If so, she’s been sexually harassed at one time or another. Probably way more than once.
  • The guy(s) who harassed her knew that he was harassing her.
  • The guy(s) who harassed her doesn’t think that he really did anything wrong.
  • There are a lot of people out there who believe that men are entitled to behave this way.
  • In order to avoid consequences for their behavior, many men will go to amazing lengths to deny responsibility.

The reality is: this isn’t hard. There’s nothing difficult about not harassing people. Men who harass women know that they’re harassing women. The only hard part of any of this is that the rest of us – especially the men who don’t harass women – need to acknowledge this, stop ignoring it, stop making excuses for the harassers, and stand up and speak up when we see it happening. That’s the only way that things will ever change.

We can’t make exceptions for our friends. I’m really upset about the trouble that my friend is in. I feel bad for him. I feel bad for his family. I’m sad that he’s probably going to lose his job over this. But the fact is, he did something reprehensible, and he needs to face the consequences for that. The fact that I’ve known him for a long time, liked him, considered him a friend? That just makes it more important that I be willing to stand up, and say: This was wrong. This was inexcusable. This cannot stand without consequences..

74 thoughts on “It's easy to not harass women

  1. Grrlscientist

    “It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.” ~~ Professor Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001).

    unfortunately, most people lack this second kind of courage.

  2. Dave M

    “In general, it’s downlight trivial: if you’re not in a not in private with a person with whom you’re in a sexual relationship, then don’t.”

    Please edit this sentence, then delete this comment.

  3. J. Dusheck

    I really like this. It doesn’t feel at all grey when it’s happening. And as long you don’t say anything to object, it stays pretty black and white. But say one thing, and suddenly everyone is telling you to take it easy and “I’m sure” he didn’t mean anything.

    One the things about harassment is that it begins with plausible deniability (at least to some) and escalates. And by the time it gets to something really obvious, the harasser can say, “But she didn’t mind this, this, and this. What was I supposed to think? I thought she didn’t mind! We were both enjoying it.”

  4. Katy Campi

    I’m pretty bothered by the simplification of a complex subject here. Just because something makes someone uncomfortable does NOT mean that it should stop. Many people were uncomfortable with homosexual couples showing affection in public – it should NOT stop. Just because something make you uncomfortable does not mean that someone else is doing something wrong. Stop being simplistic. Start talking about complexity in the issue. Start talking about how smart, good people can disagree on these issues. Start talking about the psychologically healthy coping mechanism of taking responsibility for your emotions and dealing with them in a mature way. Also, women sexually harass other women and men too.

    1. MarkCC Post author

      This is not a complex subject.

      There are all sorts of ways that you can play with words, or create hypothetical scenarios, or drag in all sorts of issues that have no relevance and no actual relation to the point at hand.

      But at the end of the day, the key point remains: people harassing other people know what they’re doing. I don’t believe, not for a moment, that you, or anyone else reading this post believes that I mean that gay couples shouldn’t show affection because it makes people uncomfortable. We’re talking about harassment and unwelcome advances. And it really is clear and simple.

      1. Katy Campi

        Clearly you do not understand that what I was referring to was your logic not your specific example. This is distressing to me as your blog here is being lauded by people I respect. Your clear examples of harassment do not help the situation. They simply make those of us that report harassment of a less clear-cut nature seem like we are overreacting. A lot of harassment takes the form of much less clear examples. As someone who has been harassed by both females and males I am unhappy with your simplistic view of the broader situation.

        1. drugmonkey

          They simply make those of us that report harassment of a less clear-cut nature seem like we are overreacting. A lot of harassment takes the form of much less clear examples

          I don’t read Mark as asserting that harassment is so simple that it is always easy to *prove* to an HR level of satisfaction. I read him as insisting that for the *perpetrator*, there is no question that he knows what he is about. Or, more realistically, that he *should* know what he is about, despite the fact that he has spent a lot of self-justification persuading himself that it is still an okay thing to do.

          Even MORE importantly here, Mark is reminding us supposedly well-intentioned men that our worries that “some little innocent thing we do” will be blown out of proportion are misplaced.

          1. Katy Campi

            First, please quit referring to this as a situation in which women are always the victim and men always the perpetrator. As a woman I am sick and tired of women constantly being referred to as the only victims. This also simplifies the problem down to something that it isn’t and further obscures the nature of and solutions to the problem.

            Second, maybe you should think about why so many of you ‘supposedly well-intentioned’ men are afraid things they do will be “blown out of proportion.” Perhaps it does have something to do with one person’s idea of harassment being different from another persons. Perhaps you have heard a story and thought, hey I’ve done that or my female colleague has done that and no one called it harassment.

            I have no doubt that this was a well-intentioned blog post. However, my problem still remains – an honest discussion of almost any human social interaction is complex.

          2. bpostow

            I think that the gender usages are just a convention. I believe that everyone agrees that both men and women can be both harassers and harassed. However, the overwhelming majority of cases are males harassing women. Rather than say “he/she” everywhere, we use the majority of the cases.

            I can honestly say that I have never had the experience of seeing someone accused of harassment and then saying to myself “Huh, I’ve done that” or “She did that and it wasn’t harassment”. That seems like a very unlikely experience to me.

            Again, you claim that there is complexity here, and that the examples sited are simplistic. Please give us better examples. Give an example where the instigator doesn’t know that harassment is occurring, but the victim is still harassed.

        2. bpostow

          The claim was that there are no “less clear-cut” situations. That all (or perhaps almost all) of those are clearly harassment. Or could clearly lead to harassment. If you have counter examples, actual gray area would be interesting.

          Also, note that this is not from the point of view of the authorities, or of a person who may or may not want to make a complaint of harassment. This is from the point of view of someone who doesn’t want to commit harassment, and is afraid that they might accidentally do that. I agree with Mark that it’s pretty easy to avoid any situation where harassment is possible.

          1. MarkCC Post author

            No: the claim here is that from the viewpoint of the harasser, there are no less clear-cut situations. This entire post is about the fact that it’s easy to not be a harasser.

            The guys who harass women – of course they do everything they can to cover their tracks. But that’s another way of getting at the central point of what I said. The harasser knows that he’s harassing. In his mind, there is no ambiguity. He knows that he’s doing something unwelcome, and that there could be repurcossions: that’s why he has tracks to cover.

            I don’t believe in the myth of the innocent harasser. The idea that a guy is making inappropriate sexual gestures towards a woman, without knowing that they’re inappropriate, and without knowing that they’re making the target of those gestures uncomfortable? It’s ridiculous.

            Harassers know what they’re doing. They do it because they believe that it’s OK, or because they believe that they can get away with it. But they know what they’re doing.

          2. MarkCC Post author

            In fact, let me go a bit further:

            One of my huge frustrations watching the sociopolitics of our culture is the fact that so many people are willing to accept the idea that men are innocent victims of predatory women who use feminism to get them. It’s a bullshit story which gets paraded out all too often.

            Men who victimize women – whether that victimization takes the form of sexual harassment, abuse, rape, or anything else – they know that they are victimizing women. Rapists know, full well, that they are rapists. Abusers know, full well, that they are abusers.

            But when they get caught, they don’t want to face the punishment for what they did. So they make excuses. They make up stories: I didn’t know I was harassing her, I was just complimenting her outfit! I didn’t know she didn’t want sex, but we were drunk! I didn’t mean to hit her, but she just kept pushing me!

            It’s all justifications to cover up for the fact that they know they did something wrong.

          3. lokidemon

            “Men who victimize women – whether that victimization takes the form of sexual harassment, abuse, rape, or anything else – they know that they are victimizing women. Rapists know, full well, that they are rapists. Abusers know, full well, that they are abusers.”

            MarkCC I think you’re over simplifying it again. I am both a victim of abuse and have, in the past, abused my boyfriend. I honestly did not consider my constant manipulation, harassment, and slapping, hitting, kicking him abuse. There are a couple of reasons it wasn’t clear to me, one being mental illness, another being the fact that my only other relationship was abusive and abuse was normalized to me. Of course, I have since come to realize that my behavior was abusive and corrected it, but that realization is *rare*. My abusive ex believes, legitimately and wholeheartedly believes, that what he did to me was justified. It’s not just an excuse for the public, in his mind he is right and everyone who accuses him of victimizing me is wrong. And it’s been proven that rapists don’t consider themselves criminals. They believe that all men engage in the same behavior they do and just keep it secret. Yes, they know to keep it secret but they don’t know it’s wrong. Does all this mean that abusers should be any less accountable for their abuse? Of course not! But it does complicate the issue a little, especially for people like me. I was abusive out of mistaken understandings of love and because of my mental illness, and while I needed to face the consequences of my actions I also very much needed to be told that what I was doing was wrong.

    2. origami isopod

      Seriously?! Being uncomfortable with someone who has much more power than you do expressing sexual interest in you = being uncomfortable with GLBT people holding hands in public?!

  5. PA32R (@PA32R)

    Parts of this are absurd. Yes, the “casting couch,” “I’ll promote you if you do ____,” “you have to show me how much you want this job…,” proceeding beyond being asked to stop, and many other behaviors are obviously wrong and reprehensible. But acquiescing to a universal right to not be offended is equally reprehensible.

    Further, I haven’t followed the Twitter interchange so I don’t know the details of the case, but is it really justifiable that someone’s career, future, and life are ruined by offending someone? I call BS. Consequences yes, total devastation – no. Devastation would be appropriate for such things as rape, assault, molestation, etc. Lest anyone wonder, I AM in a position of authority over 275 men and women employed at our firm and I have NOT ever engaged in nor been accused of engaging in harassment so I don’t speak to self-justify my own situation.

    I can assure you that several of your contentions are false: to wit, “This scenario is, largely, a fraud” with respect to an innocent comment being brought up as evidence of harassment in a legal action. It can, has, and does happen. Your contention that “those who harass know they are harassing” is basically a tautology and so, of course, it’s true. What’s NOT true is that someone who engages in a behavior that the recipient or witness to that behavior perceives as harassment invariably knows that it’s being perceived that way.

    The pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction from the old (and rightly regarded as despicable) days when a man in a position of authority in a company could think that “anything goes.”

  6. bpostow

    I think that we have a problem with language here. The victim of harassment isn’t “offended”,. Or at least that’s not the primary experience. The victim is demeaned. Made to feel less than human.

    So, yes, I believe that we DO have a universal right to not be demeaned.

    1. PA32R (@PA32R)

      Actually, I disagree. We arguably have such a right in a work environment, many other places we do not. I’m sure there are many instances where you and I would agree that a given behavior was demeaning, harassing, unacceptable, and worthy of the legal machinery to exact consequences. My point is that that legal machinery is used in cases where “offended” is the correct description.

  7. bpostow

    Again, I don’t think that the point was to explain how to avoid ever being ACCUSED of harassment. And the courts are a totally different issue. The point (I believe) was how to avoid ACTUALLY HARASSING someone. The number of actual harassment claims on people who DON’T Follow Mark’s simple rules is astounding. The percentage of people who are accused of harassment because they didn’t follow Mark’s rules vs the percentage that are accused because someone is over-sensitive are astounding. The number of cases like your anecdote is vanishingly small compared to the number of cases where a person does something that is actually inappropriate.

    Perhaps you’d be happier with “These simple rules won’t guarantee that you won’t harass someone, but they WILL make the odds REALLY REALLY low.” Sort of like “Looking both ways before you cross the street won’t guarantee that you don’t get hit by a truck, but it makes the odds MUCH MUCH lower.”

  8. Anonymous

    Well put! I think you are generally right on – harassers have sexual intent regardless of their lame excuses and people subject to that harassment can appreciate the difference between a lame joke and an inappropriate remark or behaviour. I think there is some grey area in real life though. A case in point is a scientist who is highly respected in his field, but also known by everyone to be quite the crazy character. He regularly tells off-color jokes, makes sexual references or says highly inappropriate personal things. But these incidents are never directed at a particular person and he says them regardless of whether he is around men, women, trainees, colleagues or strangers. Moreover, he is a highly supportive mentor and has trained many women who have gone on to be successful in the field with his support. He doesn’t have intent to harass in my opinion, just doesn’t have much of a filter. I worked with him as a colleague for years and did not feel offended by him nor did any of his many female trainees that I knew well feel offended or demeaned by his behaviour. But perhaps others would be.

  9. Natasha

    You should be able to sue your employer and prevail if your employer doesn’t do anything about the person who makes those remarks to you after you’ve reported them. No one is saying that your employer should be responsible for everything its employees are doing, but if the employer turns a blind eye to harassment and allows it to continue, then as the harassed party, you should get recourse.

  10. chall

    “The key thing to consider is: when is it appropriate to discuss sex? In general, it’s downright trivial: if you’re not in a not in private with a person with whom you’re in a sexual relationship, then don’t.”

    While I really think this is an excellent summary of the problem, I really liked your examples underneath. Especially the pointer that “if you are not even-even in the work hirechy” don’t even contemplate it. I mean really? It is hard?

    And I think, considering how much I’ve seen in the science world of the “maybe you’re liking the sex looking like that” and “come to my room for drinks” at conferences, I’d say that embarrassing the people expressing these things are the biggest nonos since “they didn’t know it was taken wrong” but as you say; most often than not I’d say they are very well aware of the issue. They just don’t care and would like everyone to just be quiet and ‘play the game as it’s always been played”. that’s part of the problem. It’s not a new thing. the new thing is to say it’s not an ok thing to do….

  11. Somebody

    Well, I’m gay and I’m totally romantically uninterested in women and I also try to behave completely gender-neutral at work.

    Yet I had received angry outbursts from simple “Nice dress” statements from women a couple of times. In one case the woman in question later apologized, because she had to endure that statement through the whole day and from people much less nicer than me.

    So it’s best to try to avoid even simple statements like “nice outfit” unless you know the person in question.

    1. MarkCC Post author

      Honestly, I can’t understand why you would comment on the clothing of a person you don’t know. Maybe that’s just my social anxiety, but… why?

      1. Somebody

        Well, I was not a complete stranger. Think about a person who works a couple of cubicles away in an office. We talk professionally a couple of times a week and also sometimes in social situation (like meeting in a cafeteria).

      2. Harald M.

        Really? Where do you live??

        In Italy, it is common and, in some situations (like at a local festival) very much expected that you have to comment on the clothing of women.

        A somewhat different situation: In Germany, it is totally ok to bare your breasts in public when you are going to breast-feed your child (no need to “hide” them somehow). Someone approaching the woman and claiming that this is not ok (which happened in airplances with American flight attendants) is, from the German standpoint, harrassing; from the American standpoint, they are probably just guarding their ancent rules – and even feel themselves harrassed as they have to deal with words like “breasts” and viewing naked breasts.

        “Simply not harrassing” is a laudable goal; but being tolerant of how someone else might behave is the necessary complement!

        Harald M.

  12. J. Dusheck

    If this was a frequent thing that interfered with your work and your employer did nothing to stop it, you could sue. Hard to say if you’d win.

    But this has nothing to do with MarkCC’s post. His post was about how to avoid harassing women and also how men who don’t do things have (almost) nothing to worry about.

  13. Catherine Asaro

    The situation isn’t simple, it’s true. I don’t think Mark is claiming that, though. Rather, he is saying that the incidents he points out should be self-evident as inappropriate.

    Over my nearly half century as a scientist or student in science, I rarely spoke about incidents of sexual harassment. I came to the profession at a time when women almost never spoke up, for fear of the negative impact on our jobs, grades, standing, reputation, or credibility. It was a more hostile environment. In my youth, far fewer women were in the work force, and those who wanted to work were looked at askance. A very different atmosphere exists today, and in most ways, I consider these changes progress.

    In the 1980’s, I was a sexual harassment counselor at a college where I was on the faculty. In 2013, I went through a training course in sexual harassment that all faculty members at the university where I teach in the summer were required to take. I was both gratified and unsettled by how things have changed.

    The biggest difference is how open the university is in stating that sexual harassment leads to problems, how to avoid it, and how to report it. I was gratified to see that the current training covered all possible forms of behavior that could be considered harassment, including those that are ambiguous (and some forms are ambiguous). I was gratified that the course made no bones about harassment being unacceptable in any form. I was gratified that the expected response was scaled depending on what happened and whether it had happened before.

    When I was a faculty member at a college during the late 1980s, no such course existed. Very few people even knew that we (the sexual harassment counselors) existed, and those who knew tended to regard us with suspicion. In that sense, our educational institutions have made great strides.

    Another striking difference exists between 1988 and 2013. When I was a counselor, we guaranteed confidentiality to any person making a report. Whatever they told us would be held in the strictest confidence unless they asked otherwise. Our role was not to encourage any particular form of action, but rather to talk with the person who came forward, find out what they felt would alleviate the situation, report it if they requested, and see if we could help fix or repair whatever had happened. We also served as counselors in the sense of assuring them that they weren’t in the wrong or oversensitive for feeling uncomfortable and that they had a support system available to them.

    By contrast, in today’s educational arena a lot of institutions require the faculty to forward all reports of sexual harassment to the appropriate officials. In many ways this is good; harassment doesn’t happen in a vacuum, patterns can be better identified when good documentation exists, and survivors can be protected if the university knows what is happening. However, it also worries me. What if that lack of privacy deters people who have experienced harassment from coming forward?

    However, regardless of what happens, the matter doesn’t in general become public unless it is a criminal offense or something of similar severity, such as behavior that leads to someone being fired. That doesn’t mean no action is taken; quite the contrary. If the system in place works, then every attempt is made to match severity of the reaction to the severity of the action.

    What worries me about some harassment policies I’ve seen for sf cons is the inability of those policies to deal with complexity. A single response isn’t appropriate for all situations. If the response is too mild, it allows harassers to continue what they are doing with only a slap on the wrist. If the policy is too severe, it leaves the concom with no leeway in matching the severity of the response to the actions.

    To give an example: In general I enjoy sf cons, and I always have. However, there were times in the past when I would have liked some designated official I could go to and say, “This sexualized or hostile behavior made me uncomfortable. Can you help?” But I wouldn’t have wanted the person who did the behavior banned for life or humiliated online. In most cases a warning would have been sufficient. If the person had a history of such behavior, the con may have wanted to take more action, but it would all depend on the details, context, and history.

    The Internet has made it possible to reveal the truth of what many of us experienced for years, decades even. Emails, videos, blogs, comments all show evidence of what–before the electronic age–went on in silence, with women like myself afraid to report it, uncertain of the proper action, even unsure that we could call what happened sexual harassment.

    I cried (in private) during my training as a harassment counselor back in the 1980s when I realized that what I had ignored or accepted as “normal” in my scientific career was indeed unacceptable. I didn’t have to laugh it off or accept it as the status quo. The problem wasn’t me.

    Back then, when a woman talked about how uncomfortable comments of a sexual nature made her, the response was a more severe version of what still happens today, the assumption that she was “over-reacting.” I saw that in three types of response. Decent guys who would never themselves act in such a manner often found it hard to imagine anyone else would either. So they bought into the idea that the woman over-reacted. The second response, to paraphrase, was, “This is the reality of the workplace. Men will be men, and if you don’t like the way we interact, you don’t belong here.” The third response was to assume the woman was mentally ill/ unbalanced/ vindictive/ evil/or had personality defects.

    The world has changed since then. With the advent of the online universe, the evidence of what we all lived with for so long in silence is now inescapable, not only in sexual harassment, but in other ways. It used to be that if a girl said she was raped when she got drunk at a party, people blamed her or assumed she was lying. That still happens today, but a new phenomena is helping reveal what lies beneath that soul-parching assumption. Videos may exist with unambiguous evidence of the date rape. Emails may exist. Twitter exists. It isn’t so easy to hide anymore.

    But. The capacity of the web to shame people can be abused. Most people agree that posting a video of a drunk girl having her clothes taken off without her unambiguous consent is wrong. But what about posting the name of someone who sent an inappropriate email? Is it really worth destroying their career, reputation, personal life? The severity of the reaction needs to match the action. And that isn’t a simple call to make.

    These questions have no easy answer. This much I do know; we need to establish procedures and social customs for responding. The online universe has started a dialogue that we’ve needed for a long time. How we conduct that dialogue is up to all of us.

    1. Isabel

      “But what about posting the name of someone who sent an inappropriate email?” Why not? Is this really going to ruin the person’s life? Why should someone send an innappropriate email in the first place? The whole point of this post is that it is not hard to not send one!

      This is the whole point, being open about what is happening from the beginning. If the email isn’t so bad, will it really “ruin the persons life”? Has this ever happened?

      All these stories we are hearing show that women are still putting up with way too much. Bora’s behavior, as a powerful, older person in a field speaking to a younger person he had just met, was really, really weird. It is great that so many people are posting these stories, and yes naming names (partly so we can confirm the stories, as Bora has done) so that people recognise when they are being harassed and WHY they are not comfortable.

      1. MarkCC Post author

        You’ve hit the nail on the head exactly.

        There are all of these stories floating around about innocent people who had their career ruined. I’m incredibly skeptical of these stories, because they’re almost always the “friend of a friend” hearsay variety without enough information to make it possible to check.

        In every case that I’ve taken the time to track down, the core of the case involved something seriously objectionable, which the person in question should have known not to do.


        Look at the McGinn case in Miami. Lots of people think that being pushed out of his job was too severe a punishment. But the guy was sending email talking about masturbation to one of his students! Even if it was a joke, why on earth would he have thought that this was an appropriate thing to joke about with any student?!

        That’s what I meant about it being easy not to harass. Don’t do stupid shit like that. If you’re in a supervisory role, don’t talk about sex with your supervisees. Why is this hard?

        1. J. Dusheck

          I totally agree. It’s difficult for people restrain themselves because a lot of supervisors feel they have a right to talk about anything they like, including sex. I think a lot of surprising behavior like this has its roots in entitlement generally. That sense of not having to obey all the rules.

          My graduate advisor talked about sex all the time. He even complained to me about his sex life with his wife. And his lab was where I spent all my time. I just ignored him when he talked about sex. I felt like I couldn’t do anything about what he said. And at least he didn’t have pinups all over the lab, like my friends’ advisors. I also liked to imagine that I was immune to the effects of the talk. (But I wasn’t.)

      2. Catherine Asaro

        Isabel, you have my agreement. As a feminist, I thought quite a bit before posting. It was one sentence in a rather lengthy post that generally supports your comments, but anyone who has been in this field knows that if we are perceived as “giving” even a bit, people might use that statement to justify sexual harassment. So we learn never to make such statements.

        I finally decided to go ahead, because I do think we need to look at those questions. When I first read your response, I was surprised that one sentence would evoke such a strong reaction. Then I thought “Duh.” That one sentence could be interpreted as commentary on Mark’s blog entry. It wasn’t meant that way.

        It took courage for Mark bring up the discussion, not only because he knew he was posting in a forum where he was likely to get a lot of flak, but also because he was commenting about his own friend. That took guts. I joined the conversation (when I rarely do online) because I admired that courage. Just to be clear; my comment was in no way a criticism of this blog entry.

        1. Isabel

          Hi Catherine,
          I did agree with most of your post, it was just disappointing to encounter the warning at the end: “Is it really worth destroying their career, reputation, personal life? The severity of the reaction needs to match the action. And that isn’t a simple call to make.” I just haven’t seen this being a problem, have you? It comes down to asking women (usually) to protect harassers by keeping the harassment secret. This is the same worry that causes the strange inaction in the moment we keep hearing about in these stories, often precisely for this reason- because the perpetrator preys on the victim’s sympathies.

          1. Catherine Asaro

            Isabel, I understand your reaction. But sexual harassment covers a much larger area than what is being talked about here, including cases more severe and less severe.

            I’ve been at the forefront of this topic for over forty years, including a time when we risked our careers to raise these issues. I’ve worked to change the chilly atmosphere in education for women in science and math for decades. By worked, I mean putting my actions where my words are, writing books, teaching, organizing programs for women, encouraging girls in STEM programs, and providing a role model. What I’m talking about here is not protecting harassers.

            Consider the following hypothetical case: a 22 year old TA asks a 22 year-old student in his discussion section out on a date during an email exchange. The woman says no, she wouldn’t be comfortable because he is her TA. Embarrassed, he apologizes and never does it again. Should his name should be posted for pubic shaming? Of course not. Yet he did initially behave in a manner that colleges nowadays define as inappropriate in their sexual harassment guidelines, even if he didn’t realize it.

            People make mistakes. In fact, until recent years, TAs often didn’t know that asking a peer out on a date was inappropriate if that person was in their class. The important thing is that he owned up to it and the behavior stopped.

            A continuum exists between situations where the person didn’t realize their behavior was inappropriate and corrected it when they understood (like the TA) and the cases where a person is violating standards of decency and pretends not to know. It isn’t quantized. An unambiguous cut off doesn’t exist.

            That said, the web has been a watershed of bringing issues of sexual harassment to the forefront. It’s played a vital role in helping change hostile environments. I laud that role. I’ve seen incredible changes over the decades. I can hardly describe what it is like to live through several eras, to see the world change in ways that in my youth I doubted would happen in my lifetime.

            A dialogue is now taking place, everywhere, all over the web. It’s a remarkable era, the advent of the information age. Back in the 60’s a big call to women’s rights was burning our bras. Seriously? Even back then, the only thing I saw liberated by underwear incineration was a mammary bounce that I could very well do without. Sure, the dialogue was different. But it happened, and that led to progress. In another ten or twenty years from now, the dialogue will be different again. But overall we always seem to make progress.

          2. grrlscientist

            As catherine pointed out:

            Consider the following hypothetical case: a 22 year old TA asks a 22 year-old student in his discussion section out on a date during an email exchange. The woman says no, she wouldn’t be comfortable because he is her TA. Embarrassed, he apologizes and never does it again. Should his name should be posted for pubic shaming? Of course not. Yet he did initially behave in a manner that colleges nowadays define as inappropriate in their sexual harassment guidelines, even if he didn’t realize it.

            my university was wise this way, possibly due in part to your efforts. no one was allowed in front of a classroom until they’d first completed a course about harassment — what it is, what it looks like, and how to avoid doing it yourself.

            for some people, this sort of thing is intuitive, but for others, having never come from a background where neither they nor any of their family ever had a position of power, it was a real eye-opening experience.

            although it is true that people make mistakes, they should immediately take necessary measures to correct bad behaviours. for that reason, it’s the repeat performances, the ongoing pattern of misbehaviour, that are name-and-shame worthy. as they should be.

  14. Pingback: Inappropriate behavior | Dr.K.

  15. Ryan

    Does anybody have any data to add to this discussion?

    People are making claims like the “vast majority” of cases of sexual harassment is intentional — the perpetrator knows what he is doing and does it anyway. People similarly claim that the proportion of cases in which the accused was truly unaware that their actions were being perceived as demeaning or offensive is “vanishingly small”.

    This may well be true, but it’s a rather bold claim to merely assert without evidence. And no, I do not find absence of evidence to the contrary to be particularly convincing. Thus, simply deleting any comment that contains a contrary viewpoint is not going to cut it.

    The claims may very well be true. I trust that people here are basing their opinions on reliable statistics — or even personal experience — rather than media reports, wherein the selection bias is so extreme so as to render any data useless. (Terrorism and murder do not account for a vast majority of deaths, contrary to what media reports might lead you to believe.)

    If there is no solid data that is being used to justify the specific factual claims being made here, then I don’t think it’s appropriate to make them. If you want to explain what sexual harassment is in your opinion, explain what behaviours you find inappropriate, give advice on how to be respectful to others, then great! I assert that the proportion of the population that would take issue with that is also “vanishingly small”; however, the moment you tack on some totally unsupported completely sexist claims, things change. At that point, you should expect to be held to the same standard by your readers as you would hold a Cantor crank making equally baseless claims. If you want to cry and go on a comment deleting rampage, then fine. Just don’t be so critical the next time a Cantor crank gets angry when you do to him what your readers are doing to you.

    1. MarkCC Post author

      I think that you’re trying to derail the conversation here, but I’m willing to take the time to explain why, for the benefit of other readers.

      When I’m writing about math, I’m writing about something that is fundamentally abstract and objective. Every result in math is backed
      by a proof, and any interested person can walk through the steps of that proof, and see exactly what’s going on, and why it’s correct or not. It may be an extremely difficult and laborious process, bit it’s always doable. There’s nothing hidden. There’s nothing subjective, no room for agreement or disagreement: either there’s a valid proof that follows from a consistent set of axioms, or there is not. There’s room for disagreement about whether the axioms are, in a philosophical sense, the correct axioms. You can disagree with Cantor’s result, because you believe that the axiom of choice doesn’t make sense and produces inconsistent results – and that’s fine. I won’t agree with you, but it’s a legitimate mathematical thing to do.

      When we’re talking about human beings and human motivations, we’re in a very different situation. We can’t ever know, with mathematical certainty, what motivates another person. We can’t know, with mathematical certainty, what another person is thinking. We don’t even have reliable statistics about very general things, like how many people are sociopaths.

      When we look at any case of alleged sexual harassment, we don’t know whether the alleged perpetrator really knew that they were doing something wrong. We can’t know.

      In fact, when we look at any human behavior, we can’t know what people are thinking. But every day, in a thousand little interactions, we make inferences about what people think, about what motivates them.

      People accused of sexual harassment don’t admit that they’re harassers. People accused of any kind of abuse don’t admit that they’re abusers. Look at studies of domestic abuse: the abusers very, very rarely admit that they’re abusers. People don’t like to admit that they’re guilty.

      So should we then conclude that it’s completely unfair to judge people for their abusive actions? No. We look at human behavior, and we make inferences, just like we do for everything else about people.

      Look at the McGinn case as an example. McGinn still maintains that there was no element of sexual harassment to his actions towards his student. But does anyone honestly believe that when he told her about thinking about her while masturbating that he was really just trying to teach her about the distinction between logical implication and conversational implicature?

      Can I say, with mathematical certainty, that he wasn’t? Of course not. Can I say, with mathematical certainty that abusers know that when they smack their spouses around that they’re doing something wrong? Of course not. Can I say with mathematical certainty that sexual harassers know that they’re doing something inappropriate? Of course not. In none of those cases can I dissect their brains and see the thoughts that live inside. Can I say what I believe about what they know? Yeah. We do that all the time.

    2. Dan


      a simple Google search will provide you with all the data you need about the vast majority of sexual harassment cases. I do not understand how you are making this point in all seriousness.

  16. drugmonkey

    Look at the McGinn case in Miami.

    absolutely classic case of the douchebag harasser who knows perfectly well what he is doing. but he’s wrapped it up in such ivory tower assholishness and self-justifying excuse making that he actually believes his own bullshit.

    1. J. Dusheck

      Wow. I was not aware of this case.

      Here’s a quote from McGinn to the New York Times about his repeatedly propositioning his student in what he claimed was an “intellectual romance.”

      “There was no propositioning,” he said in the interview. Properly understanding another e-mail to the student that included the crude term for masturbation, he added later via e-mail, depended on a distinction between “logical implication and conversational implicature.”

      “Remember that I am a philosopher trying to teach a budding philosopher important logical distinctions,” he said.

  17. suevanhattum

    Here’s some detail on complexity.

    I am a woman. Of course I have been sexually harassed – what woman hasn’t? However, I’m not remembering it happening since I’ve worked professional jobs. Back when I was a waitress (long, long ago), definitely. Since I began teaching, nothing I remember.

    I am a lesbian. I am sometimes not good at reading others’ responses. I am affectionate. (To me, that’s a very separate realm from sexuality.) This can be a bad combination. I have more than once hugged someone with no sexual intent, and found out that they took it wrong.

    I wouldn’t hug someone if I knew they didn’t want me to, but sometimes it seemed like a hug was a good response to someone’s pain. Good thing I learned to always ask first if someone wanted a hug, before I started teaching. That solved my issue with not always reading people right.

    I was not sexually harassing anyone, but it got seen that way through homophobia, and because I was socially clumsy – hugging people who did not really want those hugs.

    So that’s one issue.

    Here’s another. Mark, it sounds like part of your solution is: No one should ever talk about sexually charged stuff at work. I disagree. We spend most of our waking hours at work. Many people have most of their social lives happening at work. Flirting (if done respectfully) can be fun for all involved. Yes, it can lead to lots of gray areas, and anyone who’s bad at reading a situation can make mistakes. If you’ve made mistakes, you need to figure out how to stop making mistakes. But I don’t think most people need a blanket rule of no sextalk at work.

    I talk more with students than with my peers (who are straight), so I do not flirt at work. But in the past, I’ve been in jobs where it made sense.

    1. Isabel

      “Yes, it can lead to lots of gray areas, and anyone who’s bad at reading a situation can make mistakes.”

      I wonder about this. I think we can go ahead and draw a line. This is revealed by the fact that it’s obviously hard for people to come up with a sympathetic, hypothetical example that’s anywhere near as bad as the cases such as Bora’s that are actually under discussion. That the “offenders” in the examples always have to be very young or have asbergers should tell you something. Even though Bora was a popular, outgoing, middle aged man who actively promoted feminist writers.

      But I know what you mean about the ban on talking about sex. There is definitely a right way to do it, I agree. But it is not one where one party is uncomfortable and/or unwilling. While there may be some 22-year-olds and awkward types who don’t really “get it” out there, I don’t think this is the problem being discussed, and is sort of a derailing.

      I am really beginning to doubt the very existence of this “continuum” people are insistently talking about. For example, as an example of natural, acceptable flirting at work that comes to mind, I worked in a busy wine tasting room a while back. Workers had to reach around each other to get bottles to pour – many were behind the bar at waist height or lower, so we were always accidentally touching each other and joking about it, causing one particularly entertainingly gregarious character to sometimes make flirtatious comments to women workers. No one minded, and it was just an example of an amusing, and yes, more human way to get through our shifts. Okay fine. Nowadays, i happen to have a much younger male undergrad working on my research. Suppose we go out for coffee one day and I suddenly go on and on about my sexuality and tell him I love him and he is obviously uncomfortable and barely responds. How is this even related to the first example of the tasting room? Because I thought the first situation was okay, I might slip one day and think the second is okay? Come on, people! I felt nauseous even writing that -how can Bora think it is okay to actually do? And why would the reason why I did such a bizarre inappropriate thing be even relevant (eg I was stressed etc) -why do we care about these guys excuses when they are basically acting *sociopathic*, and NOT just “awkward”?

      1. J. Dusheck

        Thank you, Isabel, for making this so clear.

        First of all, in any decently run college or university, a TA knows he’s not supposed to date students. That’s five words: “not supposed to date students.” Not complicated. I have two sons, 24 and 20 and they are more than capable of understanding this concept. A 22 year old is not a child.

        “I am really beginning to doubt the very existence of this “continuum” people are insistently talking about.”

        Me, too. In my lengthy career being female, all of the men who have talked inappropriately about sex to me have been older, usually older than 40 or 50. This is only an anecdote, I’ll quickly concede. But it’s my experience.

        In my youth, it wasn’t innocent and fumbling young men who forgot they weren’t supposed to ask me personal questions or tell me about their sex lives. It was and remains always the older ones. I seriously doubt that innocence or awkwardness is the reason for 99% of these interactions.

        These situations are largely not accidents.
        It’s easy to not do the things on Mark’s list.
        To carry them out requires willfully giving oneself permission to do so.

  18. Yiab

    So what you are telling someone like me, Mark, is that since I have no intent to harass, I have nothing to worry about? Okay, I can accept that. Intellectually, at least.

    What you’re also saying though is that nobody anywhere is stupid enough to think that sexual conversations are appropriate in some places that almost everyone agrees is actually inappropriate. I have a great degree of difficulty accepting the idea that it is even possible to underestimate the potential intelligence, awareness or social ability of “someone, somewhere, sometime”.

    Something else you seem to be implying is that education about what constitutes harassment (and even rape, per one of your comments above!) is utterly pointless, and this is a point with which I cannot disagree more.

  19. Jonathan D

    Mark, I get that you don’t like the idea of ‘grey areas’ being used to justify some sort of men are victimised narrative. I get that you hate ‘grey areas’ being brought up to excuse things that are pretty obviously unacceptable. As far as you’re trying to make an unambiguous statement against these sort of things, good on you.

    But does that need to be accompanied with ideas that give such a narrow definition of harassment, let alone other things? (“Abusers know, full well, that they’re abusers” – wow!) I’m guessing you’re not actually trying to dismiss the injury in less “clear-cut” situations, just a bit confined in thought to some sort of professional world where the offenders mostly have it all together. That’s not the real word. It’s not even the real workplace for all professionals.

  20. Pingback: Friday Recommended Reads #7 | Small Pond Science

  21. Isabel

    “Consider the following hypothetical case: a 22 year old TA asks a 22 year-old student in his discussion section out on a date during an email exchange. The woman says no, she wouldn’t be comfortable because he is her TA. Embarrassed, he apologizes and never does it again. Should his name should be posted for pubic shaming? ”

    Catherine, If it is, will his career and family be ruined? Probably not. Has this ever even happened? Doubtful. So what is your point? Women should always give men the benefit of the doubt, even if they feel uncomfortable? That seems to be the problem here, not the solution!

    “People make mistakes. In fact, until recent years, TAs …”

    Right and here we are talking about a middle aged, feminist blogger-promoting guy who told his wife’s sexual history among other things to a young woman he just met who wanted to talk business. Why are we discussing TAs who want to date someone their age? (hard to imagine even a 22-yr-old not realizing they should wait til the end of the semester, but whatever) Next we will worry about men who innocently compliment a woman’s outfit, or god forbid, hold the door open for a woman. Maybe their lives will be ruined if someone notices and complains!! It happens every day!!

    “A continuum exists between situations where the person didn’t realize their behavior was inappropriate and corrected it when they understood (like the TA) and the cases where a person is violating standards of decency and pretends not to know. It isn’t quantized. An unambiguous cut off doesn’t exist.”

    This is becoming unbearably condescending. And starting to sound phony. Oh and you never answered my question. When has (what you warned about) ever happened?

    “That said, the web has been a watershed of bringing issues of sexual harassment to the forefront. It’s played a vital role in helping change hostile environments. I laud that role. I’ve seen incredible changes over the decades. ”

    What incredible changes in understanding have you seen over the decades, especially that had to do with the web? How exactly has the web helped to change hostile environments? Can you give us some examples where an environment is now less hostile thanks to the web?

    That would be more helpful than your bogus warnings.

    “Look at the McGinn case in Miami.

    absolutely classic case of the douchebag harasser ”

    Is this how you feel about Bora also, DM? I noticed you’ve been awfully quiet all of a sudden…

  22. Pingback: No, this doesn’t mean you need to avoid your female colleagues like the plague | DrugMonkey

  23. Alison Cummins

    Catherine, you said, “But what about posting the name of someone who sent an inappropriate email? Is it really worth destroying their career, reputation, personal life?”

    The example you give of “an inappropriate email” is one 22-year-old emailing another 22-year-old once.

    I will repeat Isabel’s question: how often have you seen a 22-year-old TA’s “career, reputation, personal life” destroyed over a single email? Does this happen often in your experience?

  24. Opacity

    Thanks, Catherine Asaro.

    There are four hour-long versions of the course. Which is the one that explains how common it is in real life for a 22 year old’s career, reputation and personal life to be ruined over a single emailed invitation?

  25. Catherine Asaro

    The link I gave to the UMBC site is particularly relevant to this discussion. Such courses came in part out of the discussions many of us had during the 70s and 80s. I’m not connected to Workplace Answers, but I find their course a well thought out one. When determining the content for such courses, the designers have to ask questions about what constitutes sexual harassment, such as the TA example I gave of above. The answers not only include the more egregious cases discussed here and elsewhere recently, but also behaviors that many people consider far less obvious.

    In other words, sexual harassment includes much less obvious behaviors. For example, in the above situation, if the TA has persisted after being asked to stop, that would have been sexual harassment.

    Going through that course I posted the link to can answer a lot of questions that people have about what constitutes sexual harassment.

    Many people who experience sexual harassment want confidentiality, and some won’t come forward if they think their experiences will be made public. Many fear that discussing it online will expose them to online attacks. They need to know they can come forward and have their concerns addressed in an environment they trust.

    The following is a quote from the UMBC course, their bullet points about why it is important to ask these questions:

    “It is your legal right to work and learn in an environment free from sexual harassment.

    Others may also be offended by the behavior but also uncomfortable about complaining.

    The harasser may have victimized or offended others in the past and will continue to do so if someone doesn’t speak up.

    The law prohibits retaliation against employees who file complaints. Many employers have faced large financial judgments against them for failing to protect those rights.

    You are never at fault for harassment. The harasser is responsible for his/her own behavior.

    You are not going to ‘get the harasser into trouble.’ He has gotten himself into trouble.

    Harassers often count on the victim feeling too embarrassed or powerless; too scared or too nice to complain about harassing behavior.

    If you feel your initial attempts at making a complaint are not taken seriously or you suffer retaliation, there are other avenues, and a progression of complaint resources (i.e., informal complaint to offender, formal complaint within the organization, complaint to a state agency, complaint to the EEOC, civil lawsuit).

    If you don’t complain, the harassment you are experiencing will not stop.”

  26. Catherine Asaro

    To put it another way: the complexity of what constitutes sexual harassment is important because it brings up behaviors that many people don’t realize are harassing. In designing procedures to deal with the behaviors, policies need to indicate why the less obvious cases are harassment. More often than not, denying that ambiguity lets behaviors that are harassing get by under the radar rather than the reverse.

  27. Catherine Asaro

    I was asked above to describe the changes I’ve seen over the decades and how I think the web has factored into that. Although I look younger, I’m nearly 60 years old (58 in a few weeks).

    When I first started to work, our culture didn’t acknowledge that sexual harassment existed. The idea of a course to train people about it would have been considered ludicrous. Bringing up the subject could and often did get a woman fired. The courage of people who have come forward, and who continue to come forward, is what has led to changes, and in the last two decades, the web has been a part of that.

    I’m not sure who first coined the word sexual harassment, but I believe it was Mary Rowe, who served as President and Chancellor of MIT in the 1970s. Rowe herself has said she wasn’t the first. Her prominent position, however, led her work becoming the most well known.

    Back then, no policies existed on sexual harassment. No regulations. No courses, no committees, no counselors, no guidelines, no legal decisions. If you brought up the issue, people usually assumed you had mental problems. It wasn’t only men who made those assumptions, and the pressure against men speaking against harassment was as strong as for women. If Mark had posted this blog back then, he might have lost his job even if it had nothing to do with the post. Those of us who sought to form policies were often threatened.

    When I was in school, no web sites existed about sexual harassment. I had no counselors I could talk to about the subject. I had no way to get information or even the realization that I needed it. No web, no cell phones, no online bookstores, almost no way to network with anyone outside the immediate community. I assumed, like many women, that the problem was me. It wasn’t the only reason women left the work force or college, but it was a major one.

    Many women didn’t have the option to leave their job if the environment became intolerable; they had to support their family despite the myth of the housewife who had neither the need nor the interest in employment. We weren’t supposed to work. Period. The myth went this way: If we had to work, we had done something wrong with our life and ultimately anything untoward that happened was our fault, because we were a distraction or interference for the men who were supposed to be employed.

    The change over time hasn’t been sudden. It isn’t as if a light turned on and suddenly the world changed. It’s been a continual evolution. That’s why I said above that in ten or twenty years the discussions will probably be different than they are now. We’re still facing problems, and the fact that we’ve made progress doesn’t mean the problems have ceased to exist. Our culture will continue to evolve.

    It takes courage for people to make posts like the ones we’ve seen about harassment and the chilly atmosphere for women in education, business, and online. Those people are part of changing the world. And there are probably times when they will wonder why the hell they are doing it, given the flak and hate mail that most will receive as a result. That they went ahead anyway speaks eloquently of their courage.

  28. Catherine Asaro

    One type above: the should be that Mary Rowe served “for” the President and Chancellor, not “as.” Big difference! She wrote the report for the President, not as the President.

  29. Tsu Dho Nimh

    “Just because something makes someone uncomfortable does NOT mean that it should stop. Many people were uncomfortable with homosexual couples showing affection in public – it should NOT stop.”

    You fail to see the difference between two people of the same sex happily holding hands in public, and two other people one of whom is uncomfortable with the other’s insistence on talking about sex?

  30. Joe Taxpayer

    Nassim Taleb offers a beautiful quote – “If you see fraud and do not say ‘fraud’ you are a fraud.” I hope he doesn’t mind my extending this to include sexism and racism.

  31. Pingback: When I hear a story of harassment, what do I do? | Tenure, She Wrote

  32. lokicleo

    It really is this simple.

    I’ve had the pleasure of working in high tech company that had an extremely professional (but also team oriented, casual dress, and really fun) culture. This supposed ‘gray area’ banter was pretty rare there. It was seen as immature and unprofessional in the same way that swearing directly at someone, throwing a hissy fit, or pretty much any aggressively disrespectful behavior would be. People would look at the harasser like maybe he/she didn’t belong there.

    My favorite example is the new programmer/engineer who sent an email to ‘all’ trying to get our very excellent receptionist (a long time employee) in trouble for something that she wasn’t responsible for (and more to the point, for not being sufficiently subservient to him as a bigshot programmer/engineer when he confronted her at the front desk). This was not sexual, but clearly sexist (he used the b-word) and aggressively disrespectful of her and her position in the company. The guy had hundreds of angry emails from coworkers around the company by the time he was called into the owner’s office about it 15 minutes later. All the emails were different, some were very angry and called him names right back, some defended the receptionist, some explained how badly out of line he was, some made fun of him for trying to blame her for his own failures, some just told him how stupid he was to send the email to everyone in the company (including international offices). The receptionist received a lot of support by email and in person, including from the owner. The bigshot sent an apology out within the hour. He wasn’t fired, but didn’t stay with the company long. Way to make a first impression, bro!

    Can you imagine if every instance of sexual harassment got that kind of response?

  33. Jarmo

    I think this discussion is missing something, aside from the fact that there is no good reason for the harassment.

    One important aspect is: Why do they harass?

    Many men lack courage when it comes to women. Like all talent, the soup has been distributed normally. Where some are talented enough to listen to their feelings in order to gauge their success to the point where success really the point after all, the other end of the curve has been delivered to the brink of delirium because of fear.

    So, men grow older, and they hit their middle-ages (sic). They never learned how to flirt properly, as there never was any lighthearted flutter or play involved. They get to position and age difference where they feel they have some leverage. Then they start to feel safe enough to ‘flirt’, the best way they have learned to do. It’s like elephants jostling on ice with teacups. It just isn’t enough.

    The problem is that when we people are unable to listen to our own feelings on something we learn to cope. It means there is no real basis to judge how the other person feels, either.

    A person who harasses women lets their imagination prove everything through some avenue of fantasy until the relationship hits a crisis. The surprise then for the perpetrator is that their fantasies didn’t become real but instead the other participant (their imagination), was duplicit, and now even completely frustrates the effort. It’s not that they don’t actually understand on some basic level that the root cause is cowardice. It is just easier to blame other people.

    Some men get married. They live until they hit their 30-40 and then they finally gather enough courage to start other relationships on the side. Some of them try harassment.

    One minute, of self study, and one act of courage. vs. tens of years of constipated fear, and to think women are actually being difficult. lol

  34. Pingback: A difficult week (and a way forward) | Arthropod Ecology

    1. J. Dusheck

      We can start with the behaviors that are easy to map.

      There’s no particular reason to always move the conversation to doubtful situations. This is analogous to saying we shouldn’t prosecute murder because there are situations where it’s hard to tell if a killing was self defense or not.

      1. Mark Chu-Carroll

        Yes, exactly.

        The interesting and revealing thing about many of the critical responses to this post is the way that they try to change the focus.

        The point of this post is: how to not harass women. It focuses on what an individual person needs to do to not be a harasser. And as the title of the post suggests, it’s really easy to *not* be a harasser.

        Responses try to shift the focus. Instead of talking about what harassment is, and how to make sure that you’re not doing it, they try to shift the focus to how to not be accused of harassment.

        I can easily tell you how not to be a mugger: don’t rob people on the street. It’s awfully simple. But how can you avoid being accused of being a mugger? That’s an awfully different situation.

        But when we hear about someone who claims to have been mugged, our first inclination isn’t to start questioning them about whether they’re lying about the crime or not. We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the social or professional cost paid by the accused if the accused is lying. We start by accepting the accusation as being legitimate, and then we have authorities investigate the crime, and if the facts support the accuser, we arrest the alleged mugger and give them a trial.

        In the case of sexual harassment, why do so many people want to start from the assumption that accusers are liars? Why do we spend so much more effort on protecting the accused than we do with any crime where the alleged victim isn’t necessarily a woman?

  35. Man

    Marc, I enjoy reading your blog, but this post is a slap in the face of victims of false accusations.

    False harassment accusations have dire consequences for the accused, and I have both firsthand experience, as well as several friends and colleagues who went through the same.

    According to your logic, that makes me a

    “fraud, …
    who promotes “a socio-political agenda” People who want to excuse or normalize this kind of behavior want to create the illusion of blurred lines.
    In reality, harassers know that they’re harassing. ”

    So your not only calling victims of false allegations frauds, but you are even blaming the victims and calling them harassers themselves.

    That’s pretty close to some peoples’ twisted logic that rape victims are the real perpetrators.

    As for the harassers, I don’t know if they realize what they do. I am not a psychologist.

    Maybe they are filled with the same sense of entitlement that made you, Marc, call the victims of false allegations harassers “who promotes a socio-political agenda and who want to excuse or normalize this kind of behavior”

    1. MarkCC Post author

      Sorry, but no.

      First: it’s really fascinating to look at how, in general, we treat any kind of harrassment, abuse, or crime, when the victim is predominantly female compared against crimes where it’s either equal or predominantly male.

      When someone comes forward and claims that they’ve been robbed, we don’t start by trying to figure out whether or not they’re lying about it. Sure, some people, sometimes, claim to have been robbed when they weren’t. But most of the time, we just accept the claim that they’re a victim of a crime.

      When a women comes forward and claims that she was raped, the first that happens is we start to question her. Was it, maybe, a case of day-after regret? What was she wearing? How was she acting? What did she do to provoke the attacker?

      Sexual harassment is in the same basic scheme. Yeah, sure, there are false accusations. But they’re really rare. Should we take every womon who’s been harassed (at that means most women in the professional world!), and start by questioning whether or not they’re just being malicious liars? I’ve been a witness to a ridiculous number of cases of sexual harassment. Every single time that the victim came forward to complain, the accused harasser claimed to have been falsely accused. Without exception, that’s the number one response: I’m innocent, she’s a liar.

      What you’re trying to do is to take a common problem, and turn it around: we need to take the victims of sexual harassment, and treat them as if they’re the perpetrators, because men are the real victims.

      1. J. Dusheck

        Agreed. As I said up above, we don’t refuse to prosecute murders because once in a while it’s hard to tell if it was self defense or not. Murderers will usually say it wasn’t them, it was an accident, or it was self defense. The fact that so many of them say that does not mean that we should throw up our hands when there’s a murder and just say, “It was a he-said-she-said situation. What can you do?”

        And if robbers could get away with insisting that robbery victims voluntarily gave them their wallet–they would!


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