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Will Harvey Weinstein, James Toback and Roger Ailes Change How We Define Sexual Harassment?

A conversation with cultural sociologist Abigail Saguy, author of ‘What Is Sexual Harassment?’

How do you define sexual harassment?

Abigail Saguy, a cultural sociologist at UCLA, has spent much of her professional career attempting to do just that. Her 2003 book, What Is Sexual Harassment?: From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne, examined how and why the U.S. and France developed different legal and corporate definitions of sexual harassment. Recently, she extended her work to consider how straight women and lesbians in male-dominated industries resist and respond to sexism and harassment from male coworkers.

As for the future, she says how we choose to define sexual harassment is related to how we define masculinity.

Has what’s happened with Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Roger Ailes et al changed the definition of sexual harassment?
The definition of sexual harassment has been determined largely through Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and corporate policies. Until the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991, most people didn’t even know what sexual harassment was. Recent scandals and national discussions of sexual harassment haven’t changed the definition, but they’ve certainly brought the issue into awareness. With each of these scandals in the U.S. — and in France with Dominique Strauss-Kahn — people start talking about this behavior. On a positive side, these are potential teaching moments and opportunities to do some soul searching.

Regarding corporate policies, are HR departments only concerned with avoiding lawsuits?
Absolutely. A business’s goal is to make money. Unless sexual harassment detracts from the bottom line, they don’t have a business incentive to address it. So when you have someone like Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly and others who are considered to be so valuable in their contributions to the bottom line, it may seem like a good idea to settle as opposed to taking real action against the people who are harassing and engaged in assault.

I don’t think we can expect companies on their own to be ethical. That’s why we have government regulation of all sorts of things, including in this area. But incidents only come to the fore if individuals bring complaints and have access to a hearing. That’s why we’ve seen all these settlements that effectively squash the complaints and silence them.

What’s your reaction to the Harvey Weinstein scandal?
I’m not surprised. I know from my research that this kind of thing is very common. I’m not asking, How could this be going on in 2017? I think people underestimate how little things have changed and how much this kind of behavior does go on. That said, it is striking to me that it went on so long and how many people were involved in covering it up and silencing the women.

It finally came out because Weinstein isn’t as powerful as he used to be, and there are some people who are intent on bringing him down because he’s more vulnerable. There’s a lot of piling on on Weinstein — which I’m not saying is unjustified — but it would be a mistake to think that Weinstein should be seen as an exception or an anomaly. Like I said, this kind of behavior is very common, and we need to be talking about the structures — not just the people and their bad behavior — and the way business is done that allows these things to happen and be covered up.

Given how much of this behavior you believe goes on, does that mean pretty much all men are engaging in it?
Just as most men aren’t rapists but a few men do a lot of the damage, the same goes for sexual harassment. Most men are not sexual harassers.

What can the rest of us do then to be a part of the solution rather than part of the problem?
It’s really not that hard. Consider whoever the person is — the waitress who’s taking your order, the person behind the desk, people who don’t have power over you — as someone who’s valuable and deserving of your respect. That will take you a long way. Consider others not as means to an end but as an end unto themselves — that’s a good guiding principle.

I don’t think you stumble into sexually harassing someone because you’re not politically correct or you’re old-fashioned. Stand up to bullies of all kinds. This is a form a bullying. This is a way of using your power to coerce other people into doing things that are denigrating. It starts really young. That’s why it’s so important to report and address it when it comes up. Because if not, these men will go on to victimize many, many other people.

What are your thoughts on the Shitty Media Men list?
The people engaging in this abusive behavior are few in number, but they’re definitely serial offenders, so it’s really important to know who they are. If legal remedies aren’t working, this is a common response for people to get the word out. That said, you have to be careful. There are libel concerns, but more generally, the possibility that someone gets put on the list because someone else has it in for them.

How about #MeToo?
It’s particularly important in raising awareness among people who might not think this is an issue. It’s very effective at naming the problem and saying, “This is worthy of your attention.” But for those of us who study the issue — and for half of the population who are female — we, of course, already know.

What should the reaction to a #MeToo post be? Is that an invitation to ask about it?
It doesn’t require a response. It requires awareness. It’s assumed that real allies won’t be engaging in this themselves. But if you witness the harassment, stand up. Make some noise. Do not accept it. Part of the reason people didn’t speak up about Harvey Weinstein is that there were real costs to speaking up because this was someone who had a lot of power. It can be very painful to take on a bully.

Is this changing the definition of masculinity to include intervention?
I don’t think it’s necessary to make this about masculinity. These are human qualities. This is about being a decent person.