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OBNOXIOUS: Katie Roiphe’s Harasser-Centered Sexual Harassment Ethos

Last Saturday Katie Roiphe’s “In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risqué Remarks” appeared on the New York Times’ Op-Ed page. Roiphe took as her ostensible subject the Herman Cain sexual harassment allegations, but quickly abandoned that topic to meander aimlessly through a collection of every ignorant thing she had ever thought about sexual harassment in the workplace. She hinted darkly that sexual harassment laws have always had an “Orwellian purpose” but then neglected to elaborate on what that purpose was. I suspect because she made it up, and since she plays pretty fast and loose with words I assume she grabbed “Orwellian” out of a need to describe a bad thing she didn’t like that she felt went too far. Which is imprecise and incorrect and alarmist, the three words I’d chant at my mirror if I were trying to contact Katie Roiphe. This is her specialty.

Roiphe would have us believe that “determined scolds” (AKA Feminists and anti-sexism activists) are both ignorant of the messy, complicated realities of life AND secretly orchestrating a hideous dystopian endgame that is the only logical conclusion of our rigid, reductive gender politics. On top of all that, Feminists just don’t understand modern women:

“And, in fact, the majority of women in the workplace are not tender creatures and are largely adept at dealing with all varieties of uncomfortable or hostile situations. Show me a smart, competent young professional woman who is utterly derailed by a verbal unwanted sexual advance or an inappropriate comment about her appearance, and I will show you a rare spotted owl.”

Of course. As much as I’d love to go through a pack of endangered species flash cars with Katie Roiphe, I can’t help but focus on that qualification: “smart, competent.” What about women who are not smart and competent? What about people who do not identify as women? Does Roiphe define smart and competent as “compliant while being sexual harassed?” Furthermore, an office tormentor need not utterly derail you with a single gesture or vulgar comment. They can play the slow, long game, alternating whisper campaigns with gas lighting, bringing “anonymous” notes into the mix, skirting just under the detection of a sexual harassment code that requires the offending action be “conscious,” or in other words, that it not be plausibly deniable. Perhaps this is the creativity Roiphe is talking about — the creativity that corrupted power wields.

I consider myself smart and competent and yet I am somehow not magically impervious to sexual harassment. I recently had to deal with the attentions of a shift manager who thought it was funny to touch me and invade my personal space as if he were being affectionate. I found out he had done the same thing to the last gay man that had worked there, who ended up quitting over it. This was not a secret. This was common knowledge in the store. I started to dread working with him, dreading his awkward back rubs and his hostile flirting. At some point it became easier to pretend that I was enjoying it, because he was exercising a very malignant, smothering form of dominance over me. Look how much power I have, I can touch you whenever I want. Rather than cop to feeling harassed I tried to take temporary ownership of the experience, which I now relinquish completely back to him. I didn’t report his behavior to senior management because they had already demonstrated a willingness to ignore it and at the time that job was my only source of income. If I complained and he chose to retaliate, I would be left financially vulnerable. He wouldn’t even need to get me fired, he’d just need to restrict my hours until I couldn’t pay my rent anymore. This is how sexual harassment plays out outside of clumsy Times editorials. They have all the power and all you have is your word.

To be sporting I’d like to commend Roiphe for making it another 200 words after her argument dies a very abrupt death on the page:

“Obviously there is a line, which if the allegations against Mr. Cain are true, he has crossed-”

After all that glib, mealy-mouthed bullshit about sexual harassment being so undefinable and unknowable and elusive, she admits that the last few paragraphs had very little to do with Herman Cain and are instead about this totally great super awesome idea Roiphe had about how hypothetical people employed in a unspecified working environment might benefit from periodic injections of fear, dread, panic, shame, discomfort and humiliation into their daily life. She spends this entire article trying to justify her harasser-centered approach to sexual harassment by playing as if she is writing a love letter to real life, to the wild and chaotic abundance that is nature, with herds of antelopes running over sun-soaked ridges, snakes darting out of the bushes to assassinate amiable mammals, dolphins leaping in to the air behind fireworks and Aurora Borealis and shit. Life is messy, man! It’s fucked up! We’re on a giant rock hurtling through space, the only solution is to live in a permanent fog of sloppy thinking and get paid for it!

I have held several different jobs over the course of my life, most of them at or just above minimum wage, and I have witnessed the power management wields over its employees and the power employees wield over each other. At no point does she address how not fun and amazing sexual harassment is for people whose intersecting identities make them a target for harassers who want to exploit their lack of institutional power. The workplace Roiphe is commenting on is some fake workplace, in which sexual harassment never goes too far, never impedes anyone’s ability to do their job, and never creates collateral damage for those employees least able to fight back. She does not see fit to address the cost levied against the targets of sexual harassment, who are likely to see their creativity, productivity, and standing within the company deteriorate. It is apparently such a low price to pay for “vivid office culture” that it isn’t even worth mentioning.

Perhaps if Roiphe lived somewhere other than the chilly remove of academe, she would know that people can and do negotiate these things among themselves. That not sexually harassing someone is actually a lot fucking easier than she’s making it out to be. She carries on through this whole piece exaggerating the difficulty of knowing what sexual harassment is, each new paragraph resembling the reenactments that accompany infomercial products, trying you to win you over by convincing you that you are helpless and clumsy.

A blonde woman in a blue top woman lays back on a bed, struggling to get her jeans buttoned.

A woman in desperate need of some Pajama Jeans.

She works very hard to convince us that she is an authority whose opinion is valid and worthy of our time and works equally hard to convince us that she genuinely does not understand the difference between a compliment and sexual harassment. Context? What’s that? Maybe there is a slight difference between a compliment repeated once between friends and a running commentary on your body delivered every day by a person who makes you uncomfortable or upset? Perhaps? And then in the end it is Roiphe that proves herself to be the one devoid of nuance:

“Is the anodyne drone typing away in her silent cubicle free from the risk of comment on her clothes, the terror of a joke, the unsettlement of an unwanted or even a wanted sexual advance, truly our ideal? Should we aspire to the drab, cautious, civilized, quiet, comfortable workplace all of this language presumes and theorizes? At this late date, perhaps we should be worrying about different forms of hostility in our workplace.”

Roiphe cannot imagine that a person might welcome affection, attention, and compliments from one person they work with and not another. Does not stop to consider that labeling an environment free of sexualized interactions “hostile” requires a person to advocate the strongest for those perpetrating the harassment. That the opposite of “drab, cautious, civilized, quiet, comfortable” is “bright, reckless, uncivilized, loud and uncomfortable” which is not an environment that people create together, but is instead something which one person inflicts on another. Roiphe isn’t interested in admitting that each case of sexual harassment is different and informed by the particular circumstances and relationships of those involved. She’d much rather make irresponsible generalizations in a fact vacuum of her own making.

And then comes the kicker — the realization at the end of the article that although she acknowledges that what happened to Cain’s accusers would have crossed “the line,” that she has used this story as a pretext to argue that the victims of sexual harassment should be subject to even more sexualized attention and scrutiny from their peers and they should try to be good sports about it. For the Greater Good. For Creativity. For the menz.

I call horseshit. The problem is not that sexual harassment policy has gone too far or is overly penalizing people for normal human behavior, it is that we still have these fucking conversations about whether or not people are too sensitive about being physically and emotionally violated and not about every person’s right to work free from harm and abuse. Katie Roiphe manages to carry water for the whistlers, the gropers, the leerers, and the predators and be really, really smug about it. So a slow clap for you Katie Roiphe, for really ratcheting up the sexism this time. Thank you for reminding us why sexual harassment policy is so important, and why you must never, ever be allowed to influence it in any way with your galactic wrongness.

29 Comments

  1. of making many books wrote:

    As someone who was locked in a storage closet at 16 by older, male coworkers who were in the Marines (and who almost quit but was afraid to), I am so gratified by this righteous fucking takedown. Welcome back Garland!

    Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink
  2. Joel Reinstein wrote:

    Maybe the most obnoxious thing about Roiphe is how she reminds us of people we know. The “life’s tough, get a helmet” types, usually privileged themselves, who think people in situations they don’t understand should suck it up. I’VE never been harassed, or it doesn’t make ME uncomfortable (and you wonder if in fact it does, but as Garland says it’s easier to pretend it doesn’t), so obviously that’s how it is for everyone. It’s so intolerably arrogant, and such a perversion of truth to imply that laws against sexual harassment are repressive.

    There’s a “spotted owls” tumblr set up as a response to Roiphe: http://spottedowls.tumblr.com/

    Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Permalink
  3. MikeV wrote:

    Omg, second to last paragraph. When I read that part of her article I pretty much lost it.

    Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Permalink
  4. tree wrote:

    I found the opening of that first quote very telling:

    are largely adept at dealing with all varieties of uncomfortable or hostile situations.

    And how does one become adept at something? Through practice. So, basically, she’s admitting that “the majority of women in the workplace” are so used to dealing with uncomfortable or hostile situations that they’ve gotten good at dealing with them. Kudos to them. It doesn’t say anything particularly encouraging about the majority of workplaces, though, does it?

    Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Permalink
  5. caitlin wrote:

    Great take-down of an awful article, but can we please not act like the “chilly remove of academe” is somehow not a part of the real world or not a place where sexual harassment happens? Academics are employees of an institution with a clear hierarchy in place, and with a history of male dominance and sexism, which means that, like anywhere else, academia has its fair share of sexual harrassers.

    Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 9:23 pm | Permalink
  6. Julia wrote:

    This is fantastic! You took every thought I had about that article and articulated it so much better than I ever could.

    Shame on Ms. Roiphe, I don’t know what she was trying to gain with that piece.

    Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Permalink
  7. alula_auburn wrote:

    Katie Roiphe is one of the handful of authors I find so loathsome I cringe just at her name, before actually dealing with her current nonsense.

    I do think there’s a definite aura of the (twisted) version of sex-positive feminism which uses the vocabulary of liberation to create more demands. So a “smart, competent” woman laughs harrassment off and thus makes harrassment OK because it’s a vehicle for awesome grrrl powerness, and too bad for anyone who doesn’t react, or choose to react, in a sassy, quippy, “one of the boys” mindset. But it’s even grosser from Roiphe, who is so awful about feminism and sexual abuse to begin with, to tap into that discourse without any of the decent, important parts of sex-positive feminism.

    Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Permalink
  8. Kathleen wrote:

    yes Joan Holloway is her hero. awesome.

    Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Permalink
  9. k wrote:

    Garland, ilu, in a non-sexual-harassy way. Seriously thank you for this, that Roiphe article was 100% ridiculousness!

    Sunday, November 20, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  10. KittyWrangler wrote:

    “Which is imprecise and incorrect and alarmist, the three words I’d chant at my mirror if I were trying to contact Katie Roiphe”

    Amazing! I tried it but Michele Bachmann appeared and stole my eyeliner. She tried to claim it wasn’t her, it was the invisble hand of the free market.

    Sunday, November 20, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  11. Caitiecat wrote:

    We’re not oversensitive, Katie. You’re numb.

    Great post, Garland Grey.

    Sunday, November 20, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Permalink
  12. Sarah wrote:

    Excellent post Garland Grey. Thanks also for sharing your experiences – I get so annoyed by how discussions of sexual harassment, including Roiphe’s, often assume that only women are targets.

    However, I second Caitlin’s comment that your reference to ‘the chilly remove of academe’ is rather unwarranted. Academia is rife with sexual harassment and hierarchies. Even from unexpected angles – I know several academics who have been sexually harassed by their students in anonymous feedback forums.

    Just because Roiphe seems to live in a fairy-tale world at a remove from reality, doesn’t mean that all academics do.

    Monday, November 21, 2011 at 6:29 am | Permalink
  13. Autumn wrote:

    @KITTYWRANGLER.

    Don’t take this the wrong way, but I just fell in love with you a little bit.

    Monday, November 21, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  14. slutego wrote:

    Well said on all counts. There is so very much wrong with her entire article that frothing was the only response I could manage.

    Welcome back! I’d quite missed your posts.

    Monday, November 21, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink
  15. Elaine wrote:

    We’re not oversensitive, Katie. You’re numb.

    Cha. From the neck up. Another one of those, “See, boys? I’m special. Like me! Like me! Pleeeeze like me! I’ll throw more women off the train! Tee hee! ZOMG ur so strong!” women. Gross.

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Permalink
  16. Dharmanatrix wrote:

    @Kittywrangler,
    You had me at hello.

    Wednesday, November 23, 2011 at 5:26 pm | Permalink
  17. E-S wrote:

    A “civilized, quiet, comfortable workplace” sounds like the kind of place I’d like to work.

    Thursday, November 24, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink
  18. KittyWrangler wrote:

    @Autumn @Dharmanatrix LOL, thanks! I thought I had weirded everyone out.

    Thursday, November 24, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Permalink
  19. samanthab wrote:

    I echo the chorus of great takedowns, though I also have to ditto Caitlin. I got atrociously harassed by my male professors as an undergrad and grad student.

    Also, as a response to Prof. Roiphe, I would just say, what if we were to flip this (bullshit?) Why are men so fragile that they are brutally deprived by the lack of opportunity to make nasty jokes. And, really lady, the men I’ve been harassed by have been so much more uncomfortable about sex than I feel my wacky self to be. Sex is about joy for me, not overpowering nastiness and insecurity. From experience I can tell you that men that pull “dirty jokes” out as a form of oppressive aggression- they *cannot* fucking handle it when the tables are turned. I remember when I made a comment about something functioning “like a tampon” in grad school, and the palpably uncomfortable reactions of men who regularly made cracks about my and other female students bodies. Again, who are the fragile ones here if you can;t fucking handle that I’m not ashamed of the female body. Sure, I had a pretty strong intuition of what the male response would be, and I was perfectly happy to give those dudes a fuck you. But it also damn well did work like a tampon, and there was zero fucking reason anyone should have been uncomfortable with the comparison.

    One last digression from moi-meme: Joan Didion’s politics have grown increasingly leftward over the years, by her own repeated account. I really don’t know what she’s said about feminism more recently, but it’s goddamned bullshit to hold her forever to something said in 1972.It ain’t 1972 anymore, and it hasn’t been for, uh, quite a while.

    Thursday, November 24, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Permalink
  20. mythago wrote:

    Elaine @15 nails it. It’s her schtick and always has been: if I show the boys that I’m a special girl who doesn’t mind sexist bullshit, they’ll like me bestest!

    Thursday, November 24, 2011 at 9:38 pm | Permalink
  21. samanthab wrote:

    @15 and @20, I kind of have some issues with the suggestion that the primary reason Roiphe has a fucked up perspective is because she wants dudes to like her. There are lots of reasons for women to have fucked up perspectives, and it doesn’t strike me as all that pro-lady to reflexively trace them back to a interest in being attractive to men. If nothing else, Roiphe’s anti-feminist perspectives have done a fuckload to advance her career.

    It is a classic sexist trope that a woman’s primary motivation is always to be appealing to men, and I don’t feel like it’s one that self-identified feminists should be endorsing. Men are allowed to have fucked up perspectives from here to Sunday without it being attributed to their need to be attractive to women. Having read what I have of Roiphe’s mother, I could speculate pretty easily on other reason’s for Roiphe to be anti-woman. I tend to think, however, that regardless of how much I dislike what she has to say, her arguments should still be taken as arguments, without her work being reduced to a pile of emotional outbursts. I don’t see it as helpful to call her a hysteric or a jezebel in a roundabout fashion; I’d like to just call her wrong.

    Friday, November 25, 2011 at 6:33 am | Permalink
  22. Clare wrote:

    @samanthab
    “Men are allowed to have fucked up perspectives from here to Sunday without it being attributed to their need to be attractive to women.”

    That’s because women’s opinions are not socially valued. Men’s are – they’re seen as the objective, universal, and above all important POV.

    Saturday, November 26, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  23. Danny wrote:

    I love my “drab, cautious, civilized, quiet, comfortable” work environment. Furthermore, if I wanted my work environment to be more “exciting”, I feel like there are other ways of doing that. Potluck lunches seem way more fun to me than sexual harassment would be.

    Saturday, November 26, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink
  24. Jix wrote:

    Awesome article! The Academe totally is where predators master their skills. I became a Women’s Studies major because I was being sexually harassed by the guy I was a TA for in grad school, and I lost my last job as an adjunct instructor because I had a baby (in the summer, when I didn’t need maternity leave or ask for anything “special” due to my changing family status.) I now work at a delightfully drab, cautious, quiet, and comfortable college! We have wonderfully drab potlucks, too! Much better than the “excitement” my last employer provided when he cut my hours down to one class and when I asked him about it, responded by throwing a stapler in my face and yelling “I’m tired of your mommy shit!” Boy, losing my income and my house after giving birth sure was colorful and exciting, but I think I’ll take the drab and civilized security of not being physically attacked, which is much more “comfortable.” ;)

    Sunday, November 27, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink
  25. Dawn wrote:

    The question we haven’t answered is “what is harassment.” If you make a dirty joke, and all the women in the room laugh but the single offended one, is that harassment? Do we have to mince around in our conversations, hoping we don’t step on any toes or find the one super-sensitive person who will call us out for something we really didn’t do or mean? There’s your obvious harassment like “grabbing someone’s boobs,” and there’s obvious non-harassment, like asking “how’s your day,” but jokes and such are very gray areas.

    Tuesday, November 29, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink
  26. fort nerd wrote:

    How about a simple solution, men focus on work when they’re at work? As in, instead of scouting for potential sexual partners among the women who are there to do work, ranking them, propositioning them, trying to grab their attention by making innuendo jokes or whatever?

    Sunday, December 11, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink
  27. Linds wrote:

    From someone who had to quit my job because of sexual harassment, who has had no legal recourse because there was “no proof”, and who has not been able to find employment since because nobody believes that I could quit a job after 2 months for any other reason than being lazy, thank you so much.

    Tuesday, December 13, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Permalink
  28. Jaylin wrote:

    Well said, my friend. Well said. Plus, the implication that if we don’t like those low-brow, insulting “jokes” that WE need to change/take it/make plithy, equally-insulting comment back at them, is not only backward and wrong, it in itself is an Orwellian tenet that expects us to become sheep willing to be subjected to the random stupidity of chest-beating jerks.

    Friday, December 16, 2011 at 1:00 am | Permalink
  29. JAnd wrote:

    Just wanted to add myself to the chorus of people who are saying thank God for this post.

    It is hard to respond eloquently to something as horrifying as that Roiphe piece.

    Sunday, December 18, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink