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.
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.