The fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandals and the ripples from the “#MeToo” movement are having indubitably positive effects — above all, exposing and bringing to account predators who have enjoyed impunity due to their power and status. But there are some pitfalls. Many people — not just men with skeletons in the closet — fear that careers may be destroyed over minor misconduct and ambiguous transgressions. Troubling rhetoric abounds, condemning all sexually tinged dynamics in the workplace, stereotyping men as abusers and women as perpetual victims in need of quasi-Victorian protections.
To take one example: Although Weinstein’s shunning has been universally cheered, many journalists (both women and men) have expressed much more mixed feelings — at least in private — about the “Weinsteining” of literary critic and writer Leon Wieseltier, formerly an editor at the New Republic. Last week, Wieseltier’s new magazine project was torpedoed by allegations that he had sexually harassed a number of female employees; a few days later, the Atlantic magazine dropped him as a contributing editor.
Unlike Weinstein, film director James Toback or television journalist Mark Halperin, Wieseltier is not accused of sexual assault or coercion but of what Michelle Cottle, writing in the Atlantic, calls “low-level lechery”: sexualized comments, from compliments on a tight outfit to banter during work-related conversations, and unwanted kisses — mostly on the cheek or forehead, on a few occasions on the lips. (He has not denied the allegations and has offered a general apology.)
Several journalists with whom I discussed Wieseltier’s downfall agreed that while his reported conduct was inappropriate and gross, the punishment seemed grossly excessive. “I don’t think a person’s life should be ruined over this,” said a millennial female journalist who isn’t inclined to cut sexual predators any slack.
In another harsh example, Roy Price, the former head of Amazon Studios, lost his job over a single complaint of propositioning a female executive at a booze-soaked event in 2015. (There is no suggestion that Price tried to retaliate for rejection.)
More broadly, the #MeToo movement, which tends to lump together a wide range of male wrongdoing from rape to “creepy” or boorish behavior, raises a basic question about human relations in the working world: Can work and sexuality or romance ever mix? For many supporters of this campaign, the answer seems to be no.
Concerns that the post-Weinstein climate may lead to witch hunts against any man who flirts with a female colleague have been met with angry comments along the lines of “flirting in the workplace IS HARASSMENT.” A tweet by singer/songwriter Marian Call that got more than 2,000 retweets and nearly 6,500 “likes” asked, “dudes are you aware how happy women would be if strangers & coworkers never ‘flirted’ with us again … this is the world we want.”
But is it? It’s certainly not the world I want: Except in college, nearly every man I have ever dated was either a co-worker or, once I switched entirely to free-lancing, someone I met through work. This is not unusual, even in the age of dating websites and apps. An informal 2015 survey for the online magazine Mic found that men and women under 35 were almost twice as likely to have met their current significant other through work (17.9%) as through online dating (9.4%). Similar findings have emerged from other such surveys.
There is plenty of other anecdotal evidence as well. A mere eight years ago, the annual conference of the Modern Language Assn. featured a largely approving discussion — led by two female professors — of sexual encounters at academic conferences.
Even aside from dating and relationships, casual or committed, there is little doubt that many women enjoy some degree of sexual interaction in their work lives. Can anyone claim with a straight face that women do not initiate flirting, ribald humor and sexually themed chitchat in the workplace, just as men do? Much of this behavior is welcome or harmless; some of it can be unwanted and obnoxious.
And some of it is abusive. Although it is difficult to imagine a woman whose actions come even close to Weinstein’s, women do engage in sexual harassment. A male friend of mine who worked for a small magazine as a recent college graduate in the 1980s has less than fond memories of a female co-worker, his senior in both age and position, who sometimes greeted him with jokes insinuating that he was sexually aroused and once groped him under the pretext of straightening out his posture in a motherly way.
Instead of acknowledging such realities, current discourse on sexual harassment not only conflates predation with “low-level lechery” but generally reduces women to sexual innocents who must be shielded not only from sexual advances but from bawdy jokes. This did not begin with Weinstein or the #MeToo movement; however, the current moral panic is making the situation worse.
Sexual abuse in the workplace, or anywhere else, is unacceptable. Even boorishness that doesn’t rise to the level of harassment should be discouraged, especially from people in authority. On the other hand, sexual interaction will happen unless the workplace is regulated to a dehumanizing degree and realistically, some unwanted sexual attention will happen as well.
As we grapple with these issues, we desperately need nuance. Let’s distinguish between abuse, minor bad behavior and innocent miscommunication. And let’s not demonize men or patronize women.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason and an occasional past contributor to the New Republic.