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On Sexual Harassment.

16 August 2013

Yesterday, I was meeting with a nurse from the really super cool ultra-high tech surgical unit I’m studying as part of my grant, and also just in general as part of my job. It’s an amazing unit, and something that MECMC does better than anyone else in the world. It’s an honor to be a part of it, and I’m super excited about the project. In part of my role as preparing for the development of a simulation, I interview the people who work in the system and ask them to describe their roles, and take me through their day and the day of one of their patients.

As I sat down for this interview, the nurse told me that she liked how my socks matched my jacket (an accident… I wear brightly colored socks which may match or clash depending on random chance.). I said, “Thank you! I try!” And we got to the interview. There was another nurse in the room, whom I had interviewed a few days previously. About a half-hour into the interview, out of the blue, the nurse I was interviewing asked me, “Are you single?”.

I paused for probably three full seconds as I went through my options. Included were, “I’m not sure how that’s relevant right now.” and “Really none of your business.”. I went with, “I have a girlfriend.” She then sort of slightly rolled her eyes in exasperation and said something close to, “It’s so hard to find a man with a real job.” From there, we talked for a few minutes about the differences between single men and single women in their 30s. Full of stereotypes, to be sure, but there might be general trends to spot.

Based on a conversation I had recently with Chicago Joe, we talked about how there seem to be many, many more competent, professional, educated, attractive, and unattached women in their 30s than there are men. The single men in their 30s, unless divorced, tend to be, as the nurse put it (eerily echoing Chicago Joe’s words of perhaps 4 months ago), “playing video games in their mother’s basement.” I don’t know why that’s true. Hell, I don’t know if it’s true. But I know that it’s a sentiment echoed by many men and women alike in the cohort of “30-somethings looking to date”. Women say it’s hard to find a decent man. Men say high-quality women are thick on the ground.

But whatever the epidemiology of the single professional cohort of humans in their 30s is, it’s not really what I wanted to write about. The topic I’m interested in is: Was I harassed?

No. Very simple. She complimented my outfit, and she asked about my relationship status with the strong subtext that she’d be interested in going out. When I told her I had a girlfriend she immediately terminated that line of inquiry. Now, was the question inappropriate? Yes, probably. We were in the middle of working. Is it always inappropriate to ask a coworker out? No. In fact, at my orientation to this job, the preceptor told us she met her husband here at MECMC, and that dating coworkers is explicitly allowed as long as it doesn’t interfere with work.

But the question left me wondering. What is the standard? What’s going on? The skeptical community is currently embroiled in a huge sexual harassment/abuse/rape scandal. People are drawing lines and making accusations. I’m not going to take a position on that here. But of serious import is the question, what constitutes sexual harassment and why? Suppose the genders in my circumstance were reversed? Then what?

When the romantic approach (that’s what I’ll call it) was made to me yesterday, the subtext was essentially just context: she liked how I dress, she appreciated that I have a good job. Now, the subtext goes a tiny bit deeper than that, in that she probably found me at least tolerably physically attractive and/or funny and/or whatever. But for the most part, what she made very clear was that she valued me for the reason I was there. That is, I was a competent professional.

When a man makes a romantic approach to an unknown-to-him woman in the workplace, the subtext is generally not that. Whether he means to communicate it or not, the subtext is usually, “I find you physically attractive.” Often, it’s the outright context, in the form of physical or sexual ‘compliments’. Now, obviously, there’s nothing wrong with finding people physically attractive. But with a few exceptions, being physically attractive isn’t why a woman is at her job. She’s there for the same reason a man is. To do work she has the education, training, and experience to do. So the approach doesn’t say, “I value you for the reason you’re here.”, it says, “I am interested in you despite the reason you’re here.”

And that can be objectifying. Nevermind the fact that you’re a trained professional here to do a difficult job for which you are eminently qualified. I find you sexually appealing. That’s where your value lies.

Now, I’m not saying that men can never ask women out in the workplace. I’ve done it. But never anyone that I worked directly with, and never anyone that I just met. I went out with a post-doc in my last job when I was a new investigator. But she wasn’t my post-doc, and we didn’t work on any of the same projects, and I had no particular influence with her PI. I had known her for years before I asked her out. We dated for a few months, it didn’t work out, we’re still friends.

Now, I can hear some men complaining that there’s a double standard. I’m saying that I wasn’t harassed but that if the genders were reversed it would have been? Well, no, not exactly. I’m still not sure it would be harassment for a man to compliment a woman’s  outfit, ask if she is single and then drop it immediately when she says no. But I can decidedly see how it would be much creepier, less welcome, and a bigger deal. I can see it making her very uncomfortable, instead of how I felt (bemused, a little flattered, and mildly put-off at the same time).

So yes. There’s a double standard. Men and women are different. While uniform standards of conduct are reasonable, to put everyone on the same footing (i.e., legally, if it’s not harassment when a woman does it, then it shouldn’t be harassment when a man does it.), it is also appropriate to consider both context and subtext, and how they are different, when the woman does the approaching versus when the man does.

So I wasn’t harassed, no. But guys, don’t do that.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 August 2013 09:18

    A good, thoughtful post. There’s lots to think about here.

    For one, I’m not sure you weren’t harassed. Your argument that you weren’t separates out the scenario from the context, nice and tidy, but I’m not sure that’s possible. It makes a whole boatload of assumptions, not least about what the woman who approached you was thinking. Maybe one day you will become friends and you can ask her. Then we’ll really know.

    Also, while I agree that when a man approaches a woman in the workplace, the subtext is usually about her appearance, but again, that’s a generalization. How can you be sure that the subtext of your encounter was not about your appearance? Again, only the woman who approached you knows. This brings me back to context. You assume it was not because of cultural context, while, if it were me, I would assume it was, also because of cultural context. All of this to say I am completely on board with the conclusion of your post.

    Another thing… I’ve been thinking about this ‘would it be harassment if the gender roles were reversed?’ question a bit lately. As you point out at the end of your post, when that question is asked, the person asking is setting up to make the argument that because the answer is ‘no’ for a man, then the answer must be ‘no’ for a woman. You rightly call BS.

    But let’s reverse it. Let’s just say a man is introducing a male speaker at a conference and points out that the speaker was on a list of ’50 sexiest [professional role]s’ in a prominent magazine. Everyone laughs, but the speaker wears a blank expression. What if the roles are reversed? What if the speaker is a woman? Obviously, the remark would be wildly inappropriate and borderline harassment. I think this means that, even though the speaker is a man, it is still wildly inappropriate. In other words, I think we should err on the side of caution.

    When in doubt, guys (and girls), don’t do that.

    • 16 August 2013 09:23

      I’m pretty confident I wasn’t harassed because it ended the moment I indicated that I was not interested, and it wasn’t objectifying or crude in the way she approached me (whatever was going on in her head). To be harassing, I think at least one of those things would need to not be true.

      • 16 August 2013 09:46

        Those are good points and I’ll accept that you weren’t harassed. ‘Inappropriate’ might be a better word.

      • 16 August 2013 10:53

        I disagree. You didn’t encourage it and it was in a total work context. He you’d finished and leaving the interview ok or later in the corridors or at coffee machine etc. But in a work meeting that is beyond inappropriate – that would be my viewing my management role where I work.

  2. LawnBoy permalink
    16 August 2013 09:23

    As you mention, this sort of question is coming up in a big way at the moment in the skeptic/atheist/secularist community. Several men have been named with specific accusations.

    The most interesting one is of a Famous Skeptic who was a featured speaker at a conference who allegedly propositioned a female conference attendee to join him and his girlfriend for a threesome. However, when she declined, the couple moved on.

    There are varying reactions in the community on this. Some say that it’s clearly sexual harassment, some say that they might let it slide but for the other rumors about the Famous Skeptic, some say it would be fine if it were between attendees but that his role as featured speaker made it inappropriate, and some say he did exactly the appropriate and sex-positive thing by expressing his desire for something once and accepting the answer.

    For me, I don’t know. I think that the information given is so sparse that it could be anywhere in the spectrum, depending on how the actual event transpired. But the internal debate you express here is on show in the community.

    There are other, more obviously serious allegations in the community. Most famously is that an influential blogger posted an accusation with the name of the accuser undisclosed that a major skeptic leader used alcohol to rape the accuser, and that he had done the same thing to 4 or 5 other women. Less discussed is an accusation that another major skeptic leader drunkenly joked at a party with someone he didn’t know that he wanted to drug, kidnap, and gang-rape the person he was talking to.

    I think the only ethical question for these issues is under what circumstances the stories should have been shared publicly – there’s no ambiguity that the alleged actions are wrong. But for the situation that mirrors what you saw yesterday, I’m not so sure.

    • 16 August 2013 09:49

      As usual on these topics, I think you an I are on very close to the same page.

  3. 16 August 2013 10:49

    Great post. Interesting thoughts – I think there is a double standard and I think he you had presented a case many HR depts would say you were harassed. Indeed lo the UK esp in the same industry area I think it would be frowned on – it would be where I work I’m sure

  4. Syd permalink
    16 August 2013 12:21

    Definitely an inappropriate comment and question by the nurse. I’m glad that you didn’t get all offended, but I hope that she will stop her personal inquiries too. No place for any of that in the workplace. I can remember when several colleagues got up and showed a bare breasted woman at a conference in a presentation. It was a horrible thing to do. I cringed. I’m glad that great strides have been made to stop that kind of behavior. Mutual respect and cognizance of proper social interactions need to be stressed in the workplace.

    There are a lot of double standards and sexual innuendos seem to be particularly frowned upon when coming from males. But harassment certainly works both ways. Maybe the key is that if you felt uncomfortable, then it was harassment.

    • 16 August 2013 12:35

      Wow. Nude photos in a conference presentation for prurient value? That could be career-ending today.

    • 16 August 2013 14:21

      As long as we’re telling horror stories… I know of a nearly-all-male lab where the done thing on field/conference trips was (is?) to send ‘local flavor’ postcards with nude women and a juvenile ‘ha ha wish you were here… not!’ scrawl back to the lab. These were then posted in the lab common room for all to ogle.

      • SlightlySatirical permalink
        18 August 2013 15:24

        Oh the horror! How did you ever recover from that?
        They surely should have been put on the ‘register’.

      • 18 August 2013 15:27

        I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt, SlightlySatirical, that that was meant jokingly. But this blog is not one where viciousness masked as sarcasm is tolerated.

      • SlightlySatirical permalink
        18 August 2013 15:54

        Fair enough; I suspect that your bar for ‘viciousness’ is set rather low, but I hope I’m wrong.
        To be fair to myself, I thought I was making a legitimate point in a quasi-amusing way.
        Apologies if it came across too pointedly.

      • 18 August 2013 16:00

        No problem, and thanks. Yes, the bar for viciousness is set very low here. I appreciate you understanding that and sticking around.

  5. 17 August 2013 14:16

    I agree if uncomfortable and given the timing of it then to me it is harassment.

    • 17 August 2013 14:41

      I don’t think you can define it by the reaction. Only by the action. OTherwise ordinary behavior might be labelled harassment and harassment might be ignored if a person isn’t bothered by out-of-bounds behavior.

      • 18 August 2013 08:43

        Conversely, I think you have to define it by the reaction. If it had made you feel objectified, uncomfortable, or harassed, then that is what was relevant, not whether the questioner had meant to make you feel that way. Since it didn’t make you feel that way, it wasn’t. That “harassment is in the eye of the beholder” coupled with the historical & cultural attitudes towards women is why if you were a woman and the other person was a man, you might have felt like it was harassment.

      • 18 August 2013 12:14

        I disagree. I think the FIRST time, there need to be objective standards that aren’t about the reaction. Some people are weirdly sensitive. But once a behavior has been identified as unwelcome, then it is harassment to continue it.

        i.e.: “Nice dress” isn’t harassment.

        “Nice dress”
        “Please don’t comment on my clothes”
        “Nice dress”

        is harassment.

  6. 17 August 2013 20:29

    My two cents: I don’t think it rises to the level of harassment, but it was clearly inappropriate in the current circumstances. If the woman were really interested in finding out more about you/pursuing you, she should have sought out another venue – i.e., sat down with you in the cafeteria at lunch or “run into” you outside the building after work, where it would be perfectly okay to start a conversation that answered her questions about your dating status. That’s how its done respectfully. Breaking into an interview with personal questions is not kosher.

    As to the gender reversal question – this is a little complicated and it isn’t going to make me popular, but here goes. Yes, it is true that Universality is a basic tenant of ethics – if action X is wrong under given circumstances for person A, then it is wrong under those same circumstances for persons B, C and D, as well. However, I argue that reversing the genders also changes the circumstances and so the law of Universality is invalidated.

    Here’s where I stick my neck out: actions coming from men directed at women hold an element of menace which does not exist when those same actions are directed at men by women. Even perfectly innocent, ordinary actions that merely express polite interest. Even when a woman is interested back, and finds a man attractive, and welcomes the actions; there is always an element, if not of fear, then certainly of caution.

    This is because it is a biological and historical fact that men – AS A GROUP – are dangerous to women – AS A GROUP. Women have an instinctual caution of men, which I think is probably present in most female mammals, because most male mammals are dangerous to female mammals or to their young. Even when women are not consciously aware of this caution, it colors their perceptions. If the woman is also interested in the man, it may provide a pleasant frission, but it won’t be absent.

    Men don’t have this feeling unless they personally have some history that instilled it in them, because throughout human history women have never constituted a general threat towards all men; therefore they don’t understand it and don’t usually empathize. I understand that my argument is likely to provoke defensiveness on the part of men who have never and would never hurt a woman. Please understand – this “menace” does not originate with the man making the approach. He probably has perfectly good intentions. But he will have to prove those good intentions to overcome the natural caution of a normal woman. Similarly, a woman need not have had any trauma in her background to feel this – healthy women who have had nothing but good experiences with men will also have this natural reaction to an unknown man. It’s just biology.

    Most people feel this instinctively, which is why the double standard exists. It has a basis in fact.

    • Ruth permalink
      18 August 2013 14:38

      Absolutely true & very well put.

    • SlightlySatirical permalink
      18 August 2013 15:49

      Personally I have some sympathy with what you say, but find your conclusion confusing; instead of the equality I’ve always thought we were aiming for as a society, you seem to be arguing for the opposite.
      “But he will have to prove those good intentions” ~ almost needs ‘Mr Darcy’ at the end. This sounds like a Victorian; that women are weak and ‘menaced’ and cannot contend on an equal footing with humans of a differing genitalia and must be given special dispensation/protected.

      You have presented a rationale for victimhood, one that the feminists I know would roundly reject, and based it in biology and the animal kingdom. Since when has that ever been an excuse for bad behaviour?

      • Aimee permalink
        18 August 2013 20:06

        I dont understand your response. I am a feminist, and I didnt see my point of view as advocating a position of victimhood for women at all. Individual women ought to cultivate the strength of character that allows them to deal with men on an equal footing, as you say. In order to do so, they must contend with a biological and historical reality that men are – again, speaking purely in general terms – potentially violent. We live in a society – 21st century America – where somewhere between one fourth and one half of all women will expwrience sexual violence over the course of her lifetime, and historically and globally speaking, that is a very low rate. In other places and in other times, sexual violence has been near to an universal female experience. Women have perforce developed caution around unknown men, a woman without that instinctual caution would be at a serious survival disadvantage. Or, as we might put it today, a real dumbass. Cultural and social norms, including workplace harassment rules, that recognize the reality of historical and biological power imbalances between the sexes are not sexist in themselves. Pretending such imbalances do not exist is sexist, as well as mistaken.

      • SlightlySatirical permalink
        19 August 2013 05:30

        Ah, our American cousins! I was imagining the OP story happening/being a problem in an NHS hospital and… well, frankly I was having trouble 🙂

        Well, I hope I don’t come across as too combative; I do think it useful that ideas are examined, and hope I can help in that regard.
        A couple of thoughts:
        You’re arguing for a lower bar set for women based on an inherited biological fear (I’m sceptical of this btw). Women have evolved to be scared of men. It’s popularly suggested that xenophobia also may have a genetic component, yet we do not use this as an excuse for racism. Why do you think that is?

        Secondly, some feminist circles contend that these old fashioned tropes of ‘men are tough’, and ‘women are delicate’ have a largely cultural basis rather than strictly genetic. If this has any truth to it you may be actually doing damage to equality by promoting this Fearful Woman meme.

        Lastly, if we replace the woman in the OP with a gay man, how harassed entitled to feel? /humour

  7. 19 August 2013 07:15

    Thank God you didn’t take offense. I also thank God I am as old as I am and grew up into adulthood in a different time. I can’t imagine trying to make my way in this uber sensitive world. My daughter does investigations for a large government agency. She tells me what the new “right” and “wrong” are. The problem with this is that there are still the Anthony Weiners of the world who go around violating everything and still manage to run a campaign to be mayor of NYC (with a beautiful, successful, intelligent wife by his side), while we prosecute people for the egregious offense of saying a “bad” word or asking someone if they are single.

    • 19 August 2013 07:20

      I tend to agree, MC. And yes, life has gotten a little too sensitive. But at the same time, I think it’s worthwhile to try to make the workplace more comfortable for everyone. And when the choice is between making it comfortable for people to be (mildly) offensive, whatever, versus comfortable to do your job, I fall on the side of doing the job. Because, that’s why we’re at work!

      • 20 August 2013 08:28

        I agree with you mostly. I think this is where my age comes in. I have always believed that the workplace is all about relationships. When we cannot talk, we cannot have relationships. We have stilted interactions with each other, praying we aren’t being offensive in some way we cannot even imagine. I would rather stay in my office with the door closed! I do not envy younger people, really, I don’t.

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