Today CNN contributor Sally Kohn has a piece in the Washington Post arguing that sexual harassment should be a hate crime:
We have to stop seeing sexual harassment and sexual assault as some sort of flattery of women gone awry. In truth, sexual assault has nothing to do with sex, or sexuality, or flirting, or courtship, or love. Rather, sexual assault is a kind of hate. The men who gratify themselves by abusing women aren’t getting off on those women, but on power. These men don’t sexually assault women because they like women but because they despise them as subordinate creatures. We should call it misogynistic harassment and misogynistic assault, not sexual assault. These are hate crimes.
This idea that sexual harassment has nothing to do with sex is ubiquitous. It’s certainly true that cases we’ve seen recently have involved powerful men who are relying on their power to keep people from speaking up, sometimes telling the accuser no one will believe them and sometimes threatening to destroy their careers if they level the accusation. So power definitely has a lot to do with how harassers get away with doing this, sometimes for decades.
But there’s an easy way to know for sure that this still has something to do with sex. Harvey Weinstein (allegedly) harassed women, as did Matt Lauer and James Toback. Meanwhile, Kevin Spacey allegedly focused his attention on men. A recent allegation against director Bryan Singer involved a male teen. The fact that straight people are harassing women and gay people are harassing men suggests this is still about sex at some level. If it were purely about power then straight men would be “sexually harassing” men as well.
Now, it’s fair to say that Harvey Weinstein did harass plenty of men, in the sense that he apparently screamed at and threatened both sexes. But, at least so far, we haven’t heard a report of him demanding sex in a hotel room from a male actor. So, again, sex is still a big part of this. Having started on this shaky foundation, Kohn continues building from there.
If we understand that these crimes are the result of targeted hate, rather than misguided lust, we can devise better solutions than the kind of “treatment” Harvey Weinstein is supposedly receiving for his “problem.” The way to combat hate is not (only) through enforcement against individual perpetrators. We need to fight the misogyny, sexism and the systemic marginalization of women and disproportionate empowerment of men. That’s what creates the society-wide dynamic in which men think they’re better than women. This dynamic is evident in gender pay gaps; in the unequal burden of domestic chores; in the election of overt misogynists to the presidency; and in the subjection of women to harassment, assault and rape.
I partially agree with what she’s saying here, in as far as I don’t think “sexual addiction” is a disease that can be treated the way an actual disease is treated. Harvey Weinstein’s efforts at “treatment” seems like a PR move to me. And of course, misogyny and sexism are bad things that no one should support. She starts to lose me when she returns to the pay gap issue (which often involves choices made by individual women) or domestic chores. I do the dishes in my house. Does that mean I’m more likely to be sexually assaulted? I’m just not sure there’s a direct link there. Back to Kohn (emphasis added):
In this context, companies would recognize the issue isn’t just how women are discouraged from coming forward but how men in the company are encouraged to minimize and marginalize women, which fans misogyny and hate.
That hate ends up infecting and affecting all of us. Whether we realize it or not, most men hate women. As do most women as well; studies show both women and men have unconscious bias against women. For instance, tools some scientists use to measure our unconscious associations suggest that both women and men more readily associate men with positive attributes and women with negative. In fact, evidence suggests that women hold these unconscious biases more than men. Which makes us all, for instance, more likely to grant a job interview to a man than a woman, or think a successful man is talented while a successful woman is just lucky.
Some of the research Kohn is pointing to here involves the implicit bias test, the same type of computer association test used to show implicit racial bias. As I wrote here, there is reason to believe those tests are neither reliable nor valid, i.e. they do not accurately predict racially biased behavior. Are the implicit bias tests dealing with misogyny any better? Do they actually prove men hate women? In any case, the articles Kohn is referring to mostly deal with barriers to women’s advancement at work, not to sexual harassment or assault. The conflation of the two seems to be her own addition.
There’s no doubt power helps explain how men think they can get away with sexual harassment and even assault. As we’ve seen, some powerful men can get away with it for years. But that doesn’t mean this is solely about power. There is definitely still an element of this that is about sex.
Most ordinary people (men, women, gay or straight) aren’t in a position to act on whatever bad impulses are present within them. They are aware that grabbing someone in the office or even talking about doing so, could get them fired (and possibly sued). People in very powerful positions in Washington, Hollywood, and the media succumb to the delusion that they are immune to these consequences for violating the norms of sexual behavior at work. That’s at least partly how you end up with guys like Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. Big appetites combined with big power create a toxic environment. But I don’t think the lesson of the awful behavior of the worst offenders (in uniquely powerful positions) is that most men hate women.