The #MeToo moment is at risk of turning into a "sex panic"

An interesting think piece shows up at the NY Daily News this week from Christina Hoff Sommers, author of Who Stole Feminism? Referring to the ongoing #MeToo moment of women exposing sexual abusers in the workplace, Sommers lauds the social movement toward accountability but offers yet another note of caution.

There’s an important distinction being made in this essay which, if we’re not careful, could lead to what Sommers describes as a “sex panic.” Workplace sexual harassment needs to be exterminated root and branch, but we also need to be careful not to conflate actual sexual harassment (not to mention assault) from more innocent, if possibly offensive behavior. Here’s one of the key takeaways.

Why do we assume women lack the power to draw lines?

Awkward flirtation, raunchy humor, even an unwanted advance may be breaches of decorum, but they are not necessarily harassment. We must be able to make distinctions between truly unacceptable behavior and lesser annoyances…

There are more than 150 million men and women in the U.S. workforce. And despite recent scandals, most of them appear to be working together in relative harmony.

They manage to hold meetings, plan product launches, attend conferences, travel, share stories and even go to office parties where libations are served, mostly without incident. Occasionally, they even fall in love. According to a Stanford sociologist, between 16% and 19% of married people met their spouse at work.

Here’s one of the more alarming statistics to keep in mind, pointed out by the author as a sort of flashing, yellow caution light on the current, high-speed track of investigations. Sommers points out a recent Newsweek/Wall Street Journal poll which found that 48% of American women reported being sexually harassed at work. But the wording of the survey was extremely broad in how they defined harassment. They asked if respondents had experienced “unwelcome sexual advances” at any point in their entire working careers.

Sommers points to a different survey which asked the more specific question, “In the last 12 months, were you sexually harassed by anyone while you were on the job?” The tally of women responding yes to that question was 3.6%, and that was actually down significantly from the same survey question roughly a decade earlier. Obviously, terminology is important here. This doesn’t mean we suddenly turn a blind eye, and 3.6% of the female workforce is still a huge number of women. But we can’t lump every instance of somebody asking a co-worker out on a date with people like Weinstein.

The last point from the article I wanted to touch on is one which has me wondering whether this abuse is as ubiquitous across all industries as I’d previously imagined. Is there something specific to Hollywood, the media and government work which makes sexual harassment or assault more common and less likely to be reported? Sommers offers this observation:

Before we consider all men guilty of harassment or abuse until proven innocent, a reality check is in order. Most of the sensational harassment cases in the media involved high-profile men working in unusual environments with little or no accountability. That suggests they are atypical.

In an office or company where the boss and personnel director insist on civility and respect, where there is a clear policy against harassment, and where there is system for reporting bad behavior, serious problems are far less likely to arise.

Is this likely to be true? Up until now I’ve been assuming that pretty much any workplace where men (well… almost always men) are in power over (almost always) women reporting to them, that leverage which Weinstein’s victims mention would be in play. But it could be a matter of degree I suppose. Hollywood is the land of a million broken dreams with huge numbers of women competing for a tiny number of possible jobs in that glamorous industry, promising fame and wealth to those few who manage to hit it big. You can see how a fear of losing out on that chance would breed silence and how a predator like Weinstein could thrive.

But if a woman in your hometown has a job stocking shelves or checking out sales at Walmart, they have a lot less to lose if the night shift manager starts grabbing their butt. There’s probably less fear of blowing the whistle when Target, Sears and a dozen other stores at the mall are all hiring for similar positions. I suppose it’s fair to posit that the danger of such situations rises from there as we talk about other professions which pay more and have fewer job openings. That doesn’t mean that it can’t happen everywhere, but I think Sommers is making a valid point about the need to avoid overly generalizing.

None of this means that the current investigations don’t need to continue. It’s an ugly facet of American society which has been uncovered and needs to be cleansed in sunlight. But Sommers offers some guidelines to keep in mind as we move forward if nothing else.