Why Sexual Harassment Accusers Are Lampooned as Humorless and Hysterical

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Nov. 4 2011 4:23 PM

Is That a Banana in Your Pocket, Boss, Or Is That Just Your Sense of Humor?

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GOP hopeful Herman Cain has recently had to deal with sexual harassment allegations

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Herman Cain and the Cain supporters attempting to distract from the sexual harassment allegations against him would have us all believe that the contemporary workplace is just filled with hyper-sensitive, humorless, axe-grinding feminists waiting to misconstrue a kindly compliment as sexual harassment. They’d have us believe these women are, as Amanda put it in her fine, fine post yesterday, “just sensitive babies.” (How this portrait of women deemed attractive enough to harass – erm, compliment – squares with the popular reactionary caricature of feminists as ugly and mannish, I cannot say. But then, cultural caricatures don’t need to be logical in order to be potent.)

Libby Copeland Libby Copeland

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.

I don't know what Cain did or didn't do. Innocent till proven guilty? Absolutely. But let's stop reinforcing the stereotype of women who complain about sexual harassment as hysterical and slightly dim. If Cain was guilty of anything, this lame argument goes, it was of having a sense of humor and misreading someone else’s. As Cain himself put it to Sean Hannity yesterday, he’s not in the business of complimenting female colleagues “unless I am really, really comfortable with a fellow employee, unless I know them well enough to know they won’t take it the wrong way.”

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The notion that there's a certain kind of working woman who is eager to miscontrue friendliness and to complain ignores the reality of what sexual harassment accusers face. The New York Times has a story out about one of the women who has said Cain harassed her at the National Restaurant Association. According to people familiar with her story, after the much-younger woman turned down Cain's repeated advances, she finally complained to her bosses.

She then came to feel that there was a “change of attitude,” from her bosses toward her, they said, adding to her discomfort and leading her to finally decide it would be best to leave.

She got a lawyer and in the end received a severance package of $35,000, or about one year’s salary.

For those who would suggest the woman was a mere opportunist, $35,000 isn’t exactly rolling in it, even 13 or so years ago, and consider what she likely faced: a reputation among colleagues as a whiner and a trouble-maker, the suspicion of her bosses, the likely loss of her job without the guarantee of another, and a fractured relationship with the very people from whom she would no doubt be seeking references.

The accusations of ill-will, lack of humor, and oversensitivity against women who claim to have been sexually harassed are a strait-jacket, and they’re meant to be: If the very act of complaining about harassment marks a woman out as possessing poor judgment or, worse, bad intentions, her accusations are suspect from the very start, and her very motives are tainted. This is why women who suffer sexual harassment often don’t complain. The notion that we're all sitting around waiting for our male boss to make a lame joke so we can cash in at his expense -- that's a really lame joke.