Aren't We Past Katie Roiphe's Fear that Sexual Harassment Laws Make Us Drab (and Uncool) Yet?

What Women Really Think
Nov. 14 2011 12:53 PM

Against (Some) Dirty Jokes and Risque Remarks, and Cool With It

What constitutes sexual harassment?
What constitutes sexual harassment?

Photo by Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images.

Katie Roiphe is In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risque Remarks at work.

Of course, at Slate (where Katie Roiphe is now a columnist) we embrace the contrarian point of view. But is it really still contrarian to worry about the "capaciousness" of the concept of sexual harassment, or the inherently amorphous nature of its definition? Those are old arguments, made by defensive men and by women who prefer to sound, and maybe even are, confident that no environment is hostile to them. "The majority of women in the workplace," Roiphe writes in the New York Times,  "are not tender creatures and are largely adept at dealing with all varieties of uncomfortable or hostile situations. Show me a smart, competent young professional woman who is utterly derailed by a verbal unwanted sexual advance or an inappropriate comment about her appearance, and I will show you a rare spotted owl."

Fine. But who said that every woman in the workplace needs to be "smart" or "competent"? And shouldn't even those who are be able to object to being called either a "whore" or "so hot" on Facebook, or to being "jokingly or not jokingly propositioned." Shouldn't they have their objections backed up by a societal agreement that those things are not acceptable workplace or even school behavior, and that if unwelcome and continued, they may constitute illegal sexual harassment?

Photo of Katie Roiphe (c) Deborah Copaken Kogan
Katie Roiphe

(c) Deborah Copaken Kogan

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I think my colleague is being disingenuous when she claims to worry that sexual harassment that "may result from a[n] ... unconscious action"--the kind of sexual harrassment that was prohibited in her days at Princeton--will lead us to a world of "anodyne drone[s]" typing away in "silent cubicle[s]." It may have occurred to you, once or twice or a thousand times, that being the person who objects to even extremely inappropriate behavior is not fun. If you show me a young woman who has made a legal claim of sexual harassment based on a single, minor, unwelcome comment never repeated, or from one "unconscious action," then I will show you a rare spotted owl. If you show me such a claim that's been in any way legally successful, I will show you a spotted unicorn, and then I will ride it home.

Yes, the definition of sexual harassment is imprecise and depends on circumstance. Most of us in the workplace, men and women alike, are comfortable with that, just as we're comfortable with the idea that a poke on the shoulder with intent to annoy technically constitutes "Harassment in the Second Degree" under Section 240.26(1) of the the New York Penal Code. It's OK. We can handle the contradiction between a world in which that law exists and a world in which we regularly nudge one another with our elbows at the risk of being considered annoying. When a high-profile instance of assault is alleged, we do not rush around worrying that suddenly we won't even be able to give a friendly punch anymore.

Real sexual harassment happens. That it happens less than it once did is because as a society, we've legislated against it, actively discussed it, and attempted, however ambiguously, to define it. That gives smart, competent young women the ability to whack their colleagues upside the head (harassment!) and say, as I once did to a friend: Dude, you just cannot forward that joke to everyone on your team. When I step up and say that, his junior associates, who might not feel that this particular joke featuring a young woman in a compromising situation was merely a vivid expression of his outrageous and irreverent attitude, don't have to.

The result isn't "drab, cautious, civilized, quiet." It's a workplace (and a school environment) in which it's just as cool to call someone out for an obnoxious "proposition" as it is to uncomfortably laugh it off. One in which power has begun to equalize, and we can all move with ease. After all these years, I can't believe we're still debating whether that's a problem.

KJ Dell'Antonia is a writer living in New Hampshire. She writes the EcoLiving column for Kiwi magazine and is the co-author ofReading With Babies, Toddlers and Twos: Choosing, Reading and Loving Books Together.