Burden still falls on the victim

Sharon Bialek accused Herman Cain of improper behavior this week.
Sharon Bialek accused Herman Cain of improper behavior this week. (Associated Press)
Posted: November 09, 2011

In the margins of the reporting and commentary on the sexual harassment allegations against Herman Cain, there's evidence that our understanding of women and of sex in the workplace remains startlingly antiquated. On some deep and abiding level, we still don't trust women when it comes to matters of sex, and in most cases we still don't accept sexual harassment as serious.

Commenting on a New York Times article, one reader deemed any harassment short of violence "frivolous" and suggested a "forceful slap" could end unwanted attentions. Another argued that while accusations by two women suggest a problem, a single accusation is just a case of "he said, she said." Other readers cast women as "liars" and "opportunists," and sexual harassment as a legal "shakedown." Meanwhile, the Times' David Brooks wondered whether a "moral taint" attaches to women who accept a settlement and agree to remain silent.

Conservatives weren't the only ones expressing such views. Wendy Kaminer, writing for the Atlantic, asked if she would "lose all credibility as a feminist" if she responded "So what?" to reports of Cain's sexually suggestive remarks and gestures to female subordinates. Compared with Cain's views on abortion, tax policy, and the poor, she wrote, his "upsetting" or "offending" his employees was pretty harmless.

Americans didn't believe women or worry about unwanted male advances and aggressive behavior in the workplace a century ago, either. After all, the women in question were working outside the home. Wasn't that proof enough that they were most likely immoral?

Historically, many Americans have seen working women as enticers who take advantage of men's alleged sexual vulnerability to make their lives easier. Women's supposed sexual power over men has been regarded as a rough equivalent to men's authority over female employees. Exploitation could be excused as cutting both ways.

Do some women lie? Yes. Do some women use their physical attributes for workplace gain? Sure.

But do most harassment cases fall into one of these categories? Hundreds of examples from the last century demonstrate otherwise. Archival records, memoirs, and journalistic accounts are thick with stories of women who have been denied promotions, fired, attacked, and persecuted. The pressure is invariably on the woman to overlook constant badgering, and attempts to insulate oneself from harassment often exacerbate the situation.

After spending the last decade researching what might be called the "prehistory" of sexual harassment, I believe we still very much need sexual harassment laws, including those that prohibit hostile work environments. In my research, I came across one case from the early 1970s, when sexual harassment was not yet illegal, in which a secretary's coworker kept pestering her for dates despite her increasingly forceful refusals and a reprimand from their boss. One afternoon, after she asked her boss not to include the persistent coworker in a Secretary's Day lunch, she returned to her desk to find a soda bottle covered in Vaseline and filled with dead flowers, with a rambling, incoherent note attached.

Let's stop and really think about what it might mean when a woman says she was upset, offended, or made uncomfortable by an employer's or coworker's behavior. Might our eagerness to dismiss women's experiences reflect a centuries-old distrust of them?

Critics of sexual harassment laws often say they are Victorian in their views of sexuality. But maybe they have their history wrong. Maybe it's our distrust of women in all matters public and sexual that is so 19th century.

Herman Cain's account of what happened between him and these women has evolved substantially over the last few days. Why can't our attitudes toward women?

Julie Berebitsky is a professor of history and women's studies at Sewanee: The University of the South, in Tennessee, and the author of the forthcoming "Sex in the Office: A History of Gender, Power and Desire" (Yale University Press).

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