Sometimes, you do something even though you know you shouldn’t. I mean, I know it’s cold out, but that pole won’t lick itself.

So there are a number of different issues I have been watching with some fascination (and horror) when it comes to the recent revelations regarding sexual harassment (and assault) in the news. For the most part, I haven’t wanted to address these issues because, well, no good will come out of discussing such a highly charged issue. But despite that, I am somewhat heartened by the recognition that while some of the issues are clear-cut, others are less clear ... I recommend looking at this recent post for an example-

Baseline Assumptions. There are a few things that should go without saying, but apparently need to be said. So, um, there’s that.

Rape is wrong. I shouldn’t need to explain that.

Touching/groping someone’s genitalia without asking is wrong. Really? Was this ever a debate?

Advertisement

Sending unsolicited explicit photographs of yourself to coworkers (or anyone, really) is wrong. Call me old-fashioned, but a dick-pic is not a request for date.

Threatening, or implying, professional or personal consequences to someone if they don’t have sex with you is wrong. If someone is into you, they are into you, if they aren’t, they aren’t. Don’t be a bad Bond villain.

Retaliating against a co-worker because they aren’t into you is wrong. Look, no one likes to be turned down. It’s not great for the ego. But work is work, not your personal fiefdom. If you are looking to harm others just because they aren’t into you ... well, you should really look at your life choices. But if that’s too much, just try and view it this way- do you think that you should be allowed to pick and choose who you date and sleep with? Yes? Well, do you think your personal and professional life should be ruined by turning someone down that you don’t want to get with? No? Then don’t do it to other people. Simple.

Advertisement

Don’t view your co-workers as potential material for relationships/sex. As the linked-to article indicates, and as I will discuss at greater length, things sometimes happen. But if you view work as an opportunity to, you know, WORK as opposed to get your game on, then you won’t run into nearly as many issues. Because do you know what your co-workers would like to do? Work.

If someone says, “Stop,” then listen. This is some general purpose advice that applies to all of the above, but more specifically, if you think it’s a great idea to be relaying bawdy stories, or sending racy jokes in email, or, well, whatever, and someone says , “Stop. That makes me uncomfortable,” let me give you some good and free advice. Stop. Immediately. This isn’t the time to re-double your efforts because the other person is just “too sensitive” and would benefit from a “work outing” to the local gentlemen’s club. Just. Stop.

Now that’s out of the way ... some more thoughts ...

Tip of the iceberg. This should go without saying, but ... it’s not just famous Hollywood celebrities and politicians that engage in bad behavior. This takes place everywhere. In some places, it is systemic (look up the history of AstraZeneca). In other places it is sporadic (a manger at the fast food restaurant). But it’s not a Hollywood or a D.C. thing; it’s a cultural thing.

Advertisement

But celebrity matters, and helps. What, AstraZeneca didn’t make a difference in the larger culture? How about sexual harassment in the Jacksonville Shipyards? No? That’s because people and the media care about celebrities in a way that, unfortunately, they don’t care about other issues. Learning that Joe Blow at Randy’s Rib Shack demanded that female workers “help out with the BBQ slathering, all close and personal” might make the local news; Kevin Spacey, Weinstein, Hoffman et al can dominate the news cycle and lead to a more lasting change.

But what about the law? The law is a blunt instrument. Briefly put, and as long-time readers remember, there’s two major areas within the law; criminal and civil. Criminal law would handle the “super serious” stuff like rape, while civil law (usually under something called Title VII and state versions of that law) handles discrimination and hostile working environments. But these aren’t easy; cases are often difficult to make, evidence can be hard to find (the proverbial “he said, she said,” issue often comes up), and even when civil cases have merit, it rarely goes to trial and often just results in a confidential settlement. In short, while having the law on your side is a good thing, it is better to change the cultural expectations; put another way, it is better to not face sexual harassment at work than to know that you might have a Title VII claim at some time.

And yet ... specificity would be nice. In the current atmosphere, it is difficult to say, “Well, but that was harassment, and not sexual assault.” The inevitable rejoinder is, “BUT IT’S ALL WRONG!” Which is not wrong, but also misses the point. Murder is not arson is not theft is not public intoxication. There are degrees of wrong, and when people begin to conflate them, eventually, the sting of the worst loses its meaning- just as calling all public intoxication “murder,” would. To make this more concrete, we have to keep in mind that there is a colorable difference between a Weinstein, who is credibly alleged to have assaulted many women over decades (in addition to harassing and so on) as opposed to, say, David Cross who has been under fire for allegedly making a drunken racist comment to Charlene Yi. That doesn’t excuse Cross, and it’s entirely possible that this is just the tip of the iceberg, but not all bad behavior carries the same weight. Or, put another way, it’s always wrong to be an asshole, but assholes are better than rapists.

Advertisement

But then ... tip of the iceberg again. The thing is, most of these things start with the single accusation. Anthony Rapp said Kevin Spacey had the once incident ... and then the floodgates opened. So take the specificity with a grain of salt; for all I know, by the time this post is a few weeks old (or if my google skills are bad), then David Cross might have more baggage. So when you hear a defense of, “But it was just that one dick pic,” be aware that the other shoe can always drop. Some people make a mistake and learn from it, other people are serial (and not in the Sarah Koenig way).

Context matters. Most of us probably don’t need to read the linked-to Slate article, above, to understand an important point; relationships can happen in the workplace. I don’t think there are many of us that don’t have a friend, family member, or at least someone we know that isn’t married to (or in a relationship with) someone they met from work. Thankfully, we have moved away from the times when young women were counseled to get work only to find a husband. However, given the loss of communal spaces in America, more and more social encounters are often shaped by the work environment. And different work environments will have different standards for what is appropriate; the same banter that might fly in one office might be viewed disfavorably in another office. But while context matters, it is also true that serial abusers take advantage of that context. So ... it’s complicated. Allison Benedikt found her true love and husband; others were not so lucky. And it shouldn’t depend on luck.

So, is there a point to all this? Sort of. This is a tumultuous time, and for the most part, the results should be good. No one should have to deal with rape, sexual assault, harassment, or other unwanted behavior at the office. Full Stop. It’s work, not Larry’s Leering Log Cabin. But while these boundaries are being re-drawn, things will get interesting for a while.

Advertisement

Any final advice? If you believe that you are the victim of unwanted sexual harassment, discrimination based on gender, a hostile working environment, retaliation for raising these issues to management, and you’re not a famous celebrity ... please consult an attorney.