When I first heard about Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey and Charlie Rose, about men with loose bathrobes and wandering hands who force penetration, I figured it was just another example of me being a stranger in this strange land. As a beta-male tuned to the cerebral rather than the physical, I have no context for understanding these perversions of privilege and power. I never coerced anyone from a superior step on the corporate ladder. Or did I?
Like many adult males, the close of 2017 led me to consider my role in our culture of sexual harassment. Like most, I didn’t have to dig too deep to find questionable workplace behavior. Although the particulars of my stories may seem insignificant compared to other men. Inappropriate behavior, accentuated by a power imbalance, is always wrong.
In some respects, less egregious cases offer more nuanced perspective on where we cross the line. Three situations in my own career illustrate how sex contorts the workplace. Let’s call them the creep, the object, and the benefactor.
The Creep. One morning, twenty years ago, I was at work early, in the large pen of chest-high cubicles so common to architecture offices. I tossed a good morning to ‘Max,’ two cubicles over, but didn’t see him until several minutes later, when Max stood to ask me a question. This particular morning Max sported a bow tie, which complimented his clean-cut face, square smile, and preppy oxford in a perfectly Yankee way. “You’re so cute.” I gushed before I caught myself. Max blushed. I got a grip, answered his question, and we continued on. Twenty years on, I still recall, and regret, that comment.
The Object. A few years later, on a business trip to Phoenix, I went to the hotel pool after a long day of meetings. My principal, ‘Alan,’ was sitting in a chaise on the deck. I greeted him, asked if he wanted to swim. He declined. I swam my laps, got out, and toweled down. A woman on our team came over and said, “You know, Alan watched you up and down the pool the entire time.” Rumors around the office pegged Alan—divorced, with two daughters—as a closeted homosexual. It was also common knowledge that I was an out gay man. When my coworker told me of my boss’ steady eyes, I remembered how often Alan called me into his office, made sure I was in his car on site visits, kept me close at hand.
The Benefactor. The first time ‘Jake’ walked by my desk, my heart pounded out of my chest and burst toward him. The most instantaneous crush of my life endured through eight years of working together. I had little in common with this hockey playing hard rock surfer who wrung my heart and spun my tongue to blither. Before I approached Jake’s desk I always had to compose myself and check my breathing. During the years we worked together Jake met his future wife, got married, bought a house, had two children. He also got a pair of promotions, in part due to my mentoring and lobbying on his behalf. I never did anything physically inappropriate, though there’s something sad, maybe sordid, about loitering a weekend afternoon in a frigid MDC rink to watch a colleague’s adult hockey team, uninvited.
Do any of these three case studies constitute harassment?
The first: definitely. The unambiguous definition of harassment is: if a person feels harassed, then he is. But harassment is not limited by that condition. It doesn’t matter whether Max felt harassed by my comment. Even if it was a compliment, I was inappropriate. I knew it the moment I uttered those words; I know it twenty years on.
The second: I don’t think so. It may be true that Alan ogled me and arranged mutual proximity, but he never did or said anything inappropriate to me. I never once felt harassed.
The third: it’s complicated. When the roles flipped, I acted toward Jake much as Alan did toward me. I never did or said anything overtly inappropriate. Jake deserved the promotions he received, although other, less comely men and women I never championed, were likely deserving as well. If Jake felt harassed, then I harassed him. More likely, a simple cost-benefit analysis on his part reckoned that we had a mutually beneficial pact. I’m confident, though chagrinned, that he understood my attraction. But since I drew the bounds so tight, we mutually navigated an awkward reality.
Human relationships are delicate. The dance of give and take, the balance of affection, trust, and power vary over time. Every day is a constant stream of quid pro quo. This is especially true in the workplace, where we come together for the express purpose of creating economic and social gain.
Harassment skews that balance. The person with power in one arena coerces another in life’s intimate arena.
I hear many men bemoan the fact that it’s difficult to know what one can do and say in today’s hyper-sensitive environment. Where’s the sense of perspective? Can’t anyone take a joke?
I have no patience for this reasoning; I reject the Matt Damonian argument that harassment comes in shades. Our society is likely to enter a period of backlash, where even the most innocuous comment is analyzed for ill intent. Fine by me. For how many millennia have privileged white men been able to say or do whatever they want without repercussion? How long have we allowed the insistent denying of one powerful man supersede any number of credible accusations? Let us learn to hold our tongues and tie our hands. Let us stop pretending that we determine who is abused and harassed. Let us all reconsider our behavior in the workplace and in the public forum. We may not all be Louis CK or Roy Moore, Al Franken or Donald Trump; but we’ve all got some dirt on our hands.