Let me begin by saying that I believe men as well as women are victims of sexual harassment and assault, and both often suffer in silence, crippled by fear, confronting power, and perhaps feelings of shame. I will predominately focus on women and the most recent headlines regarding sexual harassment and assault; however, I believe that the need to maintain respectful personal boundaries applies to both sexes.
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein saga, the topic of sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, has once more returned in recent days to the public domain and is being heatedly debated in social media. So far, after years, a number of women have come forward with accusatory claims against Weinstein and a few other men, namely those in various positions of power. Even former president George H. Bush senior, a 93-year-old with Parkinson’s disease, has been subjected to accusations of sexual misconduct. A 34-year-old actress has accused him of inappropriate touching during a photo shoot, leaving some people scratching their heads in disbelief. Some even question her motives. What makes some critics apprehensive is that this alleged incidence occurred four years ago, according to a report by the Guardian Newspaper. People want to know why these kinds of accusations are suddenly surfacing after all these years and whether personal gain is playing a role. According to the media, some of the alleged accusations against Mr. Weinstein are three decades old.
Why in this modern age, are misogynistic attitudes still tolerated, applauded, and viewed as part of the definition of what it means to be a “real man”?
I believe remaining silent following an occurrence of sexual harassment or assault creates an objectionable consequence. This silence may, for example, have emboldened perpetrators to continue their misbehavior with impunity over many years, as may be the case with Mr. Harvey Weinstein and a few others. This kind of lengthy silence also appears to be prompting critics to question the motives of the accusers.
Experts tell us that the majority of the victims of sexual mistreatment may not want to come forward and talk about it for fear of backlash, not the least of which seems to be the popular mentality of blaming the victims who are often suspected of being suggestively permissive. The agony of tarnishing the reputation of a family is a very important concern, especially in more traditional societies. Furthermore, misogynistic attitudes, even in modern societies, may dominate people’s judgment and the way they weigh the claims of unwanted sexual advances made by a woman. In other words, the playing field is tilted against women. And, finally, many women may not want to revive the painful, degrading, and oftentimes frightening experience and memory of sexual assault. These are all convincing contentions.
Undoubtedly, certain behaviors, such as touching a woman without her consent, making specific suggestive gestures, or being forced to provide sexual favors in order to maintain employment are inappropriate. However, not every kind of male/female physical interaction constitutes sexual harassment or assault. What one person, male or female, considers sexual harassment or assault may not be what the other person considers sexual harassment or assault. For instance, males, perhaps those with certain public responsibilities, may use hugging as a vehicle for developing human affiliation, expressing gratitude, or acknowledging the success of their female co-workers. Should this be interpreted as sexual harassment? There are many other such fuzzy issues. Ascertaining the true intentions and motivations behind some kinds of physical contact is usually why sexual assault cases often drag on for long periods of time in the courts and often remain inconclusive. The normative nature of many issues involves forming opinions that are subjective.
The following questions relate to what I believe are other ambiguous issues that need to be further delineated and struggled with. What are the personal boundaries that must be respected by both male and females? What kind of interactions, conduct, or utterances constitute sexual harassment? Should victims report unwanted advances immediately? If not, what are the reasons for suddenly coming forward, especially after many years? What should government agencies, the courts, and society in general do to discourage unwanted behaviors, and eventually, end them? What happens if the reputation of a decent man or woman is tarnished and irredeemable because of fallacious or half-true accusations? Why are women (and men) who have the courage to come forward, even after many years, often accused of being opportunistic and “jumping on the band wagon” for personal gain? Why in this modern age, are misogynistic attitudes still tolerated, applauded, and viewed as part of the definition of what it means to be a “real man”?
I believe that these are all credible questions that should be candidly debated in forums such as this. I also believe that the gray areas involved in defining sexual harassment require further study and debate rooted in the philosophy of normative ethics and morality. Our minds and souls raise us above the animals and, therefore, create a moral imperative for us to define our conduct by more than the fact that we are sexual beings.