Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Can a Woman Harass a Man?: Toward a Cultural Understanding of Bodies and Power

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Can a Woman Harass a Man?: Toward a Cultural Understanding of Bodies and Power

Article excerpt

I begin this essay with two current renditions of sexual harassment, one fictional and the other semi-fictional.' Let me say from the outset that I believe neither of them to be very helpful to an understanding of sexual harassment. Rather, they illustrate two equally crude poles toward which the popular imagination has tended to drift since the Thomas/Hill hearings opened up public conversation about these issues. That conversation began in a promising fashion, with an unprecedented attention to how commonplace sexual harassment is in our workplaces and educational institutions. We seemed poised on the brink of a long-overdue cultural discussion of normative ideologies of masculinity and femininity and the potential for misunderstanding and abuse latent in them. But even as this analysis seemed about to unfold, alternative constructions were emerging, leading in very different directions. I open with them as a way of beginning to diagnose what has gone wrong with the current conversation about sexual harassment.2

My first example is a fictional rendition, from Michael Crichton's Disclosure, recently made into a film directed by Barry Levinson and starring Demi Moore and Michael Douglas (rapidly becoming the benighted white boy of Hollywood films.) The film has been widely promoted as a provocative "role reversal" in which, to quote the NewYork Times, a "cool, smart and ferociously ambitious" female executive, Meredith Johnson (played by Moore) sexually harasses Tom Sanders, a male in her employ (played by Douglas). The event which is the centerpiece of the movie has Meredith aggressively pressing herself on Tom sexually and then seeking revenge when she is rejected. (Just in case the viewer is in doubt over whether her advances are "welcome," the scene has Douglas whimpering "no" a full thirtyone times as Moore performs oral sex on him.)

Levinson, invoking a somewhat tenuous opposition, has insisted that the film is "Just a movie. Not a polemic."3 His claim is that the gender-reversal is not intended to exploit and incite the suppressed rage of contemporary male viewers, but to get viewers to "pay attention" to issues of power-abuse and victim helplessness. Nonetheless, both the novel and the film read like a litany from the whitemale hell of contemporary gender-politics: Meredith,to begin with, is not only Tom's boss, but has gotten precisely the job Tom had coveted-and she's gotten it, as the President of the company openly declares, in order "to break the glass ceiling." After Tom rejects Meredith, not only does she try to sabotage him at meetings and the like, but-in a reversion to more traditional stereotypes-she falsely accuses him of sexual harassment! In the interrogation that follows, Tom's faithful Asian secretary also accuses him of touching her in "inappropriate" ways. The book and movie thus hit all the currently raw male anxieties, both warranted and fantastical, from legitimate concerns over one's behavior being interpreted as harassment to nightmares of sexually castrating, scheming executrixes and rage at imagined injustices of affirmative action policies. (It's just a movie, remember, not a polemic.)

Crichton's book, too, refuses to own its politics. The following is a speech-put into the mouth of Tom's glamorously tough-as-nails, scrupulously egalitarian and vehemently antip.c. Latina attorney--that states the point that Crichton claims he is making, about the protean, neuter nature of power:

Harassment is about power he undue exercise of power by a superior over a subordinate. I know there's a fashionable point of view that says women are fundamentally different from men, and that women would never harass an employee. But from where I sit, I've seen it all. I've seen and heard everything you can imagine-and a lot that you wouldn't believe if I told you. That gives me another perspective. Personally, I don't deal much in theory. I have to deal with the facts. And on the basis of facts, I don't see much difference in the behavior of men and women. …

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