Guest columnist Susan Carol Rogers: Sexual harassment? Really?

  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo AP

Published: 3/16/2021 2:22:29 PM

When I was a graduate student in the mid-1970s, one of our more popular professors was a middle-aged man who was a wonderful teacher, attentive mentor, and a scholar who did fascinating and ground-breaking research.

According to some of the women students a few years ahead of me, though, he also had a very bad habit: he was inclined to look at these young women (especially their breasts) in a way that made them feel uncomfortably like they were being undressed.

So what did they do? Put up and shut up? Complain to a dean? Cry sexual harassment? Call some reporters?

No, they organized among themselves. Several of them were his teaching assistants in a large lecture class, and they took to sitting together in the front row of the lecture hall. From there, they all stared at his crotch during the whole class period.

Their ultimate goal was not just to make him squirm, although they did enjoy seeing that. Rather, it was to bring home to him the discomfort caused by that kind of looking; before very long, his breast-staring ended for good (and so did their crotch-staring).

They never verbally confronted him — he had considerable power over them, after all — nor did he ever say anything to them about the matter. But by the time I came along, there was no sign of his formerly boorish behavior.

Obviously there exist forms of sexual harassment that are much less benign and that require considerably more muscular interventions. It would clearly be wrong to always expect people to find their own ways to cope with or correct the unacceptable behavior of others.

But it is just as wrong to throw into a single “harassment” bin the whole gamut of undesirable behaviors around sex and gender: oblivious, insensitive, rude, boorish, predatory, life-threatening. Surely these are not all equivalent, nor do they require the same kind of response.

I believe that we all need to master a toolkit of life skills which includes:

<sbull value="sbull"><text xmlns="urn:schemas-teradp-com:gn4tera"></text></sbull>learning to tell the difference between what’s insensitive/unpleasant, on one hand, and predatory/life-threatening on the other, and

■acquiring the resiliency to handle on one’s own the garden-variety difficulties (and a-holes?) that are bound to come along, and to recognize when it really is time to call out the big guns.

I confess that I never understood the punishment meted out to Al Franken. Sure, there was some evidence of his insensitive behavior many years ago, when he was a comedian with a boorish persona. But what worthy cause was furthered by forcing out of office a senator who was making real contributions to our collective interests, and seemed to offer an all-too-rare ray of hope for our political future?

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a less appealing character, at least to me. Mainly, he seems more routinely insensitive and boorish than Franken ever did. The accusations Cuomo is currently facing are certainly consistent with that impression. By all accounts, he also sits squarely within a long (global?) tradition of ruthless politicians. And he clearly has powerful enemies who appear willing to use any plausible pretext to push him from office.

But all that said, none of the “sexual harassment” allegations leveled against him to date strike me as anything worse than obnoxious behavior. He certainly seems to have made plenty of unsavory comments and posed lots of inappropriate questions to various women working in his administration.

Were none of the women involved — including some fairly high up in his hierarchy — able to find a way of telling him to knock it off? He does not appear to be a predator: so far, no one has claimed that he forced himself on anyone, or demanded sexual favors in exchange for anything. Especially during this pandemic, he has done quite a good job of governing in many ways.

We already knew that he was pretty obnoxious. Is further evidence of this legitimate grounds for driving him out of office?

Certainly it is high time to blow the whistle on the real sexual harassment that remains all too present in many walks of life. But let’s not confuse that with the kinds of everyday bad behavior that our daughters and sons alike need to learn to manage on their own.

Susan Carol Rogers began her research career in the field of then-brand-new Women’s Studies and taught anthropology at New York University for three decades. She is a proud graduate of Northampton High School.
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