Yesterday it came out that San Diego Mayor Bob Filner is resigning in the midst of a sexual harassment scandal. Apparently he enjoys groping his employees. Also a groper is Kentucky state representative John A. Arnold Jr. Just the latest in what is pretty much everyday news.
Earlier this week, Rolling Stone blasted Bloomberg for claiming to care about the safety of New York City children when 21% of the 145,652 NYPD street stops were of children. You might not think these things have much to do with one another. But they do.
I actually used to work for a law firm that represented plaintiffs in sexual harassment cases. There were bosses that busted into locker rooms while employees were changing. Bosses who liked to grope their employees. Bosses who conditioned promotions on getting their dicks sucked. Some all around charming dudes. (And yes. All of the defendants sued by the law firm were dudes. And all of the people who ever called for sexual harassment related consultations were women.)
Sexual harassment cases in the U.S., even the ones that should properly be called assault, are handled in civil court. If you get sued for sexual harassment, you may just have to pay a couple million dollars in damages. And I have to admit that winning those cases felt good. It was rare that someone actually lost their job for assaulting their employees. But watching some douchebag have to fork over millions of dollars does bring a certain satisfaction.
In theory, the law firm I worked for also did employment discrimination cases. But we never took any because they were so impossible to win. Even when some guy called us because n$%%@r was spray painted on his door, we didn’t take it. That kind of harassment wasn’t a winning case.
Mind you, at the law firm where I worked, we regularly put in 15 hour days. We worked weekends. We got yelled at. We were expected to do personal errands for our bosses. We got calls at 3 o’clock in the morning to be asked about files (at least until my phone got cut off and I let it stay cut off). In other words, we were subject to the kind of harassment that a lot of people have to deal with on their jobs. Most of us have to eat a certain amount of shit to earn a living.
I don’t say that to make light of sexual harassment or shrug off our collective shit eating. I say it because it shouldn’t be this way. For anybody. For any reason.
Public discussions about sexual harassment frustrate the hell out of me. First you have to deal with those people who deny that it exists at all. Then you have to deal with the ones who say that it exists, but women should get over it. Or the ones that hear any report of employer abuse and say people should just get a new job – as though someone who had been unemployed for years and has kids to feed can walk away so easily.
But sometimes I am even more frustrated by the people who agree it is a problem. Because invariably the response is to turn to the criminal injustice system, to become like France where you can (theoretically) be sent to prison for a couple years. Or they just want to continue suing people for money. Always, they ignore the fundamental issue.
Harassment is about power. People who have power feel they are entitled to whatever they want. People who don’t have power, or at least have less of it, will suffer consequences for sticking up for themselves against the powerful. The way to end sexual harassment, or any kind of workplace harassment, isn’t to transfer a little power from a boss to the injustice system. The answer is in getting rid of the power imbalance to begin with. That isn’t to say that, with no bosses, there would never be conflict. But confronting someone with equal power doesn’t carry the same kinds of consequences and risks. And the sense of entitlement bread by power will be, if not gone, severely diminished.
Now lets bring this out of the workplace. Because harassment doesn’t just come from bosses.
There has also been a lot of news about street harassment lately. That isn’t just people saying obnoxious shit to you on the streets. For instance, my friend Mandie recently had some guy grab her waist while she was waiting in line at 7-Eleven. My most frequently experienced harassment comes from douchebags who think it is o.k. to touch my hair. And then there was that fucker a few months back who thought it would be cool to slap my ass. I share Mandie’s homicidal thoughts when things like that happen.
Some people have an overinflated sense of entitlement. And while it may be less obvious than workplace harassment, street harassment is also an assertion of power. You wouldn’t slap your boss’s ass, grab the waist of some MMA fighter, or go up and rub a cops hair. There would be consequences. When you do things like that to someone, what you are saying is, “I am entitled to whatever I want. And what are you gonna do about it anyway?”
And really. What are your options? Retaliation will likely end with harsher consequences for the person standing up for themselves (worth it as those charges may be). Like the woman in DC who was being accosted late at night and, after she pepper sprayed the dude, had assault charges brought against her. The law isn’t made for everybody.
Which brings us back to that Bloomberg article. Because it isn’t only random dudes on the street that are harassing people. Police harass people, especially young men of color, every day. They can stop you, grope you, and say horrible shit to you on a daily basis. Not a damn thing happens to them.
There are women who are recording street harassment of women. And there are men recording street harassment by cops. But how many of them are out recording both? The fact that Hollaback is actually sharing information about street harassment with a govenrment agency doesn’t give me much hope that those women are making the connection.
Harassment – bosses of employees, men of women, cops of anybody they can get away with – is all about power. To try to use those very same systems of power to deal with the abuses is futile. It doesn’t help to “hold accountable” those in power. We need to be removing those positions of power and the sense of entitlement that goes with them. And we need to be making connections (though not equivalencies) between all the different power structures and hierarchies that create the conditions for abuse.
We won’t see an end to sexual harassment without getting rid of bosses. We won’t see an end to police abuse without smashing the injustice system. We won’t see an end to street harassment without ending the hierarchy that mets out power, privilege and entitlement based on an accident of birth.