16 thoughts on “Sexual Harassment Conversations

  1. Brilliant summary of the scenarios that fill our culture.

    This should be made into a poster and posted in every workplace, campus, conference, etc, right alongside the basic information about participants’ rights.

    It can educate potential victims as well as perpetrators as to the language and destructive norms we need to be much more aware of.

  2. Some good things for all of us to be conscious of there, but also some bad guidance.

    We should never be opposed to “hear[ing] his side of the story”. This is necessary not only in cases in which the accuser is lying, but also because two persons can have two different perceptions of an incident, not both of them reasonable. For example, if the “victim” claims sexual harassment owing to improper touching, that should alarm all of us. But then if, upon discussing the matter with the accused, we go on to discover that he or she merely tapped the “victim” on the shoulder as a way of getting attention, then one of those perceptions is unreasonable. We should not adjudicate cases of harassment without a full understanding of what took place, and that includes hearing from both sides. Moreover, as a practical matter we can not adjudicate these cases without this understanding (owing to due process). So without “hear[ing] his side of the story” we fail to live up to our responsibilities to stop harassment.

    Also, a failure to be specific (e.g. in reporting the name of the harasser) is perhaps understandable, but in my view not morally defensible, as it allows persons who behave badly to get away with it. By not speaking up, even if emotionally difficulty, we allow sexual harassment to continue unimpeded.

  3. Not sure where you’re getting from the poster that it’s advocating *never* hearing the accused’s side of the story. It’s pointing out that *immediately demanding* to be able to hear that side of the story after someone comes forward with an allegation is maybe, um, callous, re-traumatizing, and unfair, since that point is brought up so often.

    Also, seriously, that’s pretty messed up to put the responsibility of stopping the harassment of the victim’s shoulders. As bystanders and people in academia, we also do dozens of things that let sexual harassment “continue unimpeded.” (For instance, we harp on the fact that we have to be careful that we’re not believing people who may be making false allegations to the point that some people think that unless they have concrete proof that were harassed, they shouldn’t speak up ever. And not having people feel comfortable enough to speak up allows sexual harassment to continue unimpeded.) And you know who else lets harassment continue unimpeded? The harassers, by harassing. So why is it so important, that of everyone involved here, it’s the people who just went through “an emotionally difficult” experience who are the ones who really need to step up to the plate and put more of themselves, their life, and their happiness at risk?

    Isn’t it instead our turn to do that? Isn’t it even less morally defensible for us to focus on the ways that people who were harassed can help stop this, as opposed to the ways that we as bystanders and potential harassers can?

  4. Lots of the things above depend on who ‘we’ refers to. Investigative committees? Activists? Corporate or university judicial institutions?

    One of the functions of websites like What is it like…? or Feminist Philosophers is to assemble lots of individual instances where a perpetrator might not be intentionally harassing or offending someone, and to show how these cases are systematically linked. If the ‘we’ refers to the organizers of this sort of project and the project’s readers, then the perpetrator’s “side of the story” is irrelevant. It isn’t about the perpetrator, and the perpetrator’s intent isn’t important. It doesn’t help anyone understand the story and it doesn’t help anyone think about stories systematically. Nor does it particularly help to name the harasser. That’s not the point.

    If we’re talking about corporate or university judicial bodies, then sure. Those folks had better listen to the perpetrator’s testimony. But no one is arguing otherwise.

  5. Well said Stacey and Matt. Also, Shira, I’m with you: I’m posting it on my office door!

  6. Stacey took LogicFan to be asserting that the cartoon is “advocating *never* hearing the accused’s side of the story”. But LogicFan simply said we should never be opposed to hearing the accused’s side of the story, which I think only suggests that LogicFan interpreted the cartoon to be implying that there are some (perhaps many?) circumstances in which a person to whom an allegation is presented should be discouraged from expressing the desire to hear the accused’s side of the story. And I can certainly see where LogicFan might have arrived at that reading of the cartoon, regardless of whether there are better interpretations.

    In any event, the fact that the “wanting to hear the accused’s side of the story” is presented in the cartoon, without distinction, as part of a litany of responses that pretty clearly includes some responses that would rarely if ever be correct or justified might lead a reasonable reader to infer that the cartoon’s author did, perhaps, intend to tar all of the responses with that brush.

    I take Matt’s point about some of this depending on who “we” refers to. Yet considering an accused’s account is not merely about whether “a perpetrator might not be intentionally harassing or offending someone”. It can go to the heart of the question about whether the accused’s is a perpetrator at all. After all, the accused’s account may not relate merely to intentionality but factuality – I believe LogicFan was getting at this. And for this reason, I find it hard to concur that the accounts of accused persons are completely irrelevant to the project of a systematic effort to elicit links among individual instances. Such a project may not be “about the perpetrator”, but can it really be so radically isolated from such questions as “instance of what”, “perpetrator of what” and even “is there a perpetrator” (all of which questions may be borne upon by consideration of an accused’s account)?

    Finally, with regard to Matt’s point about judicial bodies as distinguished from other contexts, it is a point well made and well taken, but I think there is some danger in drawing it too finely. I agree that the need to consider an accused’s account is more compelling in a judicial or disciplinary context, regardless of the kind of accusation. However, I daresay the reason we as a society have come to think of consideration of an accused’s account as being important in a technical judicial or disciplinary context is because we first came to think of it as important in a general and universal sense, not the other way around. Judicial bodies (whether of the state, a corporate entity or a university) are assembled out of regular people. Those people bring their own instincts, habits and values of justice and fair play with them from daily life when they walk into the grievance committee meeting, the jury box, or what have you. If those instincts, habits and values have been formed in such a way as to diminish their regard for the significance and relevance of an accused’s “side of the story”, then I doubt whether any amount of procedural safeguards will fully and reliably make up the difference.

    I realize, of course, that the cartoon’s author may have been indirectly saying something about disregard for an accuser’s “side of the story”, but I don’t think that doing it in such a way as to leave open the interpretation that the author was denigrating anyone’s instinct, having been presented with one side, to demand the other side, was necessarily the way to go.

  7. I’d like to chime in my agreement that “I need to hear his side of the story” shouldn’t be lumped together with such obviously offensive responses as “You obviously don’t care about the problem. You just want attention.” The former is sometimes warranted, the latter never.

  8. LogicFan,

    So you jointly hold the views that 1) people who are harassed are morally obliged to come forward with specific allegations, but that 2) when people come forward with allegations of harassment, we – their friends and colleagues – are morally obliged to suspend judgment and treat them to a thorough cross-examination, in order to rule out such competing hypotheses as ‘Maybe she mistook an innocent tap on her shoulder as a sexual assault.’ What’s more, you seem to think that it’s our business to lecture harassment victims about their obligations under (1) and to refuse to believe their reported experience otherwise.

    I wonder if you apply similarly demanding rules elsewhere. My neighbors told me their house was broken into. Silly me, I believed them, without once considering whether they might have just mistaken a door-to-door salesman for a robbery.

  9. Derek,

    LogicFan said “we should not adjudicate cases of harassment without a full understanding of what took place” (emphasis mine); does it follow that he or she thinks every friend and colleague is morally obliged to cross-examine the accuser?

    Your burglary example seems inapposite, at least with regard to what I read as LogicFan’s point. If you were responsible for adjudicating the allegation in some sense or another (say, you were on the HOA’s security committee responsible for making recommendations based on such reports), it would not seem particularly “demanding” to look into the matter a bit further before deciding. And even if you didn’t have such a responsibility, if your neighbors were saying “we saw our home broken into by someone else in the neighborhood last week, but we’d prefer not to name names”, I daresay you could be forgiven for thinking that, given the potential implications for the safety of your own family and the families of all your other neighbors, it might be incumbent on the accusers to be a bit more candid.

    I don’t wish to speak for LogicFan, however; this is merely how it appears to me.

  10. I think it’s important to consider the context in which “I need to hear his side of the story” is presented in the comic. Note that it’s not present in the first panel. I read the comic as presenting a kind of history or narrative about how victims of sexual harassment come to be silenced.

    Looking at the context of the second panel again, the “accuser” is trying to tell a story with less specific information, for whatever reason (and I’m not sure it makes sense to speak of an “accuser” here), but comments like “I need to hear his side of the story” attempt to force the conversation into the kind that the “accuser” initiates in the first panel. In the second panel, there is no specific “accused” individual to whom the “accuser” is drawing attention.

    I also worry that devoting several paragraphs to argument and counterargument about the “I need to hear his side of the story” aspect may distract us from the more general point the comic is making, so I’ll stop here.

  11. Nothing in the comic is in any way about ‘adjudicating’ cases in that narrow sense. The comic is about what happens when you publicly report your own experiences of sexual harassment, why the predictability of that response leads to non-reporting, and what bad inferences that non-reporting leads to.

  12. Derek, I didn’t say the contrary; I was just pointing out what I thought was a questionable inference you seemed to me to be drawing about LogicFan’s position. But that said, regardless of what the comic was intended to be about, is there anything in the comic that excludes LogicFan’s interpretation that it provides some potentially “bad guidance”, as LogicFan put it, to the extent that the comic arguably implies a rough equivalence between (as RH’s comment pointed out) “I need to hear [the accused’s] side of the story” and such responses as “You obviously don’t care about the problem, you just want attention”?

  13. Nemo wrote:
    If those instincts, habits and values have been formed in such a way as to diminish their regard for the significance and relevance of an accused’s “side of the story”, then I doubt whether any amount of procedural safeguards will fully and reliably make up the difference.

    Similarly, if those instincts, habits, etc, have been formed in such a way as to diminish their regard for the significance and relevance of an accuser’s side of the story, then procedural safeguards cannot reliably make up the difference. I’m pretty sure we see that actually going on in public discourse.

    Which point reminded me of this essay.

  14. Gaudetetheology,

    Yes, I was anticipating more or less that counterpoint when I said I understood that the comic’s author was saying something about disregard for the accuser’s side. However, I don’t think this need be a zero-sum affair. In principle, regard for the importance of the accuser’s account need not be cultivated at the expense of regard for the importance of the accused’s account, nor vice-versa (and we see examples of both actually going on in public discourse, regrettably), even if those respective accounts themselves may not be reconcilable in a given instance. Indeed, I think that’s part of the reason why both LogicFan and RH identified the comment about needing to hear the other side’s story as not belonging in the group of comments lumped together in the comic strip.

  15. @Nemo, I agree it’s not a zero-sum game. But I find it very significant that in a comment thread on a blog post about how victims are systemically discounted and silenced, the bulk of the conversation has focused on concerns that alleged perpetrators should be heard.

  16. Point taken, gaudetetheology. But looked at another way, when you have a blog post about a piece of linked content 95% of which everyone agrees with and to which no-one has a great deal of verbiage to add (after all, even Jender’s OP had only one word to say about it), there’s nothing particularly unusual or significant about the bulk of the conversation focusing on the 5% that inspires some controversy. The lumping together with everything else in the comic strip of the bit about needing to hear the other side appears to have struck some commenters here as the fly in the comic’s ointment. It seems a natural enough state of affairs for the fly to elicit more commentary than the ointment, particularly if everyone agrees that the ointment is otherwise fine.

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