Those who read Robert Hanna’s response to being named in the recent CHE article regarding the situation at CU-Boulder, may have also read his paper that he links to in that response, Sexual McCarthyism, Polyamory, and the First Amendment (if you don’t understand the relationship between those concepts named in the title, you’re not alone–neither did I). Here is an illuminating snippet:
In professional academics, we are now, sadly, in an era of sexual McCarthyism. . . Notice how the phrase “sexual harassment” sounds a lot like “sexual assault” and non-rationally evokes the same moral disgust as the latter phrase, even though the phrases actually mean very different things. But the non-rational emotional association with the ugly phrase “sexual assault” is no doubt precisely why the sexual McCarthyites chose the equally ugly phrase “sexual harassment,” and not, e.g., “romantic relationship troubles.” Indeed, sexual McCarthyites like to talk about “victims” of “sexual harassment precisely because in fact there are no such people as “victims” of romantic relationship troubles–there are just people in all their multifarious peculiarity, having the all-too-familiar romantic relationship troubles with each other — but they want to evoke, non-rationally, the impression that there are such victims.
To be clear, sexual harassment is a thing, and it is not the same thing as ‘romantic relationship troubles.’ For one, ‘romantic relationship troubles’ presupposes the existence of a romantic relationship, and sexual harassment often happens outside the context of any relationship (cf. street harassment), let alone a romantic one. For two, just as an example, sending colleagues unwanted emails soliciting sexual interactions would be sexually harassing, but not an instance of romantic relationship troubles even if you have romantic feelings towards them. Why? Because if your colleagues do not want to be in a romantic or sexual relationship with you, regardless of your desires, there is no sense in which this a problem with your romantic relationship to them–namely, because you do not have one.
As an interesting matter of history, ‘sexual harassment’ was not coined in order to elicit moral disgust regarding behaviors which have no victim. Quite the contrary. Susan Brownmiller recounts how the term actually came to be in In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution (reader’s of Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice will be familiar with this already, as she quotes this passage in her book):
One afternoon a former university employee sought out Lin Farley to ask for her help. Carmita Wood, age forty-four, born and raised in the apple orchard region of Lake Cayuga, and the sole support of two of her children, had worked for eight years in Cornell’s department of nuclear physics, advancing from lab assistant to a desk job handling administrative chores. Wood did not know why she had been singled out, or indeed if she had been singled out, but a distinguished professor seemed unable to keep his hands off her.
As Wood told the story, the eminent man would jiggle his crotch when he stood near her desk and looked at his mail, or he’d deliberately brush against her breasts while reaching for some papers. One night as the lab workers were leaving their annual Christmas party, he cornered her in the elevatorand planted some unwanted kisses on her mouth. After the Christmas party incident, Carmita Wood went out of her way to use the stairs in the lab building in order to avoid a repeat encounter, but the stress of the furtive molestations and her efforts to keep the scientist at a distance while maintaining cordial relations with his wife, whom she liked, brought on a host of physical symptoms. Wood developed chronic back and neck pains. Her right thumb tingled and grew numb. She requested a transfer to another department, and when it didn’t come through, she quit. She walked out the door and went to Florida for some rest and recuperation. Upon her return she applied for unemployment insurance. When the claims investigator asked why she had left her job after eight years, Wood was at a loss to describe the hateful episodes. She was ashamed and embarrassed. Under prodding—the blank on the form needed to be filled in—she answered that her reasons had been personal. Her claim for unemployment benefits was denied.
‘Lin’s students had been talking in her seminar about the unwanted sexual advances they’d encountered on their summer jobs,’ Sauvigne relates. ‘And then Carmita Wood comes in and tells Lin her story. We realized that to a person, every one of us—the women on staff, Carmita, the students—had had an experience like this at some point, you know? And none of us had ever told anyone before. It was one of those click, aha! moments, a profound revelation.’
The women had their issue. Meyer located two feminist lawyers in Syracuse, Susan Horn and Maurie Heins, to take on Carmita Wood’s unemployment insurance appeal. ‘And then…,’ Sauvigne reports, ‘we decided that we also had to hold a speak-out in order to break the silence about this.’
The ‘this’ they were going to break the silence about had no name. ‘Eight of us were sitting in an office of Human Affairs,’ Sauvigne remembers, ‘brainstorming about what we were going to write on the posters for our speak-out. We were referring to it as ‘‘sexual intimidation,’’ ‘‘sexual coercion,’’ ‘‘sexual exploitation on the job.’’ None of those names seemed quite right. We wanted something that embraced a whole range of subtle and unsubtle persistent behaviors. Somebody came up with ‘‘harassment.’’ Sexual harassment! Instantly we agreed. That’s what it was.’