All Commentary
Tuesday, June 1, 1993

Sexual Harassment: What Is It?

A persecution of “wrong” attitudes toward women has begun.

Ms. McElroy is the editor of Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Cato Institute, 1982), which has been republished as a university text by Holmes and Meier.

The issue of sexual harassment is shredding the fabric of the relations between men and women. Conservatives see laws against sexual harassment as further attacks on men and the free market. Feminists see sexual harassment as yet another outrage against women committed by men and the free market. Men fear to pay women compliments; some women feel harassed by every Southerner who calls them “honey.” It is difficult to remember a time when there was less good will or humor between the sexes.

Meanwhile, employers rush to formulate policies they hope will insulate them from charges of sexual harassment, which the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has ruled is a violation of Section 703 of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Because sexual harassment falls under Title VII (which defines the responsibilities of employers), it is employers who have become the targets of legal action. According to the EEOC guideline, employers are responsible for any sexual harassment within their businesses if they knew or should have known about the situation and if they took no immediate action to remedy the problem.

With all the controversy and liability that adheres to the issue of sexual harassment, one question becomes crucial: What is it? Most feminists answer this question quickly. The National Organization for Women has offered this definition: “any repeated or unwarranted verbal or physical sexual advance, sexually explicit derogatory statement, or sexually discriminatory remark made by someone in the workplace, which is offensive or objectionable to the recipient, or which causes the recipient discomfort or humiliation, or which interferes with the recipient’s job performance.”

The legal system has evolved its own standards. In general, the judiciary has divided sexual harassment into two categories: (1) a quid pro quo, by which sexual favors are directly traded for professional gain; and (2) a hostile working environment, in which women are threatened. In 1980, the EEOC concurred with this guideline by finding that sexual harassment includes physical, verbal, and environmental abuse. This guideline was affirmed unanimously by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986.

It is the more subtle form of sexual harassment—“a hostile working environment” that has caused most of the controversy and confusion. Companies and institutions across the continent scramble to clarify the specifics of this litigious issue. The policy advanced by the Presidential Advisory Committee on Sexual Harassment at York University in Toronto is fairly typical. York defined sexual harassment as: “unwanted sexual attention of a persistent or abusive nature, made by a person who knows or ought reasonably to know that such attention is unwanted; or, implied or expressed promise of reward for complying with a sexually oriented request; or, implied or expressed threat of reprisal, in the form of either actual reprisal or the denial of opportunity, for refusal to comply with a sexually oriented request; or, sexually oriented remarks and behavior which may reasonably be perceived to create a negative psychological and emotional environment for work and study.”

Such policies clarify nothing. Words like “unwanted,” “abusive,” and “perceived” are too subjective to allow a real sense of what behavior constitutes sexual harassment. Further attempts to reach a definition seem only to muddy the issue. For example, in September 1989, Harvard University issued a guideline that removed any connection between behavior and intent. In other words, sexual harassment can occur even though the transgressor was a man of goodwill, with absolutely no intention of harm. In the section “Sexism in the Classroom,” the Harvard guideline cautioned: “Alienating messages may be subtle and even unintentional, but they nevertheless tend to compromise the learning experience of both sexes . . . . For example, it is condescending to make a point of calling only upon women in a class on topics such as marriage and the family, imposing the assumption that only women have a natural interest in this area.”

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court complicated the definition even more in a landmark decision. Judge Robert Beezer ruled that women are protected from any remark or behavior that a “reasonable woman” would have problems with. The court also embedded a double standard into the law by declaring that some behavior acceptable to men may be legally actionable by women.

No wonder men are resentful. They are being backed into a corner by accusations that seem to have no rules of evidence and little burden of proof.

Government Is Not Part of the Solution

I stumble into this quagmire with a unique perspective. As an individualist feminist, I believe not only in the rights of women, but also in their dignity. I also believe that the free market is the best way for women to protect both. In short, although I think sexual harassment is a real problem, I don’t want government involved in the solution.

I do not include assault or threat of assault in this discussion of sexual harassment. Such behavior is clearly a legal matter. By “sexual harassment” I refer only to behavior that is non-violent, however offensive it may be. In this, the law should have no part.

Yet—because women resort to lawsuits—sexual harassment is almost always discussed in legal terms. What is the exact definition of the offense? What constitutes evidence?

I want to ask more fundamental questions: (1) Can the law effectively address this area? Is it even possible for the courts to adjudicate and punish attitudes toward women? (2) Should the law address this area? What is the cost and danger of doing so?

To answer the first question it is important to appreciate that sexual harassment is an expression of some men’s attitudes toward women. Since I don’t believe government can successfully mandate attitudes, I think legal remedies are doomed to failure—or worse. A change in attitude can come only from a change in the hearts and minds of people. This cannot be legislated.

To address the second question: Should government control the bad attitudes of its people? The very prospect of this is horrifying. The worst oppressor in the history of women has been the state. When the state claims to be “protecting” me through paternalistic policies, I tend to reach for my dignity, if not for my wallet.

But the main reason to avoid the legal system is not historical. It is simply that sexual harassment doesn’t violate anyone’s rights.

What is the purpose of law in society? I believe the purpose of law is to protect individual rights, to protect self-ownership. Self-ownership means that every human being, simply by being human, has a moral and legal claim to his or her own body. Law comes into play only when a woman is a victim or initiator of force.

Contrast this with the view of law implicit in legislative attempts to prohibit or punish sexual harassment. Most feminists are trying to use the law to enforce a proper standard of morality or behavior, such as non-discrimination or respect for women. The law has become a means of enforcing “virtue.” From this perspective, certain “bad” acts ought to be prohibited whether or not they are peaceful. In the case of sexual harassment, because men should not hold degrading opinions of women, the law punishes men whenever their unacceptable opinions are expressed in a public manner. The correct moral position becomes law.

I have great problems with imposing my moral views—however correct I believe them to be—on other people. I have trouble understanding how someone’s bad attitude violates my rights. It seems to me that the most fundamental human freedom is the right to weigh evidence and reach a conclusion. People have a right to reach conclusions that I find wrong and offensive: They have a right to consider me inferior because of my sex. If I can take someone to court over his or her attitude toward me, this says that I have a right to tell them what opinions they are legally allowed to hold. More than this—it says that the government has a right to regulate opinions.

In Time magazine, Ellen Frankel Paul of Bowling Green State University commented on this grim prospect: “Do we really want legislators and judges delving into our most intimate private lives? Deciding when a look is a leer and when a leer is a civil rights offense? Should people have a legally enforceable right not to be offended by others? At some point, the price for such protection is the loss of both liberty and privacy rights.”

Which Standard?

Any attempt to impose “thought control” would be the death of individual freedom. And this is a freedom to which the weakest members of society (such as women) should cling. If moral and cultural standards can be imposed by law, ultimately it will not be the weak who decide “which standard.”

Moreover, if government has the right to control and punish cultural attitudes, where will the cut-off point be? If it is proper to punish bad sexual attitudes, why not bad religious ones? Yet the political control of bad attitudes is precisely what sexual harassment laws are about.

A driving force behind these laws is socialist or radical feminism. In turn, this form of feminism is a building block of political correctness—the movement that considers virtually all of Western culture to be racist and sexist. Those who are politically correct seek to correct this injustice by championing the victims of Western civilization.

Dinesh D’Souza, in his controversial book Illiberal Education, defined these “victims”: “Those who suffer from the effects of Western colonialism in the third world, as well as race and gender discrimination in America.” In other words, women and minorities.

For the good of society, a persecution of “wrong” attitudes toward women has begun. I believe that a new inquisition is underway, one that is being driven by the political correctness movement. It is—in large part—an economic inquisition. One of the main battlefields has become the workplace. The heretics to be punished are those businessmen who do not express the politically correct attitude toward women.

And yet in condemning the political exploitation of abused women, I do not want to deny the importance of sexual harassment as a problem. Sexual harassment is an offense to the dignity and decency of human beings. To forswear the legal system is not to abandon the right of protest.

Many well intentioned men are like those who have never suffered from racism; they have a natural tendency to dismiss the suffering as not real. Many women share this reaction. Even the insightful commentator Jane S. Shaw declared:

“I’m skeptical about sexual harassment simply because during more than twenty years in the workforce, I never experienced anything that I would call sexual harassment. I have, however, experienced some awkward on-the-job situations that were related to sex . . . . They undoubtedly reflected uncertainty about appropriate behavior, especially as mores changed over the past couple of decades.”

I cannot comment on Ms. Shaw’s personal perceptions or her experiences. But I can add my own. For the last few years, I have achieved a modest status as a writer of documentaries. During this period, I have experienced no sexual harassment whatsoever.

Before this, I worked at whatever job I could in order to pursue writing at night. I entered the workforce at the lowest rung. In other words, I was an interchangeable unit. When I was a secretary, thousands of other women could have performed my job as well as I did. When I was an interchangeable unit, I relied heavily upon the common decency of my employers, who were men. Most were benevolent; a few lived up to the worst stereotypes of predatory men; one crossed the line into assault. Although I do not forgive any of the humiliations, only the assault was a matter for the law.

Most men are decent people who are busy living their lives. When the shrill and accusing cry of aggrieved women reaches their ears, they have the natural impulse to turn away. Because they see nothing of themselves in the male caricatures being presented, they dismiss the women as hysterical or man-hating. On at least one level, I can’t blame them. Much of men’s reactions come from the fact that women are using force, in the form of law, to impose standards of behavior upon them. And force is the death of discussion or sympathy.

Men are becoming so angry about sexual harassment that they are losing their sense of compassion for abused women. Every word in the workplace might become evidence in a legal proceeding. To them, women’s cry for decent treatment resembles a witch hunt. Men’s compassion has been replaced by exasperated demands for a list of things they are no longer allowed to say or do, for a clear definition of what constitutes sexual harassment. This is a fair question.

I freely admit that I cannot clearly define sexual harassment any more than I can clearly define what is offensive. Sexual harassment is a subjective term that depends on the personalities and cultural backgrounds of the people involved.

But to say that the edges of a problem are gray, rather than hard and clean, is not to say that it does not exist. Racism is difficult to define, yet few people would deny its existence. Subjectivity is a good reason for keeping both sexual harassment and racism out of the court system, where the law requires a clear point of enforcement. But it is not a reason to ignore the pain of abused women.

The free market is not an arena of justice: It was never meant to be. It is simply a coordinating mechanism, by which supply and demand are balanced. Equally, the court system does not protect my dignity: That is not its proper purpose. It exists to protect my rights. It is up to me to stand up and protest any assault on dignity. Those who tell me to be silent or walk away are denying that I have this right of protest. No wonder so many women are turning to the law.

I would like to believe that my commitment to individual rights and to women’s dignity are not in conflict. I do believe that an attack on sexism is not an attack on the free market: It does not deny the right of businessmen to hire and fire according to their own personal judgment. It does say: If an employer has the legal right to fire me, I have the legal right to protest, publicly and loudly, not from the witness stand of a courtroom, but from whatever platforms a free society allows.

Those who are hostile to the free market are using the issue of sexual harassment to gain political control of the workplace. They are having an easy time of it, because they seem to be the only ones addressing a genuine problem. The very intensity of women’s indignation over sexual harassment should have alerted people to the need for a solution. But by blaming women, businesses have dismissed the problem. They have left it to others to voice the growing wellspring of anger.

  • Wendy McElroy is the author of over a dozen books on individualist feminism and libertarian history. Her upcoming book, "The Satoshi Revolution," applies the concepts of classical liberalism to cryptocurrency. She has been published by such diverse venues as Penn State to Penthouse, FEE to Marie Claire.