My husband and I recently rewatched the movie Horrible Bosses. This is one of the funnier movies I’ve seen. Quick description: three friends hate their bosses. Nick’s boss (played by Kevin Spacey) is a manipulative megalomaniac who coerces Nick into working long hours with the promise of a promotion that he eventually gives himself, Kurt’s boss is a coke head and doesn’t care about the business, and Dale’s boss (played by Jennifer Aniston) sexually harasses him. They plan to murder their bosses, and hilarity ensues.
When the three of them get together to complain, Dale’s friends can’t understand what the problem is. Jennifer Aniston is attractive. Why not sleep with her? He’s trying to explain that she makes him uncomfortable, that she is crossing lines, but they don’t get it.
In school, I was the victim of sexual harassment. I could tell you what happened, but it’s just so hard to explain. The person didn’t say to me “I’ll give you an A if you give me a blow job” or anything at all like that. And I’ve tried explaining the incident to people and they’ve said “that doesn’t sound so bad.” Because really the physical contact that occurred wasn’t so horrible. So it wasn’t that. It was the humiliation in front of my class that he made me feel just before combined with how he spoke about female attorneys combined with the positions of relative power. It’s not something that I can easily tell you about, not because I’m so sensitive about it but because it’s hard to make other people feel the way I did.
Maybe the writers of Horrible Bosses were just trying to make their movie funny, but I think it was a pretty poignant observation of sexual harassment: often the victim has difficulty explaining the harassment and making other people understand. Though Aniston’s character was over the top with some blatant acts that were easy for an outsider to see.
The best way I can explain sexual harassment is by talking about a time that I wasn’t sexually harassed. I used to work with a man who was very crass and would make sexual jokes in the office or just talk about his sex life generally. Once I ran into a woman who used to work with us, and she told me exactly what she thought about everyone in the office. This guy, she said, the secretary and I should sue for sexual harassment.
The secretary (I told her because I’m a gossip) and I were pretty appalled. Yes, this guy was crude and said things that probably shouldn’t be said in a workplace, but he never made us feel uncomfortable. That’s not just because we had thick skin (see above about something that happened to me in school that most people think wasn’t so bad but that left me in tears). It’s because he never humiliated us. He always showed us (and other women) respect (well, as long as you’re really sex-positive). He never made us feel inferior even though he was above us in the corporate totem pole.
I remember in the ’90s when people were becoming more aware of sexual harassment in the work place and trying to come up with a definition of it. Some people were concerned (or at least pretended to be) that a compliment could be construed as sexual harassment and the new awareness would make people afraid to be polite. I don’t think sexual harassment happens by accident. I think that if you compliment someone on something and he or she perceives it badly, then most normal people can read those cues and would avoid that sort of thing in the future. But it would rise to the level of harassment if you ignore the cues and continue to make people feel uncomfortable. Harassment is generally a pattern, giving the harasser plenty of opportunities to change.
Am I totally off base here? How do you define harassment?