Katie Roiphe Downplays Sexual Harrassment in the NY Times

Shorter Katie Roiphe in this weekend’s New York Times? Sexual harassment = NBD.

The casually titled article “In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risqué Remarks” could almost be mistaken for an etiquette column, until you get to the terrifying and unmistakably political message: shut up with all the sexual harassment claims, mmk?

Roiphe has a long history of spouting anti-feminist rhetoric, as Rebecca Traister captures well in a book review for Salon.com:

The 38-year-old author first made her name as the baby bête noire of feminism with her 1993 screed against campus date-rape activism, “The Morning After.” The book made Roiphe, then a 25-year-old Harvard grad and the daughter of feminist writer Anne Roiphe, a child star of sorts, a symbol of the generational rupture in the women’s movement and of a post-Reagan conservative backlash among young people. Her I’m-too-sexy-for-this-movement provocation partially inspired Tad Friend to coin the term “Do-Me Feminism” in 1994.

In her latest anti-woman contrarian triumph, Roiphe makes a lot of misguided arguments, including that sexual harassment is too much of an “umbrellalike” charge, thus mistakenly grouping together ostensibly serious claims like “demanding sex in exchange for a job” with those that are more agreeable to Roiphe, such as a comment about someone’s dress.

“The words used in workshops — “uncomfortable,” “inappropriate,” “hostile” — are vague, subjective, slippery,” Roiphe complains.

Feminists and liberal pundits say, with some indignation, that they are not talking about dirty jokes or misguided compliments when they talk about sexual harassment, but, in fact, they are: sexual harassment, as they’ve defined it, encompasses a wide and colorful spectrum of behaviors.

This line of reasoning would imply that Roiphe is arguing for a more specific definition, but she never goes so far as to suggest a solution to the  problem she manufactures in her anti-feminist, pro-I HAVE NO CLUE rage. Which gets at my big issue with the entire piece: On whose behalf is Roiphe arguing?

There are lots of criticisms one could make of this terribly irresponsible opinion piece. Amanda Marcotte has a thorough takedown over at Pandagon, which I believe covers many of the salient points quite well, as Amanda tends to do (but IMHO crosses a line with the mention of Roiphe’s personal life, including her divorce).

But I’m not interested in taking Roiphe down as part of some insider-y gotcha game of “I’m smarter/cooler/funnier than you! (pundit edition)”. I’m more concerned with the fact that Roiphe could get away with penning an entire Times opinion piece about harassment and assault without explicitly talking about the people most affected by that issue, or, for that matter, anyone at all besides herself and her compelling but entirely proverbial “spotted owl” and “anodyne drone”.

The only thing that this op-ed elucidates for me is that Katie Roiphe doesn’t care about women’s feelings of workplace safety and comfort as much as she does her own reputation for going against the grain.

Her central question: “In our effort to create a wholly unhostile work environment, have we simply created an environment that is hostile in a different way?” implies that the real “victims” of sexual harassment charges are the people who are inconvenienced or annoyed by what she considers excessive political correctness in relation to sexual harassment claims. But this concern reflects an unhinged viewpoint of reality, one that doesn’t take into account real women’s real experiences in the workplace.

Rather than aspiring to a “drab, cautious, civilized, quiet, comfortable workplace” I think many women would settle for one that is safe and fair.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

Read more about Lori

Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/novemberreader/ November Reader

    I have to wonder about the New York Times’s editorial judgment in running such pieces. It was poorly argued, and, as many commenters on the NYT site noted, she does not understand sexual harassment law.

  • http://feministing.com/members/emmogood/ Emily Elizabeth

    It seems from the article that Roiphe doesn’t really understand what harassment is. She writes: “when I was at Princeton in the ’90s, the guidelines distributed to students about sexual harassment stated, “sexual harassment may result from a conscious or unconscious action, and can be subtle or blatant.” It is, of course, notoriously hard to control one’s unconscious, and one can behave quite hideously in one’s dreams, but that did not deter the determined scolds.”

    The issue of unconscious harassment isn’t that you’re harassing someone in your dreams, it’s that you are so embedded in a culture that is permissive to things that can be and often are considered offensive and outright harassment that you don’t even realize what you are doing is wrong. This is what requires change and it won’t come from being permissive of “dirty jokes and risque remarks” in mixed company or in any company for that matter. The problem is the same one when the webcomic Penny Arcade made light of rape – while 19 out of 20 guys understand the difference between a joke about rape and the horror of the act itself, for that 1 guy who doesn’t, the joke serves as a sort of confirmation that this action is ok (the statistic was only about men, although I am well aware that harassment is a two way street).

    In the real world, yes, we have to grow thick skins to deal with all the harassment out there. But wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t?

  • http://feministing.com/members/toongrrl/ toongrrl

    Oh Katie, I’m so glad that you’re so privileged…..now shut up and let us who’ve dealt with harassment and assault talk

  • http://feministing.com/members/mthvkg/ lilu

    I just find this kind of misguided and funny (in a really horrifying, i’m-staring-at-a-wingnut-train-wreck kind of way). like you point out- she offers no solutions to the problems she claims are valid, without any evidence. so she is basically just a Level 10 Troll getting a paycheck for anti-feminist vitriol?

  • http://feministing.com/members/sandra/ SamBarge

    Not only does Roiphe fail to provide solutions, she fails to present the ‘problem’of workplace harassment accurately. As commenters at the NYT have pointed out, she doesn’t seem to understand the very laws that she’s complaining about. Also, she doesn’t seem to have any understanding of the realities of working women through out the world.

  • http://feministing.com/members/robbieloveslife/ Robert

    My job teaches that sexual harassment is based on how a person takes it. I may not think something is harassment but if a woman thinks it’s harassment then it is. That falls under a huge umbrella and is probably why the employers I have talked to say they always try to find a man first to fill a position because there is too much risk in hiring women. Also the women at my building feel left out because the men here refuse to talk to them. We make jokes amongst ourselves but make sure we are away from any females because we have no idea how sensitive each one is.

    • http://feministing.com/members/feminister/ feminister

      So the employers’ solution to sexual harassment is sexual discrimination and you and the guys in your building would rather isolate yourselves so you can continue their joking (aka sexual harassment) than break up your sausage-fest and enjoy the company of women?

      Yeah, it’s totes the women’s fault for being overly sensitive, fer sher.

    • http://feministing.com/members/feminister/ feminister

      These two “solutions” are more sexual discrimination and the continuation of sexual harassment behind gendered doors. Hardly an acceptable answer, Robert.

      I suppose it’s easier to engage in victim blaming (“some women are too sensitive”) than to reevaluate one’s own behavior to effect positive changes.

      • http://feministing.com/members/robbieloveslife/ Robert

        I enjoy the company of women outside of work. There are plenty of places in San Diego and the surrounding areas for socializing with women. At work we talk about anything including stuff we see on TV and movies. Some of it contain sexual references. During my brief for this job we watched a video about sexual harassment. There was a scene with guys talking and a woman nearby. The guys discuss something that has nothing to do with the woman but she felt offended and they told us to be careful what we say around women. We get together and party outside of work but make sure the women we party with don’t work with us because a woman might take something the wrong way and we may all get in trouble. I’m not psychic, everyone thinks differently. I didn’t create this workplace environment. If a woman at work talks to me I answer but keep conversation as short as possible.

        • http://feministing.com/members/feminister/ feminister

          Maybe you didn’t create the environment, but you’re doing nothing to improve it. If you and the men you work with can’t figure out how to work with women without being rude/curt, sounds like you should ask HR for more courses, or consult a therapist, on how to interact with women.

        • honeybee

          I think what Robert is saying is actually pretty common. I see it at my work and others. He’s exaggerating a bit I’m sure but I know alot of men who share these fears and have even seen managers who try and segregate workers based on gender in terms of projects, seating locations, etc. to try and minimize the chances someone will complain about harassment.

          I think this is what the original article was trying to get at, but did a terrible job of it.

          I.e., that alot of men simply won’t accept women fully until they accept at least a certain level of what some would consider harassment. Guys have told me this straight out even, that men will never accept women as full equals until they “stop being so uptight about everything”. They also say the minority ruins it for the majority (I assume the minority are us feminists).