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 a writer and advocate focusing on race, gender, and sexual and reproductive rights. In addition to serving as an Executive Director at Feministing, Lori is the Director of Global Communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Lori has previously worked at the United Nations Foundation, the International Women’s Health Coalition, and Human Rights Watch, and has written for a host of print and digital properties including Rookie Magazine, The Grio, and the New York Times Magazine. She regularly appears on radio and television, and has spoken at college campuses across the U.S. about topics like the politics of black hair, transnational movement building, and the undercover feminism of Nicki Minaj. In 2014, she was named to The Root 100 list of the nation's most influential African Americans, and to the Forbes Magazine list of the "30 Under 30" successful people in media.

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

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