Women: stop getting yourselves sexually harassed!

sexual-harassmentWhen I saw the following headline, I thought I had accidentally stumbled onto The Onion website:

Formal complaints over sexism should be last resort for women:  The negative impact of formal reporting outweighs any benefits, writes a lawyer. Instead, define your boundaries early on.

But no, I was on The Guardian’s website, in a section called “Women in Leadership,” no less. Since Women in Leadership defines itself as  a “community” which “discuss[es] the lack of women at the top and what we can do to change this,” I was sure that the op-ed they posted on Tuesday wasn’t as sexist and ridiculous as it seemed. So, I read the whole thing, waiting for the moment when the author would reveal that she was being sarcastic and satirical in saying, basically, don’t complain about sexism, just stop doing things that provoke men to treat you in a sexist way, you dumb cow! But that moment never came.

The Op-ed’s author, UK lawyer Vanessa James, is right to point out that the legal protections granted in theory to women do not necessarily shield women from sexual harassment or from repraisals against them for complaining about said discrimination. Yet her take-away is reactionary and stunning: since you can get in trouble for filing a greivance about sexual harassment, don’t do it. Instead, make sure you’re not sexually harassed. How do women get themselves sexually harassed, you ask? A few ways.

  • “Some women find themselves engaging in behaviour that they may not be comfortable with to make them ‘popular’ at work. There are women who want to engage in banter and other stereotypical’male behaviour such as colourful language.”
  • “a female employee who instigates sexist jokes has demonstrated to others that she enjoys risqué banter and so once that boundary is broken down she has to be comfortable with that behaviour in her working relationships.”
  • “If you do not define your own boundaries then you cannot expect others to be able to either. A great example is the ‘lap dancing club with male clients’ analogy. If a women is genuinely comfortable with entering the club then fine, but it is painful to hear a female college say she found the experience ‘liberating’ when she in fact did not. Colleagues will make judgments on her boundaries for having attended.”

To her credit, James acknowledges that it’s “unfair that women have to think so deeply about these issues and analyse themselves when it is the men (and occasionally other women) who exhibit misogynistic behaviour.” But ultimately, James concludes, it’s up to women to stop men from harassing us: “However, it is the reality of our society that these issues exist. If you are a woman seeking career progression and success, it is more important that you do what you can to avoid having to present a formal grievance, or at least know that when you do you are clear that the behaviour was outside your boundaries.”

One of my favorite parts of James’s retro-chic argument is the idea that mysoginists who sexually harass women have any regard or awareness  whatsoever for the boundaries women establish. I guess I’ve never met this more emo, touchy feely (in both senses) sexual harasser.  Does he, for instance, think about a woman’s boundaries before he decides to tell her what nice breasts she has? Does he ask himself “will she be OK with my telling her that if she wants a raise she’ll need to felate me. Is that within her boundaries? I’m trying to remember if she ever told me a dirty joke. Because if she did, she’s totally down.” Does he play Ani di Franco and Dar Williams spotify playlists as he engages in the sexual harassment he has so considerately contemplated?

The great news is that this advice works for rape-avoidance too!
Given that rape survivors often face humiliation, intimidation, disbelief, and hostility from law enforcement and the criminal justice system in general, is the solution not to report rape? Should women just focus on setting boundaries that prevent their rapes in the first place? Does that mean no dirty jokes, no flirting, no short skirts, no leaving the house? This seems like the logical conclusion. In all seriousness, the advice James doles out isn’t that surprising, given the nature of her work. The Guardian just says she’s a lawyer at SA Law. But if you look at her website, she boasts  that she has successfully defended corporations from being sued for discriminating  and bullying against workers based on their gender, sexual-orientation, disabilities, and race. So, I guess it makes sense that a woman who makes her living defending employers who are accused of pay discrimination, abuse, and prejudice, wouldn’t have the best advice for women.  Well, that’s not entirely fair. I’m sure she’s an equal opportunity offender, whose advice for LGBTI people, people of color, and people with disabilities is just as sound.


Born and raised on the mean streets of New York City’s Upper West Side, Katie Halper is a comic, writer, blogger, satirist and filmmaker based in New York. Katie graduated from The Dalton School (where she teaches history) and Wesleyan University (where she learned that labels are for jars.) A director of Living Liberally and co-founder/performer in Laughing Liberally, Katie has performed at Town Hall, Symphony Space, The Culture Project, D.C. Comedy Festival, all five Netroots Nations, and The Nation Magazine Cruise, where she made Howard Dean laugh! and has appeared with Lizz Winstead, Markos Moulitsas, The Yes Men, Cynthia Nixon and Jim Hightower. Her writing and videos have appeared in The New York Times, Comedy Central, The Nation Magazine, Gawker, Nerve, Jezebel, the Huffington Post, Alternet and Katie has been featured in/on NY Magazine, LA Times, In These Times, Gawker,Jezebel, MSNBC, Air America, GritTV, the Alan Colmes Show, Sirius radio (which hung up on her once) and the National Review, which called Katie “cute and some what brainy.” Katie co-produced Tim Robbins’s film Embedded, (Venice Film Festival, Sundance Channel); Estela Bravo’s Free to Fly (Havana Film Festival, LA Latino Film Festival); was outreach director for The Take, Naomi Klein/Avi Lewis documentary about Argentine workers (Toronto & Venice Film Festivals, Film Forum); co-directed New Yorkers Remember the Spanish Civil War, a video for Museum of the City of NY exhibit, and wrote/directed viral satiric videos including Jews/ Women/ Gays for McCain.

Katie is a writer, comedian, filmmaker, and New Yorker.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/aszele/ Alex Szele

    First off, I absolutely agree with the sentiments presented here, but it raised a question in my mind that I would like to pose here. Context first: this question is presented by a white, middle-class, cis-hetero male. Basically, if there’s a privileged status to be claimed, I have it, and one of the things that keeps me addicted to feministing and other similar sites is my continued quest to be as aware of that privilege as possible.

    So, with that disclaimer, please forgive any privileged stupidity inherent in the following question:

    Where does the line get drawn between pressing for societal change and presenting advice for thriving currently in the imperfect system we’re trying to exist in?

    I skimmed the op-ed being critiqued, and while I clearly see many of the mistakes and failures highlighted, I also get the sense that the author’s intent (muddled though it may have been and shot through with some weird victim-blaming) was to provide tools for surviving an imperfect system.

    I guess the question in my head is, how does one, acknowledging that the system desperately needs improvement, discuss tactics for getting by in the broken system without slipping into the trap of victim blaming? It’s a far cry from “Try to avoid that street after 2am” to “You got yourself attacked by going down that street after 2am”, but when discussing things on a larger, more abstract scale, those distinctions seem to get fuzzier.

  • honeybee

    I’m with you in general except where you don’t think guys will respect boundaries. Yes some men won’t but in my experience most will. I’ve had numerous men start down a path with me I wasn’t comfortable with who after I made that clear totally stopped and went on to be decent guys, at least around me.

    It’s kind of sad but the truth is some of the guys seem to legitimately not appreciate how they are making some women feel. And I think it’s because there are women who are ok with their approaches or even ones who encourage it. But they make the mistake of thinking that just because a previous co-worker was ok with X that all women are ok with it. By the same token we need to realize that not all men are the same. There are alot of jerks but also alot of allies. No one should judge a book by their cover.