Women: stop getting yourselves sexually harassed!


When 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 reprisals 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.

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