Ending Sexual Harassment Will Not Make It Harder to Get Laid, Promise

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Show me a woman complaining of unwanted sexual advances, and I’ll show you a reactionary calling her a prude who’s ruining feminism. This week it’s David Foster, in The Guardian. He argues that Everyday Sexism, a campaign to catalogue the routine harassments and biases facing women, has gone too far, “conflating deplorable and even criminal acts with sexually liberated expression.” How are we supposed to hook up without borderline harassing one another?

“The behavioural codes of contemporary society already make it extremely difficult for both men and women to approach strangers with a view towards making sexual advances. This should be a source of regret to us all,” he writes. (But especially to sexually liberated feminists, the thinking goes.)

This argument only makes sense if you think there is legitimate confusion about the difference between harassment and a plausible sexual overture — not as rare as you would think. Foster is offering a longer and more sophisticated version of the observation, usually made by embittered men, that it’s only sexual harassment if he’s ugly. (In fact, it’s sexual harassment if he’s your boss, a random passerby, or someone whose advances you’ve already declined; in any case, all are unlikely to yield the “mutual sexual pleasure” Foster yearns for.)

Yet men aren’t the only ones who have taken up this banner. When it was revealed that multiple women had made sexual harassment complaints against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, Katie Roiphe took to the New York Times to defend "colorful or inappropriate comments" and "irreverence, wildness, incorrectness, ease." When feminists complained that amateur pickup artist named Ken Hoinsky was Kickstarting a seduction guide full of advice like “Don’t ask for permission, GRAB HER HAND, and put it right on your dick,” Awl writer Maria Bustillos jumped to his defense. “Something about passion is by definition a little wild, uncontrolled,” she wrote. Some people like sex to be aggressive and rough, and others do not.”

Foster’s defense of sexual aggression bothers me more than these, because, as a man, he can’t possibly have personally experienced sexual harassment on a scale that would allow him to join Bustillos and Roiphe in believing (as few women I know do) that the rare welcome overture makes up for all the other unwelcome ones. And because he invokes Freud and Marcuse. Foster writes:

Sexual pleasure pursued purely for its own sake runs counter to what Freud called the "reality principle" and social philosopher Herbert Marcuse later adapted as the "performance principle" — ie the restraints placed on us by the demands of civilised society, whereby sexual gratification has to be earned through social "performance". Such performance is manifested through some or all those things – money, social status, property, marriage, procreation — that underpin capitalism and ultimately civilisation. In short, such a principle seeks to ensure that the pursuit of sexual pleasure occurs initially within a framework of spending and consumption, being ultimately directed towards a monogamous, patriarchal, potentially procreative relationship.

Translation: Men would like to get laid even though they’re broke and noncommittal. But women would too! That does not explain why women must disproportionately field sexual advances while going about the nonsexual parts of their lives, such as commuting to or doing their jobs. To Foster, Bustillos and Roiphe, one woman’s sexual abuse is another woman’s “direct, unambiguous sexual advance.” But the harassment Everyday Sexism actually chronicles and mocks could not be further from a sincere, good-faith proposition. (If it were, why do men recoil when the tables are turned?) Most of the time catcalls seem designed for the entertainment of other men; the rest of the time, they seem like man’s saddest reminder that even if women are fish, bicycles still rule the street. Workplace sexual overtures (though potentially more legitimate) have a similar effect: Making an environment less welcoming for a woman by highlighting her status as a sexual object.

I’m of the mind that everyone gets one strike for expressing sexual interest in a person before an advance becomes harassment. (If the recipient has second thoughts, the ball is in her court.) But I’m disturbed at how these arguments let men completely off the hook in figuring out how their suggestive joke or indecent proposal will land. Does she depend on you professionally? Is this the first thing you’ve ever said to her? Does it seem like she is really involved in that phone call with her mom? Is she smiling? Are you touching? If after asking yourself these things you still can’t tell whether your advance is welcome, I suggest limiting yourself to swiping right.