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February 23, 2004

Where are the gropes of yesteryear?

I was skeptical when I heard the CNN blip about Naomi Wolf's article about being "sexually encroached upon" by Harold Bloom almost 20 years ago. Not that I doubted such a thing out of Bloom, whom I have long regarded as something of a cretin when it came to his treatment of women; rather, I doubted Wolf's motivation for coming forward.

Wolf is now more or less a professional pundit, rightly or wrongly associated with her fateful (she swears misconstrued) advice that Al Gore act the "alpha male" part in the 2000 elections. And let's face it--The Beauty Myth will always be the ugly stepsister of Backlash.

But Wolf's article Sex and Silence at Yale in New York Magazine is actually quite good. Bloom didn't harrass her, exactly, but he did use his position to try to get laid--at a moment in Wolf's life as a student and a burgeoning writer when she needed mentorship, she got instead a clammy pass from a Big Lech on Campus. The man who was supposedly guiding her in independent study, and had agreed to write critical letters of recommendation, leered across a table at her over her unread manuscript, and delivered one of the creepiest come-on lines in the history of campus sleaze: "You have the aura of election upon you.” Ewww! Election, erection, hand on her thigh-- she responded (as I would have!) by puking in a nearby sink.

Not shockingly, her academic life suffered drastically. She had no idea what to expect as far as a grade for the independent study, and worry over the whole situation hurt her senior-year grades across the board. I find her description of the effect this had on her fairly reasonable--and her portrayal of Yale's institutional wishy-washiness rings solidly true. Worse still, she catalogs a list of Yale's horrible responses to harrassment and outright rape that makes me never want to give my alma mater a dime.

I quote below the ending of the piece, which is a terrifically reasonable and actionable suggestion for getting us past the "sexual harrassment" impasse to something that will do less to punish individuals (and criminalize sex, dating, and flirtation) and more to ensure that institutions are transparent and accountable so that when something does happen, it gets dealt with in a manner that treats both accuser and accused fairly.

Is Harold Bloom a bad man? No. Harold Bloom’s demons are no more demonic than those of any other complex human being’s. Does this complex, brilliant man’s one bad choice make him a monster? No, of course not; nor does this one experience make me a “victim.” But the current discourse of accused and accuser, aggressor and victim is more damaging than constructive.

Here is a more helpful reading: This man did something, at least once, that was self-centered and harmful. But his harmful impulse would not have entered his or my real life—then or now—if Yale made the consequences of such behavior both clear and real.

All the women who have come forward want only to fix what is broken. Critics of sexual-harassment standards argue that you can’t legislate passions; true enough. But you can legislate what to do about people who act on them improperly. Powerful men and woman who belittle and humiliate their subordinates manage not to belittle or humiliate their supervisors. Neither men nor women tend to harass upward in a hierarchy.

There is something terribly wrong with the way the current sexual-harassment discussion is framed. Since damages for sexual misconduct are decided under tort law—tort means harm or wrong—those bringing complaints have had to prove that they have been harmed emotionally. Their lawyers must bring out any distress they may have suffered, such as nightmares, sexual dysfunction, trauma, and so on. Thus, it is the woman and her “frailties” under scrutiny, instead of the institution and its frailties. This victim construct in the law is one reason that women are often reluctant to go public.

But sexual encroachment in an educational context or a workplace is, most seriously, a corruption of meritocracy; it is in this sense parallel to bribery. I was not traumatized personally, but my educational experience was corrupted. If we rephrase sexual transgression in school and work as a civil-rights and civil-society issue, everything becomes less emotional, less personal. If we see this as a systemic-corruption issue, then when people bring allegations, the focus will be on whether the institution has been damaged in its larger mission. The Catholic Church is a good example: The public understood that church leaders’ maintaining silence about systemic sexual transgressions corrupted the mission of an organization that had a great responsibility to society as a whole. Even the military is starting to understand that systemic sexual harassment of cadets corrupts its social mission.

If we change the framework to this kind of transparency and accountability question, then instead of asking, “What were you wearing?” or “Why disrupt this man’s life?” we would ask: “What are we—together—going to do about it?”

The saddest part? If a Yale undergraduate came to me today with a bad secret to tell, I still could not urge her to speak up confidently to those tasked with educating, supporting, and mentoring her. I would not direct her to her faculty adviser, the grievance committee, or her dean. Wishing that Bart Giamatti’s beautiful welcoming speech to my class about Yale’s meritocracy were really true, I would, with a heavy heart, advise that young woman, for her own protection, to get a good lawyer.

Posted by jay at February 23, 2004 03:28 PM | TrackBack
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