Around here men will sometimes rest their hand on my shoulder. They like me, I’m patronizing their business, and on some level they want a physical connection but shaking hands is a little too formal. If I were a guy, they might slap me on the back.
I was sitting in a church pew when a former employer who double-crossed me came up the aisle and put his hand on my shoulder. He’s a recovering alcoholic, a little too virtuous. It was dominance, “I-control-you” behavior. Knowing, of course, that in church I was likely to be docile.
A friend alerted me to an evening program about Bob Scriver’s work. I had been neither notified nor invited, but I went, sat way in the back, and only observed. Men who expected to profit by their purported connection to Bob’s work were answering questions. People in the audience, well-heeled aficionados, were asking questions the men, lawyers, couldn’t answer. Art and foundry questions. I spoke up loudly to give the information. Heads swivelled. I announced who I was. A woman said, “She should have been on this panel!”
One of the lawyers — a man who habitually drank in a bar every evening and leveraged the proprietor to allow a high school boy to come with him “to drive him home” — walked back and stood beside me. He put his hand on my shoulder, a little too firmly, pressing down. This time I made a face and shrugged off his hand, knowing that the group was paying attention. I think they saw that he was trying to shut me up, and also to signal some kind of alliance.
Which one is sexual harassment? You can’t distinguish by the behavior per se. What it means depends on motive, the occasion, the perp, the victim. Sometime a gesture normally seen as innocent can be invasive, insulting, and inappropriate. And when drunks fool around it's almost impossible to be innocent.
At Animal Control in Portland my boss and I shepherded a citizen group through the writing of a new ordinance (which has since been rewritten several times more as the customs and demographics of Portland have changed). Burgwin’s idea was that a continuum of social behavior from the least offensive to the most atrocious was always challenged at both ends. On one end was the idea that pets exist just above humans and barely below angels. On the other end was the belief that pets were dangerous, uncontrollable and evil. Also dirty.
The object of the task was to get to a consensus and a raised consciousness that could represent the community of Portland and Multnomah County. Burgwin’s idea was that anything that could push people toward a constructive position on that continuum was enforcing the law by making it part of the culture. Didn’t have to be punishment, didn’t even have to be purely reward, but just nudging opinion along works.
Sex and behavior between the genders are like that. Esp. now that we still haven’t assimilated the sexual revolution exploded by the pill. And some have still not figured out that all genders, all ages, all roles can be gamed as harassment from both ends, both as victims and as offenders. Many do not believe that any vaguely sexual behavior is innocent, and maybe that’s right. But most people try hard not to think about the far end of the spectrum where kink shades into torture and then into mutilation and death. I’ll repeat from the last post in case you missed it:
“I think the only way to approach [this issue] is through method: on the one hand the method might be an awareness of the continuum of harassments from distant catcalls on the street to the inconceivable intensity of throwing acid, murdering, capturing and mutilating. The core of the current discussion seems to be high profile men accused by aging white glamour girls. (I’ll get killed for saying that.) It’s a trope, a gropetrope.
“So I’ll go the method of my old animal control boss, which is to define a continuum and then figure out what will make social behavior move towards the desired end. Figuring out what that desired goal might be is likely to be the hard part. Because we do not want the same ends. Context dictates which end should be kept in mind. Boundaries abound. But nice ladies who are upset that a geriatric president would pat their bottoms are not at all the same thing as kids impounded like dogs at the southern border of the country — with the difference from dogs being that the kids are fucked and beaten by guards. The difference between ordinary kids and nice ladies? I’ll try to figure it out.”
Social clout. Culturally endorsed. We're obsessed with tall skinny blondes with big painted eyes.
Much of social life is devoted to sizing up others in terms of how we measure up. Esp in terms of power and control, we are aware of — if not obsessed with — who can “take” whom, who is a deserving equal partner, and who we can dominate. Who will consent to be seen with us? High school stuff. Some of us actually act on whom they think they can trick, out-maneuver, beat up. It’s a pattern established in adolescence when we run in packs and then find partners. It’s also about families and towns and teams — who can buy you out, who can deny your political aspirations, who is gonna beat your ass again this year.
When we talk about sex, and note that some people — mostly powerful men with control over others, power-mongers who think they can do anything to anybody — we talk about “moral relativity” as though that were bad. When it is individuals who write their own rules and think they are better than everyone else, that is unfortunate.
Moral relativity between groups is quite different. It only means that people manage their behavior according to the rules of their cohort, whatever they think their cohort to be. Trump thinks he’s acting according to the normal behavior of real estate gamers in Manhattan and wherever the third-world rules are loosey-goosey, and he is. He doesn’t KNOW that the rules for political leaders are not the same. He’s not even good at succeeding in the rules of his own category. He thinks of his family as his only true cohort, to the extent of sexualizing his own daughter.
An accompanying problem is that too many senators and representatives think they are in a production of “House of Cards.” And they are. The cohort norms are broken. They understood — evidently not well enough — that the values that make the Rule of Law work have eroded, so the name of the game has changed. Partly it’s bad cynical law, partly its constituents who think of government in corporation terms, so their civic values are also eroded.
Corporation rules of behavior, military rules of behavior, civic rules of behavior are morally relative to each other as categories, but not within the cohort. The most lawless-seeming drug cartel or street gang has rules of behavior that are consistent and enforced within the group. Part of success and survival is knowing what your context is. Religion teaches us that we are all humans, but now science teaches us that our context is all animals, and most of our literature/media teaches us to be individuals.
The most respected and high status “classes” must have the strictest standards because they have the power to do the most harm, both to individuals and the group. In a classically “professional” context (doctors, lawyers, clergy, professors, therapists) no one is allowed to touch anyone else without permission. In a law enforcement situation, no adult should use sex or violence (force beyond that needed to preserve order) on anyone younger than eighteen. In America we don’t kill kids, in other countries they do, and they teach kids to kill. That’s their norm specific to them, not transferable to us. Or has it already come to us?
Though most youngsters these days think of sex as something physical, only about desirability and maybe a "skill set". (Another sad story on Twitter was a guy who was picked up in a bar, taken home, found inadequate, and abandoned while the woman went back to the bar to look for someone better.) No thought to any of the Jane Austen stuff like protecting each other, thinking of the future (something beyond checking for diseases), enjoying conversation, even checking out earning power, sharing an aesthetic.
Prince Harry is royalty, a small social category that was once based on national relationships and alliances, as well as hereditary succession. So now that we have gotten to the point where we can admit that the English queen is actually German, and that marrying cousins is not a good idea, Harry can choose someone who is dusky, an actress, divorced, and (gulp) American. He is charming and courageous enough to change his whole category, though his mother paid with her life for doing that.
What I’m trying to get at in a roundabout way is that sexual harassing in one context might not be at all like it is in another social group. I recall a basketball game between the townsmen of Heart Butte and the faculty (white) in which the townsmen (enrolled) put the basketball up under their shirts to imitate pregnancy and said mocking things about the faculty’s wives and mothers. Was that sexual harassing? Sure it was. And they knew they could get away with it, given uneasy racial tension. Consider all that bottom-smacking of big old athletes. Trump would call it “locker room” and it is, quite literally. Only fairly robust women would tolerate it.
There is another dimension of entitled familiarity that we accept in our dominant culture, and that is the willingness to let people of both sexes fondle and kiss babies and toddlers. It’s considered innocent, but I’m not sure it is. Powerful men who kiss and fondle young girls are sexualizing that same behavior. When they do it to mature women, they are trying to push them back into being children while they play fond grandpa. It makes really mature women retch and reach for the bear spray.