Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Boy's Guide to Sexual Harassment

[Suggested listening.]

In 2003, I wrote and directed a scripted sketch comedy revue in London. My cast comprised two men and two women. One of the women, KD, was the second most gifted I’d ever worked with — and by far the most insufferable personally. She was one of those who’s never happier than when she knows people are waiting ever more nervously for her, and never showed up less than 20 minutes late to a rehearsal — even when we rehearsed upstairs in the pub she lived next door to. One night, she showed up for a performance around five minutes before I thought I'd have to tell the venue that one of the cast hadn't shown up, and the show couldn't go on. I wanted to bellow at her until her eardrums burst, but instead advised that she could continue showing up whenever she deigned to do so —with the understanding that anyone in the show (including me) who turned up after the agreed-upon time would forfeit his or her payment for the performance.

She was incensed, and advised the guy who ran a theatrical help-wanted board on which I commonly advertised that I’d sexually harassed her. I had not. For the actors-wanted board guy, though, accused was convicted, and he refused henceforth to run any of my adverts.

I’ve been thinking about KD a lot this week, as more and more famous people are accused of sexual impropriety, and the atmosphere comes ever more vividly to evoke that during the height (or, if you wish, nadir) of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s campaign to rid the government of Communists. I suspect that the vast majority of the current accusations are true, and it breaks my heart to hear what my women friends have had to endure in silence. But when I suggested this past week that we need to consider each case on its own merits, and not to rush to judgment, a couple of women of course called me A Privileged Male Asshole Who Doesn’t Understand. Even if, as is certainly the case, I’ve never harassed or coerced a woman, I’m apparently part of the problem because: male privilege.

Sorry. No sale. My sins against women are legion. They include petulance, deceit, selfishness, and even a bit of (verbal) cruelty. They include no trace of harassment or coercion, though, and I’m unwilling to be held even a little bit accountable for the horrid behaviour of Brett Ratner, Bill Cosby, Louis CK, or Harvey Swinestein just because of our common anatomy.

(Noble I ain’t. What’s made coercion unthinkable to me is the realisation that having to force myself on someone would ultimately make me feel less good, rather than better. I suspect I’ll never hire a prostitute. Having to pay someone to pretend to enjoy my company would make me feel less desirable than I do already.)

The real culprit in all of this is of course the patriarchy, which doesn’t oppress only women. I don’t believe for a millisecond I’ve suffered anywhere near as much as a woman who’s been raped or assaulted or humiliated, but suffer I have, as I believe everyone but a very few alpha males has. Through my boyhood and adolescence, the patriarchy kept whispering into my ear that I was somehow less than I ought to be. I wasn’t good with my fists, or at tying intricate knots. As a teenager, I didn’t want to tinker with cars, and found the idea of hunting absolutely repulsive. Beer had no allure for me — I didn’t like the way it tasted, and still don’t. I was good at traditionally feminine things like writing and art, but hopelessly inept mechanically. I wasn’t taciturn. Worst of all, I compensated for what I felt to be my inadequate manliness in the most shameful way imaginable, by reviling and ridiculing my gay brothers. If I had no prayer of making the varsity football team, by God, I could nonetheless be as loudly homophobic as its captain. The patriarchy had done its work.

When I worked for a controversial magazine publisher in 1980, his sister-in-law, nominal head of human resources for his publishing empire, decide that she…wanted me. If I’d reciprocated her interest in the first place, which I so did not, I’d have stopped reciprocating it immediately on learning that her husband was the publisher’s bodyguard/head of security, and that a young man in the mailroom to whom Sister-in-Law had earlier taken a shine had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. She was relentless, though, and I was actually relieved when the cocaine casualty who ran things day-to-day fired me. I then worked at a magazine whose woman editor called me into her office my second day and asked me to turn around slowly while she and the features editor gurgled at me lecherously.

If getting raped by a physically repulsive shithead like Harvey Swinestein is a 100 on the 1-to-100 humiliation index, what I’d suffered might rate a .00025. I’d actually been more amused than anything by the women editors' defiant lust. (And no, I do not mean to suggest that women should be comparably amused in similar situations.) But maybe it gave me a slightly better understanding of sexual harassment than the guy who’s never been on anything but the dishing-it-out side of the equation, and maybe that understanding lends some small credence to my feeling that reflexively ruining men’s reputations on the basis of a sole accusation is hardly fairer than dismissing a woman’s accusation out of hand.

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