Last Thursday as I was standing outside of my apartment building with a friend, a stranger approached me from behind and slapped me, very hard, on my rear end.
The moment reminded me of the time I was in a minor car accident, so physically jarring that I was rendered speechless. My friend yelled a few choice words at the stranger, a tall white man in a dark jacket. He paused, and with his back to us, lifted both his hands in the V sign, like Richard Nixon on the steps of the plane after his resignation. Then he went on his way.
Like most women who live in big cities, I am harassed on the street every single day, and I almost never talk about it. Thursday night was the second time in my life that I was physically hassled; the first was eight years ago on a Jewish service learning trip to Ukraine, when a stranger in Kiev pinched my ass. A Russian-speaking friend who saw it happen told him off.
Pretty women are like “candies” to their male bosses, and if they are sexually harassed, the pretty women should switch jobs rather than ruin the careers of high-powered men who can’t control themselves. This is the infuriating opinion expressed last week by leading Israeli current-affairs radio presenter Ayala Hasson.
The conversation took place during Hasson’s radio program in which Hasson described a case that took place at a leading government office in which a woman who was sexually harassed by her boss was “discreetly and quietly” removed from her position and given an alternative post. “He wanted her like a lovely piece of candy,” Hasson said. “Every time he walked by her, there was a little pinch on the cheek or something.” Hasson argued that this is an excellent solution because, this is the only way to protect the man from getting into trouble (histabchut).
This entire discussion occurred against the backdrop of new sexual harassment charges from the Prime Minister’s office. According to reports of the State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, a woman known only as “Resh” was sexually harassed by one of the leading aides to Prime Minister Binyamin Netahyahu, Natan Eshel. The accusations are pretty serious: Eshel is said to have been obsessed with R., who was working directly for him, not only by stalking her and spying on her, but even strategically placing cameras where they could photograph under her skirt. Three members of the Netanyahu’s senior staff filed complaints with Lindenstrauss — apparently unbeknownst to one another — and another four staffers have already given testimony on these events.
Katie Roiphe’s call in the New York Times for more tolerance for risqué behavior and dirty jokes at work inspired a pretty unanimous dismissal in the feminist blogosphere. (DoubleX, Jezebel, Pandagon, Feminisiting, and here on the Sisterhood.)
In her piece, Roiphe declares that our limited tolerance for the capacious concept of sexual harassment, which could refer to anything from demanding sex for a job to commenting on someone’s dress, might turn our workplaces to drab, cautious environments.
I agree that Roiphe went too far. That said, I am still going to go against the tide here and admit not only that her piece made me think, but also that she made a few good points.
In a New York Times opinion piece, Katie Roiphe writes of her longing for the good old days when sexual harassment in the workplace was just the way things were. Ah, for those not-so-long-ago days when, as she writes, there were:
colorful or inappropriate comments, with irreverence, wildness, incorrectness, ease.
But whose ease was it? It was certainly not the women’s when they were objects of their male superiors’ and co-workers’ unwanted sexual attention.
This is no new trope for Roiphe, who seems to pride herself on being contrarian on American culture and sexual ethics. In 1994, as a doctoral candidate at Princeton, she wrote “The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism” and had it excerpted as “Date Rape’s Other Victim” in the Times in 1993. In that piece she excoriated “rape-crisis feminists” for denying female sexual agency when it comes to being assaulted.
Who remembers where they were during Anita Hill’s testimony in Senate confirmation hearings for her former boss, Justice Clarence Thomas? I recall being riveted by her 1991 testimony and thinking that surely it would jettison Thomas’ nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hill testified that when Thomas was her boss at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he repeatedly made graphic sexual comments to her. Thomas denied it, saying Hill’s allegations amounted to no more than “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.”
Her detailed testimony failed to derail Thomas’ nomination, of course, and while Hill was vilified by conservatives, Thomas was confirmed. She came to represent a paradigm of injustice and powerlessness in the face of sexual harassment. He continues to be a controversial figure. In February, the New York Times reported that he had gone far longer than any other justice, at that point five years, without asking a single question of any attorney presenting a case to the Supreme Court. Last year his wife, Ginni Thomas, left a message on Hill’s voicemail asking her to apologize to her husband for the Senate testimony. Thomas has also attracted criticism for his ethically questionable relationship with a funder of conservative causes.
A new investigative report in the Hebrew-language version of Yediot Ahronot provides an account of what it says is Bar-Ilan University’s attempt to hide recent charges of sexual harassment.
Last year, “Gila,” who has worked at the Ramat-Gan, Israel-based university for 20 years and had a glowing record until that point, reported to the university that her boss there had sexually harassed her. Instead of separating the boss from the complainer as Bar-Ilan regulations require, the university gave Gila a “long vacation,” while they claimed to be finding her a different job placement (for her, not for her boss). When she returned to work three, she found herself demoted and her old job taken over by someone else.
In the months that followed, Gila — a religious wife and mother — went on to file a second sexual harassment claim against her boss, who has denied the allegations. It became a matter of he said–she said, but the committee investigating the claims decided that “nothing happened,” and insisted that Gila return to work, alongside the boss she was accusing.
The woman eventually hired her own lawyer. “Gila felt like she got herself into something that’s bigger than her,” her attorney, Itai Chasid, told Yediot in an investigative report that was published last week. He said that Gila was treated like an outcast in the workplace.
Once again, a man in a senior governmental position in Israel is being accused of sexual assault of a subordinate female coworker. The trial of former Israeli president Moshe Katzav has not yet ended — though it seems to have faded from the headlines — and two new women have emerged with stories of sexual attacks. And, once again, Israeli women are sent the message that no matter what happens to you, think twice before you complain about it.
The man being accused is Commander Uri Bar-Lev, the Israel Police attaché in Washington. (Did anyone know that such a job even existed? What does he do? Why does the Israeli police even need an attaché in Washington? But I digress.)
Like Hinda Mandell, I experienced the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings at a formative moment of my childhood. The entire spectacle of the trial made a really strong impression on me and the ensuing “Year of the Woman” helped turn me into a budding self-identified feminist — walking around my Jewish day school with Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein buttons affixed to my shirt, and a neon pink “Choice” hat atop my head.
So I reacted to the Ginni Thomas phone message fiasco with amusement and frustration at the media for framing the story around Hill’s refusal to apologize rather than Thomas’s outlandish behavior.
It’s true, as Mandell writes, that no one involved seems to be able to escape the shadow of the scandal. But I don’t feel any sympathy for Ginni Thomas. As feminist bloggers have been saying, people often dismiss sexual harassment with one of two common phrases: “She deserved it” or “She made it up.” Judging from her now-famous voicemail, Ginni Thomas intimates the latter about Hill.
Apparently there’s no statute of limitation on scandals. Nineteen years after Anita Hill testified before the U.S. Senate that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her, the Supreme Court Justice Thomas’s wife wants Hill to apologize.
As has been widely reported, Ginni Thomas left a voicemail at Hill’s Brandeis University office:
I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband.
I was on the cusp of puberty when the Anita Hill story broke, and I distinctly recall the strong impression it left on me. I was too young then to realize that the allegations were not to be taken lightly. But as a tween — to use today’s parlance — I was titillated by all this sex talk among the adults. I even got yelled at by one of my teachers at Jewish day school for disturbing class by talking about sexual harassment. And now, we’re revisiting the scandal again. This time I don’t feel so cavalier about it.