On Sexual Harassment and "Learning Opportunities"

[Content note: sexual harassment]

The skeptic/secular community is blowing up with the sadly-unsurprising news that at least one Big-Name Skeptic has been sexually harassing women. More accusations keep pouring out, though some of them have been stifled with legal threats.

I expect (and hope) that this is something we’re going to keep talking about for quite some time.

I’m already noticing several familiar themes in the reactions to these stories. For instance, one common response to demands that a known perpetrator of sexual harassment (or even assault) be removed from an organization, group, or community is to claim that the perp needs this “learning opportunity” and should therefore be allowed to stay. Ze will learn from zir mistakes and not do this again. We should show mercy, thereby encouraging zir to change.

This claim plays to some of our strongest desires as activists. We want people to learn and change. We want people who do wrong but properly atone for it to be reintegrated into their communities; otherwise, they’ll just keep offending.

There are, however, a number of fatal flaws in this claim.

First of all, removing a harasser from your group and giving that harasser a learning opportunity are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Losing a valued job, volunteer position, leadership role, or group of friends can be a very poignant wake-up call and an indicator that you need to change your behavior. It doesn’t mean you’re screwed forever. It means you need to understand what you did wrong, become a better, more ethical person, and try again.

Second, sexual harassment and assault are common partially because they are so unlikely to be reported, and even if they are reported, they are unlikely to lead to any serious consequences for the perpetrator. People who harass and assault others know this. That’s why, if they do get caught, they get teary and claim that there were just “miscommunications” and this won’t happen again and they totally understand. Then they harass or assault again, perhaps while bullying the victim who dared report them. Knowing that nothing serious will happen to them if they get caught ensures that they’re going to keep doing it.

Third, the only reason harassers would need a “learning opportunity” to understand that harassment is wrong is if they don’t know that it’s wrong already. But they do. Often, sexual harassment takes place behind closed doors or at crowded social gatherings where nobody can hear. Harassers purposefully harass such that others won’t notice, or that those who do notice won’t be the people who would care. Why hide your behavior if you honestly don’t see anything wrong with it?

Fourth, and most importantly, when you say that a harasser deserves a “learning opportunity” that allows zir to remain where ze is, what you’re implying is that it’s acceptable for zir victims to have to keep working with zir, probably while continuing to be harassed, if it means that the harasser gets zir “learning opportunity.” You’re implying that it’s acceptable for these victims to be the guinea pigs on which the harasser practices not being a terrible human being until ze finally learns how. You’re implying that if a victim of harassment can’t keep working with someone who harassed them, either because they feel violated and unsafe or because the harasser is continuing to harass them, it’s the victim’s job to leave.

You’re implying that it’s more important to give the harasser this “learning opportunity” than it is to support victims and create a welcoming, productive, and safe environment at work, at school, or in your social group.

A system that prioritizes perpetrators over victims is a morally bankrupt system.

We do absolutely need to get harassers to stop harassing. However, the goal shouldn’t be to teach them that harassment is wrong (this they already know), but why it’s wrong. Giving a known harasser a slap on the wrist by making them take a sexual harassment training isn’t going to cut it, except perhaps for the small minority of harassers who are genuinely clueless enough about basic human interaction to think that making crude sexual comments to a coworker is okay. Giving them a stern talking-to isn’t going to cut it either.

Teaching a harasser why harassment is wrong is a whole other ballgame, because it requires teaching them to understand power dynamics, sexism, microaggression, sexualization, and a bunch of other complicated things that aren’t as simple as “yo don’t tell your employee they have a nice ass (or at least don’t do it where anyone will hear you and make sure they don’t feel comfortable telling on you).” This is not a job for the harasser’s workplace or school or organization or group of friends. This is a job for a professional educator. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that we really have an infrastructure right now for mandating and facilitating this type of education effectively. We don’t even have that much research on how it can be done.

Creating real consequences for harassment does not mean ostracizing people forever. It doesn’t mean that punishments have to be extremely severe and vengeful. It doesn’t mean that we can’t be compassionate. It doesn’t mean that harassers are inhuman monsters who can’t get better.

Regardless, letting harassers remain where they are without facing any consequences is not the answer. Privileging their need to “learn” over their victims’ need to be able to work, learn, or hang out safely is unjust.

A system that prioritizes perpetrators over victims is a morally bankrupt system.

On Sexual Harassment and "Learning Opportunities"

21 thoughts on “On Sexual Harassment and "Learning Opportunities"

  1. 2

    You’re implying that it’s acceptable for these victims to be the guinea pigs on which the harasser practices not being a terrible human being until ze finally learns how.

    Powerfully put. I haven’t ever seen that articulated before, even though I’ve had a vague sense of it. Thanks for putting it so succinctly!

  2. 4

    Thank you for writing this. It really helps to coalesce much of my frustration at the general tone of the response.

    It can be boiled down to “Who deserves the benefit of the doubt?” Over and over I have seen people say that we must make every effort to be skeptical and give the harassers the benefit, when making accusations.

    This is a fucking travesty of a social norm, and it needs to change. Why can’t the victim have the benefit of the doubt? The odds are very low that she is lying, and she has already been victimized. Why the hell do so many people think that it is appropriate to make them jump through hoops for the basic respect of being believed, for fear of hurting the abuser feelings?

  3. 6

    I think most harassers don’t care why it’s wrong. They like doing it and they’ve figured out that they can get away with it. So they do it.

    And– this is going out on a limb– I suspect, for a lot of them, it gives them a feeling of *moral* superiority. They put the [expletive deleted] in her place.

    I know that in my own experience with a serious sexual assault (that was interrupted before I was raped) the perpetrator told me I was “asking for it” because I lived in a racially diverse neighborhood. I’m pretty sure he thought he was teaching me how foolish I was to take that risk. The fact that he, a white Anglo Saxon from an almost all white neighborhood, was the one who assaulted me– and that none of the African Americans, Greeks, Koreans, Vietnamese, Algerians or Pribiloff Islanders who lived in my neighborhood gave me any trouble– did not enter into his thinking. He was doing The Right Thing, teaching me a lesson.

    This is just my theory, based on one incident. But I suspect there’s a lot of “she had it coming” rationalization among sexual predators.

  4. 9

    “Teaching a harasser why harassment is wrong is a whole other ballgame…This is not a job for the harasser’s workplace or school or organization or group of friends. This is a job for a professional educator. ”

    I agree and disagree. The job of teaching the harasser is called…. Life Learning. Living with CONSEQUENCES is the most powerful teacher. No one taught me that I would be the target for harassment, sexual aggression and bodily assault – or how to deal with it. No one taught me about how to understand power dynamics, sexism, microaggression, sexualization, and… and… and. I learned when this shit happened to me, and everyone blamed me for it. My many WTF moments. I learned because I was pissed off by life, and I wanted to understand it and stop being victimized. I read and read and talked and talked. And still do.

    As a comparison, I offer this story: Years ago, a friend was having an argument with a creationist, who told her she had to prove to him that evolution was true. Her response has stuck with me for years: “Dude, it’s not my job to teach you about reality. The info is out there, and it’s your responsibility to understand it. Go and read some books.” Wow – perfect. And I would add… “and take the consequences if you choose not to.”

  5. 11

    Well said. Harassers should be punished, starting by being fired, and then be tried in court. As for “ze” and “zir”, English has these nice pronouns “they” and “their” that function very well in these cases…

    1. 11.1

      I usually use “they” when discussing hypothetical people, but in this case I determined that it would be confusing and unclear because I was also using “they” for plural victims in the same sentences. This is not a post in which I wanted to be unclear.

      But thanks for the unsolicited writing advice. 🙂

  6. 13

    While we are spotting trends and giving reasons why these trends are malicious and a symptom of a larger social problem around the sexism to be found in all sexual harassment cases… I want to highlight a trend I have seen, and I have come to expect. I like to tackle social justice issues around discrimination by using racism as analogy, because that is the form of discrimination I am most read up on, and also experience personally the most. I just want to highlight some trend that happens when approaching issues like sexism and racism, trends that are bound to come up, need to be spotted, and need to be called out.

    The first trend I see is some people seeming to prioritize the accusers rather than the victims. In these cases, we see things like “we don’t really know what happened” or “lets not rush to judgment” or “show me proof.” Now while these things perfectly rational positions on many issues, on social justice issues these positions are under the guise of rationality but usually used as things that maintain the status quo of victimization. Social justice issues, because of societal inequalities need to be handled differently – for many reasons.

    Now what I see is that most of the time the most vocal, and the most aggressive people that take these position on social justice issues are the ones that have the privileged status in the first place. In regards to sexual harassment and rape accusations, the ones with the privilege are men, and this the ones that espouse these position the most.. are men.

    These trends are eerily similar to what white pole do when something racism happens and the victim of the racism speaks out about his experience. You see white people want to talk about racism in a very odd way. They like to pay lip service to it being bad, but they also pretty much always align themselves with the accused rather than the victim. Many times white people use themselves as an analogy to how this or that is not racist.. and many times I have to tell them that this does not vindicate the accused, it just makes you just as racist as them. What whites tend to do with racism, is they look at it in a way that tries to protect themselves. Which is why race conversation with whites usually involve them trying to prove they are not racist, or saying they do not wish to believe the victims of racism because they feel… if accused themselves of racism (and they know they are not racist) they would have not ‘allies’ to believe them that the accusations are “false,” therefore they try to give the benefit of the doubt to most other whites accused of racism.

    I mean c’mon… it is obvious why… because who wants to be in the position of being labeled a racist! HOW HORRIBLE IT IS TO BE ACCUSED OF RACISM! This sort of reasoning makes them typically end up defending racism, or functioning in a way that works to silence the victim because they ask for “hard proof” before they “jump the gun and do the worst thing imaginable and accuse someone of racism who is not racist! Dear lord! The irony is rich.. and this sht happens everywhere.

    People are more likely to protect their interests, right or wrong, more than they would protect the interests of someone from an outside group.

    With rape and sexual harassment accusations.. the pattern is the same. Accept this time the privileged ones… the so called “allies of feminism” are very very quick to toss a wrench in the works and say things like “We need to find out what really happened” or “I am not going to label the accused anything…’ Men do this for the same reasons white people continually betray minorities when they speak out about racism.

    The truth is that many men are afraid they will be accused of rape or sexual harassment and since they know “they would never harass a women ever ever” then the reaction of everyone scares the sht out of them… because where is the sympathetic audience of the accused? If they were ever accused, and they know why did not do it… who would listen? This is why men in general tend to be the ones who do not “jump the gun” in “aiding” the victim tell their story because they are frankly scared of “false accusations of sexual harassment” just like whites are scared shtless about “false accusations of racism”… therefor they tend to ally themselves with “giving the benefit of the doubt” to the accused because that is where they interests lie. They may sympathize with the victim, mostly women, but because they are this allegiance can harm their privileged status… they “play the middle road” and be “rational” to try and be balanced and give the accused their say.

    See men, in general, are not scared of being sexually harassed, they are scared of being accused of being a harasser… just like whites are not scared of being the victim of racism, they are scared of being labeled racist. As such, when sht hits the fan… sadly, most privileged, even allies, will not provide as much support that is needed for the victim, but their status is more connected to the accused. Instead, they “play the middle road”… but this road usually works to silence victims and enable harassers.

    Giving the benefit of the doubt to the victim is what is necessary when talking about social justice issues… because society as a whole does not do this, and it routinely works to fck over victims of all kinds of discrimination. As such, victims need support that they never get from society as a whole. This lack of support is what enables the continuation of discrimination. When any kind of issue involves a social justice aspect where one groups is systematically disenfranchised, we have all the reason in the world to give the benefit of the doubt and support the victim instead of “playing it safe” and extending and olive branch to the accused because the accused happens to be a part of the privileged group we may be a part of. This olive branch may seem like a rational thing to do to those who are widely misinformed about social issues, but in the larger scheme of things, it is what works as a mechanism of silence. What is really needed, is to build a framework of support for victims of sexism, in this case sexual assault victims, because the structure of society right now works against them, and in order to enable them to fight against such a system, they need people to listen to how they have been victimized – because all to often no one listens to people who are victims of societal abuse.

    Women do not talk about sexual harassment or rape because few believe them, many make excuses for the incident, many place responsibility on the victims not the accused, and many wish to trivialize injustices. It is the same for minorities and racism… we don’t talk about race because no one believes us when we say that is racist, many make excuses for racism, and many trivialize out plight.

    The way society function to maintain the status quo of injustice is revolves around these almost universal trends. We need to start recognizing and calling out such trends so we will not be fooled by them.

    You know, as a man, when I read this story… one of my many reactions is “what if why is lying” and “what if it was me being accused.” Not just sympathy for the accused, but that irrational fear that comes with being a part of the privileged group. That sort of odd reaction disgusts me, and it is what I saw in many other men as well… and I am tired of seeing it. There is a division in gender on this subject and it is a trend that needs to be looked at, because that division is a symptom of a deep societal issue.

    It you look at the women who post about this subject, and how the men post about this… the contrast is self evident, and the trend is there. This sort of division exists, and it exists in all cases where there is a privileged group and a group that is the victim of social injustices. I think we need to recognize this trend as well, and I wanted to point this out to everyone. What this is about, should be about, and what it has to be about… is about letting the victims have a voice. If anyone functions in a way that stifles that voice, they are doing something very wrong, and they are allying themselves with a privileged and unjust system rather than the ones seeking justice.

    1. 13.1

      @dezn_98: you are really on to something important here, and I would very much like to give your thoughts a signal boost. With only minor edits, your comment would make a great post for several online publications to which I regularly contribute. If you are interested, please contact me at irisvpluym at gmail d0+ c0m.

    2. 13.2

      I think this phenomenon is fueled by othering the perpetrators. Jack can’t be a racist, he’s generally a nice guy, as if all racists are drooling monsters.

      The reality is that we all have prejudices, often subconsciously, to some degree. We all do things that make others uncomfortable, sometimes. We’re all a little bit racist and sexist. What separates the good people is that they are willing to admit it and work to be better, instead of denying a problem exists.

      It’s almost Socratic. Knowing that we all can be harmful is the first step to becoming a person that doesn’t harm others. Unfortunately, black/white thinking makes it hard for people to admit they hurt someone, because only a monster would do that.

  7. 14

    First of all, removing a harasser from your group and giving that harasser a learning opportunity are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

    When I was a child, a neighbor had an excellent policy for our visits. If we misbehaved, we were sent home immediately. But we could always come back the next day and try again.

    If a harasser were ejected from a conference immediately and allowed to come to the next one … excellent solution. If they just don’t learn, and are ejected from the nean. xt one… give them a longer time in “time out”.

    And some are clueless and refuse to change – they need a permanent b

  8. 15

    Tsu Dho Nimh @ 12–

    No. If somebody harasses another attendee at a conference, they’re out and they stay out.

    We’re not talking about children here. We’re not talking about mommies getting annoyed. We’re talking about adults, some of whom are committing serious crimes. The chance they will commit the same crime when they’re allowed to return is too great a risk to the potential victims to allow. If they absolutely must attend a con, they can attend the FtB con, where there’s no danger of touching anyone inappropriately. Otherwise innocent people are all too likely to be the ones to pay for that attempt at tolerance.

  9. 16

    Number five: it also implies that they haven’t already had ample opportunities to listen and learn. Yet the conversation around harassment in the skeptical community has been ongoing for several years now. One of the high-profile offenders in question was just last year involved in several dialogues where FtB-ers called him up on gaslighting and ignoring sexist complaints.

    You can lead a horse to water….

  10. 17

    I really like dezn98’s post. Wow. That was extremely thoughtful. I loved it.

    Now as far as justice for the victim and remedy for the accused, I find social shaming a good tool. Make the person who committed the sexual assault sit outside the domain in which it happened or somewhere in the public eye. Put a big sign on the person and let them stand there being socially isolated. That’s powerful stuff.

    This is why the Block list program is generating so much backlash. You’re naming the perpetrators and taking them out of your social domain. I think doing this in other social domains is worth a shot. Each community gets to have their own list and if the person is especially grievous then pretty soon they won’t be welcome anywhere.

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