In a culture that sexualizes women constantly, the line between water-cooler chat and harassment is increasingly thin.
Bill O’Reilly, the conservative talk-show host whose “The O’Reilly Factor” is the highest-rated cable news show, has been sued for sexual harassment by his former producer Andrea Mackris. Mackris alleges that on many occasions, both in person and over the phone, O’Reilly engaged in lewd and lascivious conversation against her will. She goes so far as to state that O’Reilly unlawfully engaged in, and gratified himself with, phone sex, with Mackris on the other end of the line.
To be sure, O’Reilly enjoys the presumption of innocence in the suit, until proven otherwise. I personally respect and greatly enjoy O’Reilly as a broadcaster and I am sorry to see his public standing undermined by these allegations. While some of the content of Mackris’ affidavit seems possible, readers of it will discover that other parts seem directed squarely at Roger Ailes, the chairman of the Fox News Channel, thereby undermining her credibility. Furthermore, Mackris does not explain why she didn’t just hang up when O’Reilly allegedly harassed her repeatedly over the telephone.
Be that as it may, this sordid and sorry tale brings to the fore all that is wrong with our increasingly perverse culture. The question that the growing phenomenon of sexual harassment in the workplace raises is this: Can we really expect to have a healthy office environment, where men treat women as colleagues and intellectual equals, when everywhere else in the culture women are being so completely sexualized?
Is it realistic to ask men to separate what they see on television and in magazines from their interactions with women in the boardroom? With men being deluged in virtually every electronic medium with the message that women want to be recognized for their bodies rather than their brains, is it reasonable to expect that men will suddenly think differently the moment a woman dons a business suit?
Never in history have women been so sexually exploited as they are today.
College girls expose their breasts in exchange for a T-shirt on the “Girls Gone Wild” videos. MTV has transformed the women’s music industry away from an emphasis on vocals and toward an emphasis of cleavage. Posters of Victoria’s Secret models, dressed in thongs and the most revealing lingerie, line our mains thoroughfares, billboards and buses. Are men really expected to shut all this off the moment they stand in front of a copy machine?
Can we really expect a pure office environment to emerge from a degenerate culture? Indeed, in an environment where everything from the Internet to sporting events is sexualized, it even becomes difficult to determine what exactly constitutes harassment in the work place.
Let’s see. If a man watches “Sex and the City” and, knowing that his female colleagues love the show, mentions at the water cooler how much he enjoyed the previous night’s episode of Samantha giving a stranger oral sex, is it harassment? Or is it small talk?
And let’s say a boss comes into the office after watching the Super Bowl and asks his secretary if she saw Janet Jackson’s breast pop out during the half-time show, is he making lewd and inappropriate comments? What if a guy sees some new movie about sex and comments on the nude love scene – is that harassment? And if it is, can we at least recognize that we have made a huge portion of American culture off-limits in the workplace, because of how perversely sexualized it has become?
So that I am not misunderstood, let me make it clear that my purpose here is not to let men’s boorish, and possibly illegal behavior, off the hook.
On the contrary. I wish that all men were gentlemen, behaving in a dignified and refined manner, especially around ladies. And I also wish that it didn’t take the threat of legal action to get them to behave as gentlemen. Lewd comments on the part of lecherous men is the last thing that women should have to tolerate.
But let’s acknowledge the incredibly mixed, contradictory and unfair signals that are being given to men. In life outside the office, men’s lechery is encouraged in order to persuade men them to watch television or part with their cash. Near-naked twins sell them beer, women in thongs advertise the Miss America pageant, and Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera simulate masturbation in coming attractions for their shows on HBO and Showtime.
After being fed the idea in every corner of the culture that women primarily desire sexual attention, these men are expected to believe that women are going to be insulted, rather than complimented, by uncouth comments about their bodies.
What complicates the question of harassment is the fact that women are being subtly conditioned to use their sexuality to get ahead in the office. No less a branding genius than Donald Trump advised women on “The Apprentice” to play up their sexuality in commercial settings in order to gain power over men. Many women fall for this degrading advice by coming to the office dressed like streetwalkers. Dress codes today are considered outmoded and draconian, and fashion dictates that many women wear blouses cut very low and skirts cut very high. Yet men are expected not to notice. A woman’s breasts can be spilling out of her blouse at a board-meeting, and men are expected to see her intelligence.
On my radio show, one man called in to say that there is a woman who works right across from his cubicle who wears see-through blouses nearly every day. “She’s essentially wearing only a bra in the office, and I often have to put my hand in front of my face to block her out to stop myself from staring.”
I am not blaming the victims or insinuating that women are inviting harassment. Far from it. No matter what they are exposed to and no matter how women dress, men must be in control of themselves and treat women as dignified and intellectual equals. I have never, and will never, excuse boorish behavior. But that does not change the fact that sexual harassment in the workplace is being vastly increased by a culture that both fosters the idea that women are primarily sexual objects, and that puts no emphasis on men and women dressing modestly and professionally.
And you can be sure that until such time that the sexual exploitation of women is reversed – and women reclaim their dignity by refusing to be portrayed on television and the Internet as the lecherous man’s playthings – the number of women who have to suffer through male crudity is only going to increase.