I recently attended the national conference of a large progressive organization. It was well-organized, stimulating, and fun. The people were mostly energetic, interesting, and friendly; it was a good mix of ages, sexual orientations, and divided almost 50/50 male-female.
I was eventually asked, as a sex therapist, what I thought about Sexual Harassment. Apparently a couple at last year’s conference had gotten friendly with a particular woman in her mid-30s. Eventually “Mary & John” handed the woman their card—suggesting quite clearly that they were “open” to “adult activities.”
The woman didn’t want to share this kind of fun, which is perfectly fine. But she was somehow “offended,” which is not. In fact, the woman felt that this invitation constituted Sexual Harassment, and she complained. Even worse, this previously loyal movement member then blogged and blogged and blogged about it, urging her female readers to stay away from the organization. Now the word is out to younger progressive women—don’t go to this group’s conferences.
So the leadership of said organization is scurrying around, trying to figure out what to do. “About what?” I asked. Apparently,
* Some people want a policy on Sexual Harassment
* Some people want a zero-tolerance policy on Sexual Harassment—one COMPLAINT and you’re out
* Some people want to issue a statement about the organization’s policy on Sexual Harassment
* Some people want to persuade this woman to attend next year’s conference
* Some people want to persuade this woman to stop trashing the organization
For someone who didn’t want one kind of attention, this woman has certainly managed to get plenty of another kind of attention.
This woman—and the more intimidated members of the organization—need a history lesson. In the Bad Old Days, people—men—with institutional power (professors, bosses, doctors) used sex as a bargaining chip. “Sleep with me and you’ll get ahead,” some of them told the women who reported to them. “Refuse me and you won’t.” It was ugly. It was How Things Are Done. You can see it in the show Mad Men.
In the 1970s, women began to sue their employers under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Women demanded an end to the discrimination (“put out or get out”), and to the maintenance of hostile work or learning environments created by continuous sexual pressure. Nowadays, both kinds of pressure are considered unacceptable in most American institutions, and both employees and employers (and students and professors, etc.) have some sense of this.
But Sexual Harassment law was never designed to protect women from merely feeling uncomfortable. In a typical workday, men and women alike face many sources of discomfort: atheists face clerks wearing crosses; able-bodied people face colleagues in wheelchairs; Fundamentalist Muslims and Jews face professors dressed with arms and legs uncovered; the infertile face coworkers’ desks with photos of their kids, and parents are given time off for parenting events such as piano recitals.
No, the law is designed to simply create a level playing field of opportunity—not of emotional experience. It doesn’t require anyone to be a mind-reader, it doesn’t undo the normal uncertainties of social interaction, and it doesn’t require anyone’s social skills to be smooth as silk. Occasionally feeling offended is still considered part of the cost of being out in the world.
So what did that young woman experience? Not Sexual Harassment, but Unwanted Sexual Attention. And when the woman made it clear it was unwanted, the attention went away. That should have been the end of the story. But if the recipient of a friendly, non-pressuring, non-institutional sexual invitation isn’t grown up enough, she (or he) will feel assaulted. And with today’s heightened consciousness—and internet access—she will have the option of describing herself as victimized to a large number of people.
And yet why do we privilege unwanted attention that happens to involve sexuality? Again, we’re not talking about coercion or even pressure—we’re talking about attention, invitation, or suggestion that has no connection with real-world consequences like job evaluation. Adults are the recipients of unwanted attention every single day: stories from strangers on airplanes, awkward compliments from co-workers, grocery clerks sympathetically inquiring about the brace on your wrist or that cold medicine you’re buying, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormon missionaries asking if they can talk with you for a just a moment about their Invisible Friend In The Sky.
Unwanted attention—whether sexual or non-sexual—is part of the cost of stepping outside your front door. With Jehovah’s Witnesses, you don’t even have to go out—you get the attention by just opening the door. When American society privileges our discomfort if the unwanted attention is sexual, that’s more about our cultural values than about any inherent hierarchy of discomfort.
The whole “Eek! An unwanted sexual invitation—gross! My day/week/year is ruined!” is a bit precious. The whole idea that women need to be protected from discomfort, or from men, or from sex, is a giant step backwards. Obviously, sexual violence and coercion are horrible and unacceptable realities in contemporary society. But if we need special rules to comfort or protect anyone reminded of this reality, modern life will come to a screeching halt. And it will be women who will suffer most from this “protection.” 1970s feminism was completely clear on the dangers of such traditional “protections,” and labored continuously—and successfully—to undo most of them.
The topic is particularly poignant when the people involved are progressive political activists. If we expect to go out and communicate effectively in a world that is often hostile to our ideas, we need to have the emotional skills to tolerate a wide range of responses. If we can’t even handle a friendly sexual invitation in a genuinely safe environment without losing our composure, how can we tolerate the rough-and-tumble of the world out there? Learning to say things like “that feels bad, please stop,” “I don’t like that you said that,” “You have obviously misread me completely,” and “I don’t think anyone would like what you just did” involves a fundamental skill that every grownup needs.
This has NOTHING to do with the number of women who are sexually coerced, trafficked, raped, murdered, or otherwise maltreated around the globe. This is not about porn films, prostitution, clitoridectomies, or forced child-rearing.
This is simply about the need for people to acquire and express a little bit of sexual intelligence. Congressmember Larry Craig, repulsive political creature that he is, did not deserve to suffer for (allegedly) inviting a stranger to have sex in the Minneapolis airport men’s room a few years back. Similarly, “John & Mary,” and every other polite person, deserves a simply reply when they issue an unwanted sexual (or non-sexual) invitation:
“No thank you.”
Walking away—or catching a flight—is optional, and certainly acceptable.
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In a public policy ballet of unintended symmetry, President Obama announced his support of same-gender marriage the same week that the University of Notre Dame sued the federal government about birth control (For the moment we’ll ignore the poetic irony of UND granting Obama an honorary doctorate just 3 years ago). Notre Dame (and 5 other Catholic universities) claims that the federal regulations requiring insurers and group health plans to cover contraception and sterilization infringes on their religious freedom.
The juxtaposition of the two issues offers a tidy lesson in civics.
I. The American government (and all 50 states) gives special privileges to people who marry. Therefore, all people must be eligible for marriage—regardless of race, ethnicity, intelligence, or sexual orientation. No one would get special government privileges from marriage equality: not gays, not non-gays. Religious institutions, of course, would still be free to limit their marriage (and birth, confirmation, and burial) ceremonies to whomever they please.
II. The government recently passed a law that will help people afford the costs of contraception and sterilization—if they want such services. It originally required all insurance plans to cover these services; in February the government caved in and agreed to exempt religious organizations—which employ hundreds of thousands of Americans—from this obligation.
Under the new health care laws, churches and morality groups are still free to proselytize their employees, and to continue hammering Americans (and their government representatives), about the evils of contraception, abortion, and non-marital or non-coital sex.
What employers like Notre Dame should NOT be allowed to do is present their employees with a substandard work environment. Just because they have strong religious feelings (yawn), their workplaces shouldn’t be less safe, less free of harassment, or offer less healthcare protection. It’s the government’s job to make sure Notre Dame meets the current minimum standards of the American workplace, whatever they are. It’s not the government’s job to help Notre Dame shape its employees’ private behavior to suit its vision of personal morality.
In a country that’s noticeably hurting from inequities in the distribution of health care—and in which every taxpayer pays for the ill health of poor people, including their use of expensive emergency rooms for basic care—President Obama has spearheaded a historic plan to guarantee basic health care to most Americans. It’s astonishing to see some people resisting this progress, and in 25 years our children will be astonished that anyone did.
Because over 95% of the sex Americans will have this week is NOT intended to lead to pregnancy, contraception is a basic aspect of health care. Considering the billions of dollars that unintended pregnancy costs American taxpayers every year, you’d think the basic need for contraception would be clear. You’d think everyone claiming to be a fiscal conservative (motto: “Helping poor people afford food, clothing, or shelter is irresponsible”) would be DEMANDING free contraception for anyone who wants it—especially if they have trouble paying for it. But a fiscal conservative, it seems, is a person who believes that the government should only subsidize the activity of people who don’t need subsidies.
Notre Dame and other religious employers are enormous beneficiaries of government largess. They avoid paying millions of dollars in taxes on their property and their businesses. They receive millions in federal research dollars, building funds, housing funds, and student loans. People are encouraged to donate money to these institutions by generous government subsidies; for every $1,000 I give Notre Dame, for example, the government deducts over $300 from my tax bill.
Notre Dame and every other Catholic university (and every church) in America is sucking at the government teat, big time. They have no complaint about being in bed with godless Washington when money is flowing toward them. But when Washington issues the smallest requirement—that the employees of these institutions have the OPTION of using contraception that is covered by insurance—the institutions blanch, staggering backward under the horror, the horror, of violating their religious beliefs.
No one who works at Notre Dame or its cousins (which includes thousands of non-Catholics) is being forced to use contraception. If Notre Dame or the Church it serves can’t persuade their own employees to abstain from contraception, it should ask itself why— and grapple with its own bizarre, life-denying, anti-sex policies. Instead, distrusting its own flock, it wants the government to make an exception, punishing the flock by not requiring that their workplace meet the minimum standard of American workplaces.
Catholic universities want it both ways—they want the privileges awarded to “religious” institutions, while claiming exemption from the normal rules and obligations of civil society.
They justify their gigantic taxpayer subsidies by claiming they promote Americans’ “morality”—while attempting to deny basic rights to several million Americans simply because they believe differently.
Religion in America—what a racket. You get money, political power, and a bully pulpit. You get to demand that non-believers behave as you do, and that the government help you whip your flock into shape. You get to say that the law should reflect your twisted version of “morality.”
And what do you have to do in return? Absolutely nothing—except say it all with a straight face, pretending that it not only makes sense, but that it’s fair.
I’m in New Orleans speaking at the annual conference of the American Humanist Association. AHA is a distinguished organization founded during WWII, affiliated through the years with heroes such as Linus Pauling and Margaret Sanger, Buckminster Fuller, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Joyce Carol Oates. At the banquet last night, I met Gloria Steinem.
I spoke to a crowded room on “Sex, Porn, Public Policy, Humanism—and Sex.” Here are a few of my points:
* The Religious Right is the ONLY political movement that is addressing the anguish that people feel about a world that appears to be spinning out of control; while Humanism talks about science and rationality, the Religious Right talks about anger, fear, loneliness, danger, grief, and powerlessness.
* Sexuality is a public policy issue that the Humanist movement is not sufficiently addressing. The Religious Right is. Constantly.
* Since religious “morality” about sex is typically defined as restricting choices (rather than ethical decision-making), “moral” public policy means restricting sexual rights. And so the Religious Right demands laws to limit sexual health care, sex education, sexual entertainment, sexual commerce, sex research, and sexual privacy.
* Because today’s Humanism doesn’t talk explicitly about sexual issues, it hasn’t yet applied its own vocabulary to everyday sexual issues. But people are hungry for an alternative approach to the sexual issues with which they’re struggling, such as:
• New singlehood
• Birth control & abortion
• Sex and aging
• Accepting loved ones’ lifestyles
• Religious Right’s SexPanic
• Reproductive technologies
• “Sex addiction,” “porn addiction”
• Access to sexual health care & information
• Kids’ sexuality, safety, & beliefs
* Humanism can provide a reassuring, practical set of values to help people with these everyday struggles. Today’s Humanism should be discussing its vision of sexuality, which would be based on the same principles that Humanism applies to the rest of life:
• Science & information
* The Religious Right has hijacked public policy, as it uses the machinery of government to pursue its agenda. The Sexual Disaster Industry (“decency” groups, elected politicians, a complicit mass media, and right-wing “feminists”) scares the hell out of the public, driving the public’s demand for laws that protect it from phony or overstated dangers—laws based on religious beliefs.
* The Religious Right is demanding solutions to problems that don’t exist. Instead, Humanism should be defining the problems that America needs to address. For example, America doesn’t have a “porn problem,” we have a censorship problem. It doesn’t have a “gay problem,” we have an intolerance problem. It doesn’t have a “immorality” or a “promiscuity problem,” we have an intolerance and rigid moralism problem.
* Sexuality is not dangerous—bad sexual decision-making is dangerous.
* Sexuality is traditional religion’s worst nightmare—because it is the place in which people have maximum personal autonomy. Rich or poor, smart or dull, young or old, everyone can craft a sex life in which they can explore the mysteries of the universe and create uniquely meaningful experiences. And they can do it WITHOUT institutionalized religion providing a moral framework.
* And so we want to defend the rights of ALL people to experience and express their sexuality in any (consensual) way they want—even in ways that we find pointless or scary. Because when the government can regulate some aspects of our sexual expression, they can regulate any aspect of it. The right to watch South Park depends on someone else’s right to watch ButtBusters III. And the right to buy a vibrator depends on someone else’s right to buy a lapdance.
* Sexuality is among the last human activities to enjoy the revolutionary promise of American pluralism. The Religious Right’s War On Sex is committed to keeping it that way. Humanism is uniquely position—with its history, its secular values, and its broad acceptance among Americans—to challenge that War.
Tomorrow I’ll summarize my remarks about a Humanist position on pornography.