Katie Roiphe is a writer who made her reputation fresh out of college as a maverick with ‘The Morning After’, a book that argued that date-rape was a largely imagined problem. This put her on a fast track to success and won her praise from critics who saw her book as a repudiation of her mother, Ann Roiphe, a feminist.
Katie dredges up arguments I haven’t heard in ages in today’s New York Times op-ed ‘In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risque Remarks’. Roiphe uses Herman Cain as a point of departure, but doesn’t let the facts slow down her rush to resume her rewarding career of telling women to stop whining and accept that you have to take some hits and pinches if you want to succeed in a man’s world.
‘After all these years we are again debating the definition of unwanted sexual advances and parsing the question of whether a dirty joke in the office is a crime.’
Roiphe may specialize in nostalgia for the MadMen era, but the allegations against Herman Cain are of a pattern of behavior resulting in payoffs and lost jobs. Sharon Bialek, one of five women alleging sexual harassment by Herman Cain, says that when they were alone in his car he grabbed her in a way that meets the legal definition of sexual assault, and when she objected, said, “You want a job, right?”
You can’t get a more clear example of sexual harassment– making sex a condition of employment, but Roiphe isn’t interested in looking at the actual news story. It doesn’t fit her well-worn riff that it’s all about dirty jokes at the office and women who have no sense of humor.
She calls American culture ‘Puritan’ and cites ‘Orwellian’ attempts to regulate behavior when she was at Princeton.
Well, okay. The most recent references to American Puritanism I’ve seen in the press were from French critics asking why it was possible that an important man could be arrested on the word of a mere maid, or why a very important film director has to languish in Europe. If I remember my Orwell correctly, abuse of power on a personal level was one of the most harrowing chapters of ’1984′, when Winston Smith is being tortured by interrogator O’Brien at the Ministry of Love. But then, I’ve actually read the book. I’ve read some history too.
‘We don’t legislate against meanness, or power struggles, or political maneuvering, or manipulation in offices, and how could we?’
This is an echo of that old line from the opponents of the Civil Rights movement, ‘you can’t legislate morality’. Actually, you can legislate morality. You can arrest people who steal things, you can name, shame and prosecute discrimination, call out workplace bullies and make it less safe to bait people over their race or religion. This very imperfect world is a little less hostile for many because of the much-despised, ‘political correctness’ that makes it risky to throw slurs at co-workers.
Roiphe suggests that it is a soft bigotry of low expectations to think that women might need protection from slurs and worse, ‘when women are yet more powerful and ascendent in the workplace.’
I don’t want to get all ‘class-warfare’, but I have to wonder how many workplaces Roiphe has ever seen. From Princeton to a successful writing career is a happy circumstance– and good for her, but maybe she missed some things along the way. Roiphe imagines that ordinary working women might need some horndog men to to bring sunshine to their empty, dreary little lives…
‘Is the anodyne drone typing away in her silent cubicle free from the risk of comment on her clothes, the terror of a joke, the unsettlement of an unwanted or even wanted sexual advance truly our ideal?’
Jeeze, Katie, thanks for looking out for us drones. ‘Our ideal’? You and who else. You don’t sound like you’ve worked in many offices, or talked to many women for that matter. And F.Y.I., most women don’t work in offices.
Herman Cain, if the allegations are true, demanded sex in exchange for a job. If the allegations are true, he caused two women to lose their jobs.
Imagine, in this terrible economy, getting a job you desperately want and need. Imagine discovering that the price of keeping that job is to placate a workplace bully or try to evade them, to appease them with sex or to make a complaint that will likely go nowhere and get you labelled a complainer. Being caught between dread of going to work and dread of losing your job sounds pretty Orwellian to me.
Laws that are intended to give workers some recourse when they are discriminated against or extorted for sex are partial and imperfect, but have given a little power to workers who have been wronged.
More often than not, workers get along by using some common sense about what their co-workers consider to be okay, and by respecting their feelings.
My first job as a nurse was in a public health clinic at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Candy dishes full of condoms sat on doctor’s desks. Some of the safe-sex literature had photos I wouldn’t show my mother. I did pre and post-test counseling for HIV with many people, in confidence, answering questions about relative risk of various acts. The clinic had a diverse staff and a high-pressure work environment where gallows-humor got us through.
Two of the doctors, one a Seventh Day Adventist, one a Hindu, did not like any kind of profane or risque humor. So we watched our mouths around them, because what’s funny to one person is offensive to another. If you have a grain of social sense, you consider who you’re talking to.
I wish Katie Roiphe and her editors at the New York Times had not rushed to replay that old line about how men can’t have any fun without being accused of sexual harassment. And worse, conflate overreaction to a ‘dirty joke’ with the claims against Herman Cain.
Herman Cain is accused of using his power in the National Restaurant Association to extort sex. If these allegations are true there’s a character flaw that would likely affect how he would use his power as president. A very big deal.
Workplace relations go much better if people remember to practice civility and respect. It’s better to save your wild side for when you’re among friends, not in a group of people who have to spend time with you because it’s their job. At least pick your times and save your jokes for people who think they’re funny, not people who are afraid not to go along. Why is it even necessary to keep on pointing out the obvious?
I’m getting too old for this.
AND ANOTHER THING: No More Mister Nice Blog has more.
FURTHERMORE: I have a long resume. I’ve cleaned toilets and counseled people through health decisions and retouched high school portraits. I’ve wiped up blood in the ER and hung wallpaper and visited the sick and supervised nurses aides and have been a nurses aide. Now for the first time in my life I’m working in a cubicle. Strangely enough I think the work I’m doing is useful and interesting. Some guy draping himself over my desk and breathing in my face would not improve my day. I like the guys I work with, but not in that way.
PART II: I’m waiting for Roiphe to follow up with an op ed about workplace Napoleons and how much fun they are– and why their unlucky targets should try to enjoy being picked on.
The movie, ‘Office Space’ has some wonderful send ups of petty office tyrants. Workplace bullies are disruptive–good managers should step on their heads when they start with that.