It’s Way Too Soon To Be Splitting Hairs On Sexual Harassment

Can you divide sexual harassers into “good ones” and “bad ones”? The temptation is great right now, and that worries me.

I’m seeing signs that a dispute is starting to erupt — on social media, and in private conversations — over whether all perpetrators should be lumped together, now that some popular figures have been accused.

Is Al Franken’s alleged groping as bad as Dr. Larry Nasser’s assaults on women athletes? Was Charlie Rose appearing naked less bothersome than Harvey Weinstein cornering actresses? Were George H.W. Bush’s fanny pats really something to complain about?

The big question seems to be: are there some kinds of sexual harassment that should be shrugged off, while other kinds are truly despicable?

Here’s how I see it. All sexual harassment is bad. Period. And it is way too early in the long-needed discussion over sexual harassment to start splitting hairs about what it is, and what it isn’t.

If you are tempted to let someone off the hook because you enjoyed their work on a late night TV program, or they never acted that way with you, try this.

Substitute the word “bullying” for “sexual harassment.” Because, even if they never touched someone, even if all they did was say something that rattled someone, they bullied them.

We know what bullying can do, especially to young people who don’t have the maturity to shrug off the taunts.

Bullying can kill people. It can cause them to commit suicide. It can ruin their mental health. It can affect their image of themselves for years to come, and it can have an impact on their relationships with other people.

Universities shut down fraternities for bullying. Bullies are kicked out of high schools. They’re kicked off sports teams. They’re evicted from restaurants and fired from jobs.

When you put sexual harassment in that light, it’s easier to understand why nobody should be given a pass.

I wrote recently about the dos and don’ts when a friend is accused of sexual harassment. But I don’t think it has to be personal for people to give some thought to how they are assessing situations.

The whole “he ‘s not a bad guy, overall” excuse threatens to negate the women who have come forward after years of suppressing their stories.

The idea of “well, that’s not as bad as what he did” doesn’t take into account what a single action, even a non-physical one, can do to someone’s psyche.

Doubtless you remember what a playground bully said to you back in fifth grade. For me, it was a schoolmate who bullied me relentlessly throughout eighth grade, until I’d finally had enough.

She was shocked when I responded, and so was our gym coach, who had no idea I was being harassed. But it worked: the bully stayed away, although she made a cutting remark about me in a home ec class months later.

That one, I shrugged off. In retrospect, though, I wish I’d said something much sooner. My eighth grade memories are tainted by that experience.

Once you start dividing sexual harassment into “bad” and “not so bad” it won’t be long until you start excusing what you used to think of as “bad.”

And that just won’t do, not at this fledgling stage.

It isn’t even a year and a half since Gretchen Carlson came forward with her sexual harassment allegations at Fox News, and the truly serious discussion of sexual harassment has only been underway across the country this fall.

I’ve already seen people on Twitter bemoaning the fact that sexual harassment allegations are driving talented people out of the media and entertainment fields.

Oh, please. How many women have quietly quit jobs and given up opportunities because they had to get away from a boss or a colleague who was relentlessly harassing them? Probably untold thousands.

Now, those women are finally getting a chance to tell their stories. Don’t start categorizing them yet. All that does is excuse the bullies.

Would you shrug off a bullying incident if it involved your child? Probably not. At least, give these accounts their due without saying they aren’t valid.

The flood of accusations might be making you all uncomfortable, but I can assure you, your discomfort is nothing compared with what these women have been through.

Clap if you liked this story, and follow Micheline Maynard on Twitter @mickimaynard

Journalist. Author. The Check blog on Forbes.com. NPR and NYT alum

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