Nothing I’m about to say is in any way a defense of the men who commit acts of sexual harassment at work or elsewhere. They’re swine and deserve to be publicly shamed, fired from their jobs, abandoned by their wives, sent to the poorhouse by their victims. So, in fact, do the bosses and corporations that turned a blind eye to these men’s actions for decades, before suddenly catching ethicality and making a public show of firing them.
But there’s an elephant in this room people are afraid to acknowledge these days, and it’s this: There are victims, yes, and then there are willing victims.
There’s a difference between women (and men) who, for physical, emotional or economic reasons, have no choice but to submit to harassment, and those who willingly walk into their bosses’ depravity and use it to their own benefit.
The single mother of five making minimum wage who puts up with her boss’ perverse habits because she can’t afford to lose her job; the underage high school dropout who’s afraid of saying no to the town’s top cop; the abused child who becomes an abused wife and then is abused by a co-worker and just assumes this is the way of the world — these are victims. Anyone who’s been raped, or dragged into a room under false pretenses only to be cornered by an open bathrobe, or looked up from her desk to behold an old man’s naked body. They are victims.
But the aspiring actress who doesn’t think twice about spending an afternoon on the couch if it means she’ll get a part in a movie; the ambitious attorney who follows her degenerate boss from job to job because he’s a rising star and she would like to do “interesting work”; the massage therapist who’s hoping to get a book deal — I dare say they bear some of the responsibility for the present state of affairs.
Yes, I know the game is rigged in favor of the strong and the successful, most of whom happen to be male. I know that in a civilized society, no one should have to subject herself to a couch, a lap or a knee pad to get anything at all, that talent and effort should be the only criteria for professional advancement. I certainly know that everyone from Clarence Thomas to Matt Lauer to the next revolting abuser of real or perceived power benefit from long-entrenched conventions that no single individual is able to trounce. But, at the risk of being stoned to death by my fellow feminists, liberals and former employees of a bad boss, I do believe that some of the people who are now crying foul have been, at the very least, complicit in the indecency to which they and the others were subjected.
There’s an elephant in this room people are afraid to acknowledge these days, and it’s this: There are victims, yes, and then there are willing victims.
It’s true one shouldn’t have to choose between an easy book deal and the naked beast on the massage table, but, faced with that choice, one may want to consider risking the deal and resisting the beast. Some people do take that chance and walk out of the room. I know a few of them who silently walked away, fought back when they were able, complained to human resources knowing it would do no good and simply, on principle, brought lawsuits.
And maybe I know one or two of the knee pad persuasion, too. They may be good at recognizing a shortcut. They may realize that the only way in is through the open bathrobe and want the job badly enough to put up with it. Unless the job is putting food on their table, I wouldn’t call them victims.
It’s a difficult thing, lonely and terrifying, to be the one grating cog in an old, comfortable machine. The minute you threaten the status quo, your boss and his boss and the entire institution will turn on you; your colleagues will turn on you; the world will turn on you. As far as I’m concerned, the men and women who have to submit to those demands because they’re backed into a corner and can’t run or hide deserve all the sympathy and recompense the world has to offer. But there’s a difference between these people and those who knowingly, willingly, trade on their sexuality.
Gina Nahai’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”