What Sexual Harassment “Crisis”?

The sexual harassment frenzy of the last few months—and it can only be called a frenzy—is disturbing in many ways, and decent and right-minded people need to speak up about it. It’s only the latest poison from the Sexual Revolution and the regime of moral relativism generally.

First, it is troubling that in the minds of the media and political powers that be in Washington mere allegations—often backed up by nothing more than the fact that a woman, often out of the blue, made them—are held to equal proof. No more evidence is necessary, even though the stakes are high indeed: the destruction of careers and livelihoods, the permanent damaging of reputations—even who is going to hold a Senate seat from a state. To be sure, while only some of these claims rise to the level of criminal acts so that proof beyond a reasonable doubt is not the formal standard in play, fundamental fairness demands that there be genuine proof that a person engaged in an act—to say nothing that the act even occurred—before he’s labeled a miscreant.

In the case of Justice Roy Moore in Alabama, we witnessed a situation where there was no firm evidence that he did anything untoward, there were inconsistencies in the claims made, at least one of the accusers had big credibility problems and a criminal background, the alleged incidents happened forty years ago, and some of the allegations—such as a thirty-something man seeking the affections of teenaged girls—were hardly an issue in the culture of that time and place.

Today it’s sexual harassment concerning which mere allegation is held to be proof. Tomorrow, it will move onto other things, until we end up having moral confusion, an undermining of law, injustices left and right, and a society of deepened inter-personal suspicion that comes to resemble something like Hobbes’ state of nature.

Allegations concerning incidents of the distant past—some, as with Moore, decades old—is another particularly disturbing element in all this. Even if the criminal law is not involved, we can learn from it. There is a reason statutes of limitations exist in the criminal law. Memories dim about things in the distant past, misimpressions about them often abound, and witnesses are often not around anymore to confirm or dispute claims.

What has been painfully evident in this frenzy has been a lack of charity. This isn’t surprising, since the secular culture that is suddenly rife with sexual harassment has overturned Christianity and with it the greatest of the Christian virtues, charity. The imperviousness to facts and proof, the willingness to let the accused flap in the wind and be destroyed, and the subjection of innocent people to grueling investigations—whether by Congressional committees supposedly in the name of ethics or within private institutions—even without anything like probable cause as a threshold so as to determine if anything happened in the first place and if it could reasonably be believed that a person did anything wrong hardly bespeaks charity.

The last time I checked, calumny, libel, and detraction were sins, but then the secular culture doesn’t think there’s such a thing as sin. So, should we be surprised that many don’t blink an eye when a person’s reputation is unjustly destroyed. Also, isn’t it uncharitable to conclude the worst about someone—for example, to read a nefarious intention into what may be an innocent comment or action?

If we can take a reference point for this whole subject of sexual harassment such criminal law principles as the desirability of statutes of limitations and probable cause, we can also add the need to spell out clearly what the forbidden actions are. One of the most basic reasons, from the standpoint of sound ethics, why a positive law might be determined to be unjust is because it is vague. If anything has been apparent from the recent exposés, it is that what constitutes “sexual harassment” is up for grabs. It readily reminds one of the law respecting child abuse and neglect over the past forty-odd years: there are no clear definitions anywhere so pretty much whatever someone—whether it be a neighbor who dislikes a family and anonymously calls the authorities or a child protective system operative (many of whom have no first-hand experience with childrearing and whose education and training betray an anti-parent perspective)—wants to call “abuse” or “neglect” is. Directly on point with sexual harassment, we are seeing feminists and some others pushing an expansive definition of rape that goes well beyond what has always been understood. We’re now even told that it’s sexual harassment for a young man to keep asking a young, unattached woman for a date if she keeps saying no. Didn’t at one time we think that gentle persistence would pay off in the end for both parties, that the woman might change her mind over time and wish that she had responded positively sooner?

There is another danger of open-ended definitions of such things as sexual harassment and child abuse and neglect. If they apply to everything they become trivialized and as time goes on the true cases and perpetrators too often are missed or ignored.

In the midst of this, has it dawned on anyone that we have to be wary of the self-interest of accusers? One doesn’t doubt that there legitimately is what might be called “sexual harassment” out there (for example, unwanted touching of a genuinely sexual nature—but not something, say, like a man putting his arm around a woman’s shoulder at a public photo shoot). Also, in a sex-saturated age, it probably happens much more frequently than in the past. By the same token one can hardly ignore the fact that some people—women are no more virtuous than men in this respect—are motivated by raw self-interest and will allege untrue things for the sake of it.

Speaking of self-interest, it’s noteworthy that some of the accusers of recent months—from the worlds of politics, entertainment, and media—say that they tolerated the harassment or agreed to provide sexual favors for fear that their careers would otherwise not advance. Were their careers more important to them than sexual virtue? Can’t they truly be viewed, at least to some degree, as cooperators with wrongdoing? As has now become apparent in the supposed campus rape crisis, it is not unheard of that a young woman who has been involved in a consensual sexual affair that has gone sour will allege that she was raped as a way to get back at the man. Can all the high-profile actresses and female entertainers who have alleged unwanted sexual advances by their male counterparts and bosses—whose own lack of virtue, to be sure, one has no illusion about—escape all responsibility when the movies and other types of entertainment they readily take part in are hardly examples of wholesomeness when it comes to sexual morality? Can we ignore the possibility that since big name men and entities are involved money might be a motive for some of the accusers?

One does not have to look too far to find enough cases of allegations of sex discrimination or even sexual harassment by women in workplace, educational, and other institutional settings to see such self-interest at work. One is foolish not to believe that there are enough unconscionable people ready to make untrue allegations to get something they want or to retaliate against someone. Sometimes they can get others to join the bandwagon with them to think that they too have been mistreated and so they pile on. Sometimes, for some people, the power of suggestion can be strong in riling them up to see a supposed (but unreal) injustice.

While it would not excuse true sexual harassment, don’t women have to be attentive not to create situations that could open the door to it? For example, no one seems to see a problem with provocative dress by women. In fact, the whole notion of modesty is laughed at. Even some young Christian women don’t seem to be adequately attuned to the need for modest dress.

It’s interesting that the people telling us that we have a crisis of sexual harassment say nothing about rolling back the Sexual Revolution or restoring the lost ethic of the gentleman, even though fundamentally these are its causes. In good feminist fashion—copying Marxism and Hobbesianism—it’s all about power. The solution is to “empower” women. Hasn’t that been what the current wave of feminism has been about for almost half a century, however? They have had one success after another, helping to transform the landscape of American culture and the male-female relationship. Still they would have us believe that women are more vulnerable than ever. The contradictions abound.

Women are the same as men, androgyny rules, the old protections enshrined in law for women had to go by the boards—yet they say that women now need protection, even from the smallest of slights. Women, they say, are as tough and capable as men. Yet, we have to respect every kind of sensitivity they might have—even if it’s an oversensitivity. Isn’t this just another version of insuring the “safe spaces” that some students insist upon on the campuses, so that even ideas they don’t like are considered offensive and so off-limits? We are told that women should be in every workplace alongside men and can handle all the challenges as well as them—in fact, women who choose to stay at home are denigrated—but at the same time, every small or merely perceived offensive action or injustice is pounced on and can literally become a federal case. So, institutions are constantly on their guard for fear of lawsuits. The effect of all this—and almost all of what feminism has to offer—has been to sour relations between men and women. Oh, and by the way, check out the studies done about women’s attitudes in the era of the current feminism: women are unhappier than ever before.

Like so much today, this topic cries out for realism, common sense, mutual respect across the board, norms of civility and charity, and traditional—true—morality. Don’t expect the people who are screaming about sexual harassment as one of the crises of our time to pay much attention to such things, however.

Stephen M. Krason


Stephen M. Krason's "Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic" column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis Magazine. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. He is the author, most recently, of The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012), and editor of three volumes: Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System (Scarecrow Press, 2013) and The Crisis of Religious Liberty (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014); and most recently, Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians (Franciscan University Press). His latest book is Catholicism and American Political Ideologies (Hamilton Books). He is also the author of a new novel, American Cincinnatus.