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The Problem Isn't Sex, It's Work

Workplace harassment is about power, not desire. And it's a symptom of deep economic and professional inequality.

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A big reason why the Me Too campaign has captured our attention is because it appears, on the surface, to be about sex. That’s not ideal, but for now, it’s OK. We like to read about sex. It’s salacious, voyeuristic, gross, and sometimes funny. America may be a country of puritans, but there’s nothing new to pathologize here.

But let’s not confuse the superficial lure of these scandals with the reason why they exist in the first place. The problem with workplace sexual harassment is less about sex than it is about work. It’s about power, not desire. And it stems from deep economic, professional, and social inequalities and anxieties — not seduction, nor prudishness, nor deep-seated sexual repression.

If women held just as much power as men and were equally represented at all levels of management, it might make more sense to pin trash male behavior on their sexual impulses. But in that scenario — if women were running things — these gratuitous displays of male genitalia would have been curbed decades ago, and those that persisted would be regarded as a nuisance, not a power play.

The reality is that women don’t have equal pay, and we definitely don’t have equal power, so this sleazy behavior has gone unchecked. As many victims have said, this has cut their careers short, killed their ambitions, and discouraged them from earning and achieving. It’s this anxiety over our careers, our livelihoods, and our ambitions that is driving this conversation, and we need to recognize it.

Most of us spend most of our time working. It’s how we put a roof over our heads, and in the absence of a decent social safety net, it’s how we stay alive. Given the tumultuous economic conditions of the past decade, combined with fears of what’s still to come, work has become an increasingly fraught place where our collective anxieties about the future boil over.

We’re more comfortable than ever talking about sex and the dark side of male sexual impulses. But work? That’s more complicated.

America’s labor market, we are repeatedly informed, is bouncing back. Unemployment is at its lowest point in 17 years, and the economy is now growing fast enough that the Federal Reserve has begun raising interest rates, which have remained near zero since the financial crisis. Surveys of consumers and businesses show broad confidence that things are getting better.

At the same time, real wages for most workers have barely grown for decades. The cost of education and health care — things considered nonnegotiable human rights in most developed countries — have risen fast, and people’s access to medical insurance and higher education could be endangered with the flick of a presidential pen. Labor unions, whose job it is to protect both male and female workers, are dying, or being actively killed by their enemies. The catastrophic tax bill making its way to the president’s desk has graduate students, people in high-tax states, freelancers, and many others wondering what, exactly, their finances will look like come next April.

Workers are still experiencing widespread post-recessionary trauma. This raises the stakes of what happens in the office: The combination of fear, frustration, and economic insecurity compounds the dissatisfaction women already feel about how we’re treated by their supervisors and peers. So when the lid finally blows off of decades of mistreatment, exploitation, and injustice, you can expect to find a lot more where this all came from.

And it’s no coincidence that, while they exist everywhere, these stories are coming out of precarious industries like media, TV, and film, where the very notion of a “meritocracy” has become laughable. Women in media aren’t angry simply because of stories of unwanted penis sightings. We’re angry because, in the same period that Matt Lauer reportedly earned in excess of $100 million for being a TV dad, we watched our friends and colleagues get laid off en masse after doing great work. We’re angry because we feel like we don’t get a chance, and it would be much easier to deal with the perverts among us if we also called the shots.

It’s also not a coincidence that social media is pouring fuel on the harassment dumpster fire. What is social media if not an outlet for underemployed, overqualified, frustrated young people — many of them working in media — to express their anger?

A remark I’ve heard over and over again is that the Me Too campaign will turn harmless workplace flirtation or even mere friendliness into a fireable offense. There’s a pervasive fear among conservatives and libertines alike that this moment is creating a moral sex panic, encouraging women to take a compliment as a perverted power move. “In wake of Weinstein, men wonder if hugging women still OK” reads a recent headline.

This misses the point, and comically so: Women have been dealing with this shit for years, and most of us have gotten pretty good at telling the difference between being asked out on a date and being deterred from doing good work because we’re being molested by a guy twice our size.

So are women using sex to make their case for a big, radical rethink of who is in power? You could put it that way. But maybe it’s because when we talked about work this whole time, no one took us seriously.

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is a journalist and author of The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen.