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Essay

Help, Help, I’m Being Harassed

By October 5, 2013 One Comment
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Can I sue American entertainment culture for sexual harassment? I am wondering about this because I have been working my way through an online training course called “Sexual Harassment Training for Faculty.” By the end of the month I am required by my employer to click through the 188 slides and take all the little quizzes, helpfully prepared by an outside vendor.

I am learning lots. For example, if my co-workers or supervisors make lewd comments or tell off-color jokes, I can sue my employer for creating a “hostile work environment.” I’m not planning to do this, because my co-workers and supervisors are all mild-mannered academics and all-around decent people, and I rarely hear anything inappropriate or crude at work.

At least not from my colleagues. The literature I teach is another story. That’s full of dirty stuff. I wonder if students can sue me for creating a hostile learning environment because of the dirty jokes in Shakespeare? The online course does not address this possibility. Of course, the students would have to get the dirty jokes, which requires braving a prickly thicket of footnotes. I think I’m OK.

Anyway, I have been surprised how carefully the law seems to protect the purity of the work environment. No lewd jokes, no leering, no dirty pictures, no suggestive comments. You can even get in trouble for licking your lips the wrong way. And employers can conceivably be held liable for the behavior of people who don’t even work for them—for example, if you run a catering business, and your staff get goosed by guests at a party, and you do not address it correctly, your staff could sue. American sexual harassment laws hold people and their employers pretty tightly accountable for treating each other with respect and protecting the vulnerability and dignity of those in positions of less power. I think it’s marvelous.

But what about after work? Who protects me from the increasing crudity of popular culture, the dirty jokes and more-than-suggestive images streaming into my living room and onto my laptop and over the radio waves and—help us—even on highway billboards?  

Oh, you’re just an old fuddy-duddy. It’s no big deal.

Am I? Maybe. I do think popular culture is cruder these days than when I was young. Not that all was pure and holy back then. It certainly wasn’t. But the explicit stuff my kids are exposed to now in a PG-13 movie or a comedy news show or just a regular old sit-com—I’m sorry but it’s much dirtier than when I was a kid. And music videos? Worse than ever. 

You’re probably sexually repressed.

Yeah, I don’t think so. I’m a happily married woman, thank you very much. And I don’t mind talking about sexual things. Remember, I teach literature. I just get tired of the constant sniggering references to sexual acts, the pervasive sexualization of every last thing, and the absolutely unapologetic and constant objectification of women. And men, for that matter. At least these days we have equal opportunity degradation.

Are you some kind of feminist?

Yes. Yes, I am. And whatever happened to the good old days when “radical” feminists protested the objectification, let alone pornification of women? And men? And insisted that women shouldn’t alter themselves to meet a societal norm of beauty, nay not even so far as to shave their armpits? Sigh. Good times.

Seriously?

Well, maybe not the armpit part. But where are the voices objecting to the mainstreaming of soft porn in everything from movies to outerwear catalogs? I thought feminists were against porn.

You just don’t get it. Women are perfectly free to celebrate their sexuality in any way they want. It’s empowering.

See, that’s where I disagree. Sluttiness is only an illusion of power. Miley Cyrus probably thinks she’s engaging in self-expression and self-determination and total empowerment. But attention for one’s allure—or for one’s shocking public twerkathon—is not the same as power.  

Are some kind of religious zealot, some kind of purist?

Yes. Yes, I am. And I think I should be able to watch TV and movies and sketch comedy and not have to wince at every other line. My teenagers have seen images and heard slang that we could all do without, and I’m sure I don’t know the half of it.

Bottom line: American entertainment culture has created a hostile environment in my living room, and I demand my rights! I have a right to raunch-free relaxation.

Well, go crawl in a cave then.

Yeah, that’s about what I’d have to do, isn’t it? I think that’s discrimination. I deserve equal access to entertainment.

You religious people can’t take a joke. And you don’t appreciate art.

All right. Let’s talk about art and humor. Back to Miley. She probably thinks that the “Wrecking Ball” video is great art. Actually, it’s quite stupid. The song seems to be about a bitter breakup, but in the video it looks as if a naked Miley is having a fabulous time, especially with that sledge hammer. (A sledge hammer? Honestly.) Artistically, it’s neither original nor thought-provoking. It’s just cliché, even banal. Fortunately, parodies are afoot. Bring ‘em on!

Speaking of parody and satire, why do our nation’s foremost comedians—no need to name names—rely so heavily on crude language and vulgar sexual references? I suppose they are under the impression that these are axiomatically funny. They are not. The reason is simple: humor depends on sparing usage. Overuse a technique and it will cease to be funny. So while an occasional cuss word might have some humor impact, F-word-encrusted banter merely annoys. And why the obsession with male genitalia? Good grief, aren’t we supposed to get over that after puberty? Nor are male parts the only possible, or even the best metaphors for courage, assertiveness, decisiveness, fertility, good nature, rainbows, ponies, whatever else you use as an excuse to talk about them.

Crude humor is just lazy humor. Anyone can cuss and refer to male parts. Try harder, people. (Say, maybe this is why my students are unperturbed by dirty jokes in Shakespeare. They’ve heard it all before, and worse.)

Yeah, you’re definitely repressed. You’re just grossed out by anything sexual.

No, I’m really not. There’s a difference between being disgusted by or fearful of something and wishing to treat that aspect of human nature with a little honor and respect. And if the law protects the work environment from raunch and crudity, why is it so pathological to wish for the same decency toward one another in popular culture?

So what counts as raunch and crudity? Where do you draw the line? Don’t you believe in the First Amendment?

Well, sure. But I’ve just learned that the law limits free speech when it comes to harassment. And the harassment laws posit a “reasonable person” test, so I’ll just declare myself a reasonable person and say: I can’t define raunch. I just know it when I see it.

One Comment

  • Annie says:

    Excellent, excellent, excellent. There's a depressing irony in the fight for women's freedom. Prostitution, pimping, etc., is something to which we are staunchly opposed; it is slavery, an infridgment upon human rights and dignity. While society opposes–and occasionally fights–sexual slavery/explotion, dare we oppose behavior such as Miley's, we are guilty of oppression. I can't help but think that the latter "freedom" (self-prostitution) is oxygen for sex slavery. Have you read SinĂ©ad O'Connor's letter to Miley?

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