Can we have a better sexual-harassment conversation?

Boy, is this ever a moment: Sexual harassment has come out of the dark.  That’s a great thing. But it’s worrisome. too. The conversations – and the events – are raging like wildfire on terrain that is utterly unfamiliar. Could we think about some guidelines to keep things as fair and truthful as possible? Some considerations to help us generate more light and less heat?

Here are four possibilities:

  1. Accusations should not be anonymous. We should do everything we can (I’m looking at you, fellow journalists) to encourage the people who make sexual harassment accusations to do so under their own names. This honors a longtime journalistic commitment to render information verifiable and to prevent people from harming others with impunity. It’s a good rule for society to follow more broadly. There will be exceptions on this difficult topic (several women making credible claims together anonymously against a very powerful public man?) but the fewer the exceptions, the more progress we’ll make. The fact that so many women have been willing to go on the record lately is an enormous part of why we are where we are today.
  1. Not all sins are equivalent. The term sexual harassment seems to be stretching to cover an awful lot of ground: From a wink and a whistle, through an uncomfortable conversation or an unwelcome kiss, to an erection pressed against you, having your breasts grabbed or a hand thrown under your skirt – all the way up to sexual assault. Throwing all offenders together is unfair and inaccurate. It is essential that we get as close as we can to the truth of each report, uncomfortable as the details may be.
  1. Consider a statute of limitations for minor offenses. A guy who brushed his hand against you in the wrong place 30 years ago may still be messing around years later, or he may not be. You didn’t report it then, times have changed, the culture has changed. Sharing experiences (as in the #metoo social media exchanges lately) is valuable in raising awareness about how common harassment is. But an expiration date for shining the light individually on a man whose sins are minor and lost in time may be in order.
  1. Men need to help in sorting all this out. This is surely not just a women’s issue; in fact, it’s really much more of a men’s issue. That these conversations are happening is great, but they can’t be just among women. We’ll all be much better off with men involved.

(I should note here that I do understand that men prey on men, women on women and some women on men. I’m employing language that is too narrow. But I’ll leave that guideline for someone else’s contribution.)


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