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Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism

by Daphne Patai
Book review Copyright © 1999 by Cathy Young
Synopsis by Bert H. Hoff


Daphne Patai, Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism(Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999; 250 pp.). Order on-line

Book cover
Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism
by Daphne Patai
Order on-line

Second review, by J. Steven Svoboda

Patai's controversial look at the nation's current epidemic of sexual harassment charges illuminates complex ideological struggles within contemporary feminism. Once confident in the potential of feminism to create a more equitable and just society, Daphne Patai persuasively demonstrates in Heterophobia how the efforts of some feminists - members of what she calls the "sexual harassment industry" - have created an environment that stifles healthy and natural interactions between the sexes. The tremendous growth of sexual harassment legislation represents feminism's greatest contemporary success, but this victory has dubious consequences - a world where kindergarten boys face legal action for kissing female classmates and men are sued by coworkers for offenses such as unwanted hugs, uninvited compliments, or glances that last too long.

Here's a review from REASON magazine, February 1999 issue:

Bad Will Toward Men
By Cathy Young

In February 1998 (not long after Monica Lewinsky became a household name), author and academic Daphne Patai attended a conference on sexual harassment at Yale University. Among the many things she found striking was the fact that, while a discussion of same-sex harassment occasioned expressions of fear about inciting homophobia, there were no such concerns about promoting "heterophobia" -- which Patai defines as antagonism toward men and heterosexuality. Yet such an animus, she argues, is behind much of the recent effort to stamp out sexual harassment.

Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism is, as far as I know, the first book-length critical analysis of the crusade against sexual harassment. Patai, a professor of comparative literature and women's studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and co-author of Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women's Studies, is herself a formerly radical feminist who is appalled by what has become of the feminist project to remake human relations.

Patai recognizes that the problem which feminists in the 1970s labeled "sexual harassment" -- coercive or abusive sexual behavior in the workplace -- is real, and legal recourse was needed against it. The problem, she asserts, is that from the beginning, the concept was stretched to embrace not only sexual extortion or aggression but any "overt manifestations of male sexuality" that might upset some women. In Patai's view, "the experience of sexual interest and sexual play ... is an ordinary part of human life," and while "misplaced sexual attentions" can be vexatious at times, the only way to inhibit them is create a climate of repression and intolerance. In fact, she suggests that we already have such a climate.

Some of the worst horror stories come from academia, where the fear of litigation is compounded by feminist zealotry, and it is on the academy that Patai focuses. She chronicles the stories of professors whose careers and whose very lives have been devastated by charges that are either chillingly trivial (a writing instructor fired for allowing a student-initiated discussion of sexual topics) or fantastic (multiple rapes which somehow don't keep the victim from signing up for an elective course with the rapist). A classroom statement that some rape allegations are false or that life begins at conception can trigger claims of a "hostile environment." Uncorroborated and improbable charges can be pursued for years, with the accusers sometimes allowed to revise their stories long after filing the complaint and the accused sometimes denied access to materials from the investigation. Even accused men who are eventually exonerated are usually saddled with huge legal bills and stained reputations, while the officials who preside over the witch-hunts survive with their careers intact.

As the book shows, these travesties are not mere incidental excesses but logical results of the basic premises of what Patai calls the 'Sexual Harassment Industry' (SHI). The industry's mentality is laid bare in Patai's analysis of an authoritative recent text on campus harassment, Sexual Harassment on Campus: A Guide for Administrators, Faculty, and Students, by Bernice Sandler and Robert Shoop (1997). Women are seen as powerless in interactions with men; distinctions between trivial and severe offenses are erased; an accusation, for all intents and purposes, equals guilt. Lack of evidence is treated as a pesky inconvenience, to be circumvented by such Kafkaesque means as depositing unproven allegations into sealed files that can be opened in the event of future complaints against the same person.

Sometimes, women - such as flamboyant feminist professor Jane Gallop, whom Patai aptly dubs an "intellectual flasher" - get ensnared in the trap. In an insightful and amusing chapter, Patai dissects Gallop's account of being on the receiving end of a sexual harassment charge by a female graduate student. To Gallop, sexual harassment is about male power, and it is a distortion of the cause to invoke such charges against women and feminists. In other words, "she wants sexual harassment law and regulations to exist *only* within a framework that provides her and other feminists with license, while restraining the behavior of men. And this she presents in all seriousness as a right and just demand."

Such blatant advocacy of double standards is rare. But on one point, Gallop has it right: the sexual harassment crusade was intended to be a war against men. "Somewhere along the line," writes Patai, "the feminist criticism of patriarchal institutions derailed into a real, visceral, and frightening antagonism toward men and a consequent intolerance toward women who insist on associating with them."

This is hardly a new charge, of course, and it's one that most feminists indignantly deny. But Patai, who provides the most comprehensive analysis of this topic to date, makes a persuasive argument that the image of orthodox feminism as anti-male and anti-heterosexual is not just "the product of 'backlash' or bad public relations." She notes that "prominent heterosexual feminists routinely approach the potential conflict between their feminism and their heterosexuality in an apologetic mode," rather than questioning the existence of such a conflict. The section on self-hating male feminists, including a tragicomic young man who strives to become asexual because he finds that any sort of sexual act, even homosexual or solitary, is "contaminated by patriarchal values," is alone worth the price of the book.

Patai relies not only on texts but on her own and others' real-life experiences in women's studies - a world in which a teacher refers to her husband as her "partner" without pronouns, leading students to assume that she is a lesbian, and a faculty member's announcement of her upcoming marriage causes an awkward silence among her colleagues. Some will surely accuse Patai of exaggerating the importance of a lunatic fringe. But, while she concedes that hardcore heterophobia is "an admittedly minority position within feminism," she makes a convincing case that its ideas and its rhetoric have infected the crusade against sexual harassment, with its presumption that male sexual interest demeans and endangers women.

In an interesting twist, Patai places her analysis of modern sexual politics in the context of dystopian fiction -- futuristic visions of a completely regulated life (such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World). She sees codes of speech and conduct meant to protect women from possible "discomfort" as stemming from the sort of mindset described in such stories. "[T]o conflate much of what today is labeled 'sexual harassment' with serious forms of sexual assault and abuse is to invite authoritarianism into our lives -- the hand of the state everywhere in the private sphere, until there is virtually no private sphere left."

Like many other critics of feminist extremism, Patai notes that it is bad for feminism itself, insofar as feminism is about equality and dignity for women. Refreshingly, however, she adds that one should be able "to attack feminism for the harm it is doing to men and to nonfeminist women," not just to its own cause. Patai doesn't just denounce male-bashing; she has genuine sympathy for men, and a strong sense of the common humanity of men and women. She proposes a fascinating mental exercise: to imagine that men start to clamor for protections against "emotional harassment" by women (all those demands to express their feelings!) similar to current protections for women from sexual harassment by men.

This thoughtful and fair-minded book might have been helped by a look at the question of whether serious sexual misconduct sometimes goes unpunished -- when, for example, the wrongdoer is influential or has the support of campus feminists. One also wishes Patai had included more material from the world outside of university campuses; otherwise, she leaves room for the argument that the excesses of the sexual harassment industry which she chronicles are limited to the academy (they are not). Then, too, a few of her case histories might have benefitted from more detail. But these are quibbles.

Heterophobia is a powerful brief for personal freedom and against efforts to politicize human relations and strip them of their complexity. Patai leaves no doubt that sexual harassment laws and policies as they exist today do far more harm than good. Perhaps, as President Clinton's tribulations continue to fuel a backlash against "sexual McCarthyism," this timely book can provide an additional push for a rethinking of the ideological and legal orthodoxies that have gotten us where we are now.

Cathy Young is vice president of the Women's Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality, published by the Free Press.

Second review, by J. Steven Svoboda


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