Conflation, Agency, Vulnerability and the Workplace

I recommend an article by Rebecca Traister in today’s The Cut.

Traister has voiced a lot of what I have been trying to express here on the national discourse on sexual harassment. She calls on us to bring the conversation back to the workplace, and to the many systems– not just sexual– that impede women’s ability to reach the same professional status as men. The article references a New Yorker article by Masha Gessen on her concerns about the conflation of different kinds of transgressions, where a hand on the knee becomes equal to Harvey Weinstein’s systematic humiliation of women he employed.

Gessen worries that “while we think we are moving forward, we may be willingly transporting ourselves back to a more sexually restrictive era, one that denied agency to women…In the current American conversation, women are increasingly treated as children: defenseless, incapable of consent, always on the verge of being victimized. This should give us pause. Being infantilized has never worked out well for women.”

There is a danger in our conversation of seeing women as inescapably vulnerable and in need of protection. As I wrote here previously, the reason I never mentioned an incident on a subway train when I was 16 was not because of shame, but because I feared that it would put me into the category of a vulnerable person who needed to be shielded from risk, and that this attitude comes with its own constraints. Men are encouraged to go out in the world and have adventures, women are warned not to go out alone at night because we might be raped.  Because of this we lose opportunities.

So how do we avoid that pitfall?

Traister’s article urges us to focus less on the sex and more on the work:

Understanding the moment, and women’s reaction to it, as only about sex crimes does contribute to a comfortably regressive understanding of women as perpetually passive victims of men’s animal sexuality run amok. And while I share Masha Gessen’s fear that this moment will end with a recommitment to patrolling women’s virtue and undermining their sexual agency, I am just as worried about what we will not do — the thing that is harder and more uncomfortable and ultimately inconceivable: addressing and beginning to dismantle men’s unjustly disproportionate claim to every kind of power in the public and professional world.

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