Thoughts On Sexual Harassment, MeToo, and Definitions

So, yesterday, Publisher's Weekly posted this article describing sexual harassment within the Christian publishing industry. As you can probably imagine, with the world of Christian authors, it has set heads spinning and is just about all many of the industry-focused groups can talk about.

A lot of what I'm seeing is shock and horror that this could take place within a Christian setting. And while, yes, it's sad and heartbreaking, because Christians should behave better than those who don't believe, I think it's imperative that people remember that Christians are still broken, fallen human beings, full of sin. The only difference is a commitment to trying to walk as Jesus would have us walk and, when we fail, repenting and seeking the Lord's help to do better. This is the heart of the Gospel, that everyone needs Jesus to forgive their sins -- and it's not a one and done situation. (Would that it were so.) So while yes, it's heartbreaking that this has happened, the fact that it happened in a Christian setting shouldn't be as big a surprise as it seems to be (reference the problems within the Catholic church and/or at Willowcreek for two recent examples of fallen humans who love Jesus doing very very badly by their fellow humans.)

But the whole thing has spun my mind round again to something that plagues me as the mother of boys: what exactly constitutes sexual harassment?

When I look at some of the stories of women who feel they have been harassed, I see them talking about how they were made to feel uncomfortable. And I stop and ask myself, "Really? Is all it takes to ruin someone's livelihood the fact that you were uncomfortable?" Because I'm uncomfortable a lot. Women seem determined to discuss their monthly cycles with me. This makes me more uncomfortable than I can possibly explain. Are they sexually harassing me? Of course not. (I also have a couple of pairs of jeans that make me uncomfortable. Sadly, I can't sue them for sexual harassment either.)

Being made uncomfortable isn't enough, in my opinion, to start throwing around allegations. To me, if you're a woman and you're uncomfortable, you should a) say, "Hey, you know what, this seems inappropriate and I am uncomfortable. Can we change the subject?" and, if that fails, b) go elsewhere.

I can see how, if you do a and nothing changes -- or if in fact the behavior intensifies -- and you're not in a situation where b is possible then okay, yes, lines have been crossed. But again I wonder, is it really sexual harassment?

Then there's the matter of inappropriate. Is inappropriate automatically sexual harassment? I've been guilty of being inappropriate. I've hung around with coworkers (generally male, seeing as they were also software engineers and that is, largely, a male-dominated environment) where talk has turned bawdy. I have made an off-color joke or two. And I have been in situations where jokes crossed the line into uncomfortable and inappropriate and I have, in those situations, made a way to remove myself from it. I don't feel that I've ever experienced sexual harassment. (Discrimination? Yes. But that's a noodle for another day.)

And so I circle back to why I worry about raising boys in the MeToo culture that we currently have. Right now, it feels as if a well-intentioned comment along the lines of, "Wow, you look great today." Can, should the woman on the other end of said comment decide, be turned into a sexual harassment witch hunt. Or trying to squeeze past someone in a crowded room (because honestly, if you want inappropriate and unwanted sexual touching, ride the Metro at rush hour sometime.) But there's no intent there. And that's what I feel like we're not wrapping our heads around. Sexual harassment has to have some level of intent on the part of the perpetrator. But at the same time, "Oh, I didn't mean it." is also not a valid excuse.

I don't really have any solutions. It's a serious problem and needs serious attention. It needs to stop. At the same time, we need to stop looking for it behind every bush and in every shadowed doorway. We need to find a way to determine the true cases from the women (and men) who see it as a way to punish or get revenge on someone. Because that happens, too. But right now, in today's climate, there doesn't seem to be a way to say, "Hey, I take your allegation seriously, but I need to look at both sides and find the truth." without being called a victim shamer. Yes, absolutely, the pendulum used to swing too far on the side of protecting the perpetrator, but swinging too hard to the other side where allegations aren't verified before someone's life is ruined is not the correct response.

It's murky. And hard. And I'm doing everything I can to raise my boys to avoid situations where it'll even be a question. But I worry. And I pray. Because this world? It needs Jesus. Even the people inside the church.


  1. Without going into it too deeply, I deal with this on a professional basis. Yes, it can get tricky. But at least in the context of that part of the law in which I work, there's still a reasonable person standard that has to be met, so it's not all subjective on the part of the accuser.

  2. Well that's good to hear. Of course getting to the legal end of things probably involves a lot of being dragged through the mud on the way, but still it's nice to know there's a reasonable person standard theoretically in play.