Not about sex, it’s about power

By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.

Natasha Josefowitz

LA JOLLA, California — In 1992, the City of San Diego Organization Effectiveness Program hired me as a sexual harassment consultant. I worked there for three years, leading workshops, training staff, creating videos, and writing manuals. The following is an account of a workshop on Sex and Power:

The participants included the City Manager, the Chief of Police, the Fire Chief, the Sheriff, department heads and staff. I divided the room into men on one side and women on the other, having an equal number of each. The men were told that they were a twenty-something, single mother glad to have this job in hard economic times. The women were told that they were a mid-level manager that had hired this attractive secretary who was wearing a tight, short skirt and crossing her legs, showing quite a bit of flesh; she was obviously available (or so it seemed). I told the women to pick one of the men, sit by him and talk him first into a date with the hope of getting him into bed. For this purpose, I told the women to rub their necks, stroke their thighs and talk about how turned on they were. The harassment took ten minutes; a distraught Sheriff Kolender ran up to me saying he did not know what to do. “That’s the point,” I said. “I am not your Jewish mother; get back there.”

The discussion that took place after everyone got back to their seats was exactly what I had hoped for. The men felt de-powered; if they refused to comply, they would most likely lose their jobs, yet they did not want to submit. The realization that this was not really about sex, but about power hit the men in their gut. The feelings of helplessness gave them a new understanding of the dynamics of harassment. We learn best when strong feelings are engaged, not with our heads where denial and rationalization can take place. What I did not expect was the women’s reaction: they did not realize how much fun it would be to see the men feel discombobulated.

The American Management Association hired me to do the same workshop at various venues—all with the same results. Although these workshops dealt with obvious sexual behaviors, there are subtle cues which are more difficult to deal with. For instance, take touch initiation: a professor can pat a student on the back to congratulate her on a well-written paper, but a student cannot pat a professor. The same holds true for a doctor and a patient: the doctor can put his arm around a patient to give comfort, but a patient cannot reciprocate with the doctor. And finally, a boss can show his appreciation with a touch on a secretary’s shoulder, but she cannot do the same to her boss. It is an issue only if there is a power differential. All of these gestures may by innocuous, but could be interpreted as inappropriate.

There is both intent and perception: the intent may be friendly or suggestive; the perception may also be either. The two don’t necessarily match, depending on previous experiences and one’s perception of similar situations. Some people are paranoid, while others are gullible. The paranoid people may be missing out on warm overtures; meanwhile the gullible people may be taken advantage of.

A realistic balance is feasible between the two considering current efforts at transparency and accountability in the work place and elsewhere. What can be meant as friendly can also be felt as patronizing by a susceptible person. Some people seem to be on the lookout for evil intent, while others like to give others the benefit of the doubt. When unsure of the meaning of gestures, wait for a follow-up. Both good and bad will continue and become obvious.

Being explicit about feeling uncomfortable in any given situation early in the game should prevent escalation. At the risk of being seen as overly sensitive and seeing harm where none is intended—even if ridiculed—most of us have a good sense of what is really going on and should act on our intuition. If our questioning angers the perpetrator, it is a sure indication that all was not meant in gest.

Hopefully we are living in a time of transition from accepting old norms of that’s how it is to current realities of let’s develop new honest dialogues between the sexes. The people responsible for making this happen I call the four p’s: the policy makers, the perpetrators, the plaintiffs and, in equal measure, the passive participants (those who see and yet do nothing).  We all benefit by raising awareness and becoming clear of our own intentions.

© Natasha Josefowitz. This article appeared initially in the La Jolla Village News. You may comment to [email protected]

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