Roiphe defends risqué

Katie Roiphe
If only we were all sitting over coffee, after we'd read Katie Roiphe's OpEd piece, "In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risqué Remarks" in the New York Times (Sunday November 13. 2011.) 

I'd love to hear your stories, share mine.

Let's let Roiphe go first:

"In our effort to create an unhostile work environment, have we simply created an environment that is hostile in a different way? Is it preferable or more productive, is it fostering a more creative or vivid office culture, for everyone to vanish into Facebook and otherwise dabble online? Maybe it's better to live or work with colorful or inappropriate comments, with irreverence, wildness, incorrectness, ease."

She says, "The majority of women in the workplace are not tender creatures and are largely adept at dealing with all varieties of uncomfortable or hostile situations."

I've never been sexually harassed in the workplace; I know women who have experienced the range, from a lone comment to stalking. And by sexual harassment, I mean unwanted attention, usually verbal and sometimes physical.

We can't take sexuality out of the workplace. We can create and enforce policies that say certain behaviours will not be tolerated. Harassment depends on the harasser thinking no one will stop him or her

We need to deal with the bullies and idiots who think they can intimidate someone into unwanted activity. (And even if wanted, work is not the place to make your desire known.) I've worked in organizations where a person (usually a man, once, a woman) has lost his or her job for such behaviour.

But recently I heard a man compliment a colleague on her sweater, saying, "That blue matches your eyes perfectly", then follow, sincerely and immediately with, "Oh, I hope that was not inappropriate."

I recall the hundreds of risqué jokes I've been told at work. Humour reveals what confounds and disturbs, what we love, what we hate. There are jokes so funny they crack me up two decades later and others so blatantly full of hate and meanness that I had to say, in the moment, "That's not funny to me."
Riophe assumes that, in 2011, women at work need no support in this area. I disagree. At the same time, let's be clear about what harassment is, define the line we don't want crossed and not get bent out of shape about jokes or comments  that acknowledge we know about sex– and think about it fairly often, even during work hours.

RIP, Larry. Larry was an HR Vice President with whom I worked 30 years ago. His advice was, "Think first, 'Would I tell this joke to my mother'?" Apparently Larry's Mom was quite open-minded, because he told me some of the funnest racy jokes I've ever heard.

What's your story, your perspective, your take on Roiphe's thesis?


Frugal Scholar said…
Roiphe (I think) has made a career of this kind of faux-provocative statement. Isn't she the daughter of a famous early feminist? Then Katie wrote a book against feminism.--and got lot of publicity in part because of mom's influence. I have been harassed--sexually and in other ways--in college, grad school, and at all of the institutions of higher learning at which I've worked. I think this thrives in academia because it is a top down system of seniority, much like the military. Many, many hours of misery and--yes, fear.
Anonymous said…
At a job a few years after college I had to interact with a man that had a calendar with nude photos of women hanging at his desk. I HATED having to go talk to him. That calendar made me uncomfortable, but he was well liked and very senior compared to me. That was in the late 80's, long before Anita Hill. Now that would be considered a hostile environment.

I want to do my job and not have men's sexual thoughts interfere with that task. Men need to grow up and put sex aside in a business environment.
Susan B said…
I came up when what is now considered sexual harassment was SOP. I've never had the 'quid pro quo' (sleep with me or lose your job) experience, but have had unwanted 'shoulder massages' while at my desk, comments about my weight, and one boss who, though I knew he meant in good humor, used to call me "Miss Boobsley" (a play on my surname). "And how are the two of you today?" he'd ask, looking at my chest. ha ha. I think for so many women like me, Anita Hill was a turning point, where we realized it wasn't US, but that the behavior truly was inappropriate. I've told and enjoyed some risque jokes, but no longer do so at work. That's OK. It's more important to respect others' sensibilities and err on the side of caution. And I agree with Frugal, Roiphe (and Paglia too) have made a cottage industry from denouncing feminism. I agree that we're not "tender creatures" but saying that we should have to fend off what may offend or intimidate is like an abuser telling their victim, "you need to grow a thicker skin."
Duchesse said…
Frugal: I am sorry (and feel unfocused anger) that this happened to you. Academia is a system that is prone to this kind of power abuse.

Anonymous: Yecch. I am not in support, in any way of that kind of display. Men's sexual thoughts should not interfere with work- nor should women's. At work, we should put sexual activity aside, but we cannot put sexuality aside (the noticing, the thinking, the current we might feel.)

Pseu: No one tried the shoulder massage but one man put his hands on my waist and I said "Don't touch me." I would say he was an unwitting sexist- just thought it was no big deal. He looked socked and apologized immediately.

As for staring at boobs my favourite was a friend who said to her boss: "Stop it, Fred. They. don't. talk."

I'm guilty of telling a few jokes my mother would call "shady"- not really dirty but a little racy- at lunch or in private, with a colleague I knew would enjoy that.

Sexism, the idea that women can't hold certain positions or levels, has been a far bigger presence in my professional life than harassment, sexual or otherwise.
Anonymous said…
It's a very thought provoking comment, and not one I entirely disagree with. I have to give it more thought.
Anonymous said…
I've experienced overt and covert sexual harassment in the workplace, and simplistic comments like Roiphe's are infuriating. Find another way to get attention.
Susan Tiner said…
My 30 years in US high-tech software engineering world were almost 100% free of harassment, but I think certain departments, like human resources, and certain positions, like executive administrative assistant, weren't always harassment free. I wonder what the office environment is like these days. I've been out of that world almost 10 years.

I agree with Frugal Scholar and Pseu that Roiphe is off mark.
Susan B said…
I think she's also setting up a false dichotomy here: we can't be risqué in the workplace ergo people are spending more time on Facebook and being less productive. Is a workplace where people are telling dirty jokes around the water cooler inherently a more productive one?
laurieann said…
I must put off a very strong vibe of 'don't mess with me' because in all my years in the workplace, and I know that sexual harassment was taking place around me, I was never a victim of it. But I also have a rather formal and 'correct' initial persona so that probably has a great deal to do with it. My own personal guide to defining sexual harassment is that if a person would not want to tell their significant other what they're saying or doing then it's harassment. Also, if others are made uncomfortable by your actions, then it is also harassment; or at least something which needs to stop before the repetition becomes harassment.

All that said, I am very grateful that we now living in a time where sexual harassment is not acceptable workplace practice and there are consequences for it.
Vida Blu said…
My first experience with sexual harassment took place my first year out of college and into the work force - talk about a fish out of water. One of the senior partners was incessant on dwelling around my desk, which lead to banter that never sat well. Which led to asking if I knew my bra strap was showing, which led to touching it, which led me straight to HR to put an end to the non-sense.

Luckily that was my one and only encounter, and that was years ago. I think like most things, you grow and adept to survive in your enviroment, you wake up one day with the word "Don't" written across your forehead - Corporate Darwinism at its finest.
Duchesse said…
Anonymous: I think it's simplistic,too, yet I see a useful kernel within that simplistic argument. When the workplace is driven by fear: can't say this, can't say that-it transfers into being open about all kinds of things. I am certainly not advocating for remarks that offend, and I don't think she is either.

Not sure what constitutes "covert" sexual harassment- is that remarks made where there is no one to witness? I think of my colleague Sarah, who received suggestive phone calls from a man in her office- is it that sort of thing?

Susan Tiner: For me she is not so "off mark", as just young, hasn't seen much. We have!

I find most Gen X and Millenials very aware about what crosses the line, and eager to openly discuss what constitutes discrimination and bullying. They are the generations who will speak up when they encounter the crude, casual behaviours some commenters described.

In my last tech company there was a flagrant bully who would call other execs and use the most abusive and obscene language possible. (He was of course senior to them.) One of the execs told me how much this hurt him but maintained he could not do anything about it. (There was a hot line, policy, etc.) I found this man, in his late 40's, suprisingly caught in a powerless mind set, as badly as any woman I've known.

Pseu: Yes, I found the leap to Facebook illogical but on reflection, think she is saying people are so stifled at work they let out the behaviour somewhere, and that's Facebook.

I am with her though, re "let's not lose" the kind of irreverence that I saw at the last tech company I worked for, where the senior team got up at an all-hands meeting near Christmas to sing a rousing acapella version of "Walking Round in Women's Underwear", to the delight of the employees. I listened closely to the buzz, no one voiced anything other than amusement, but it was not very "PC".

laurieann: I've known women who were very proper, yet were harassed- you just can't tell who will be the target. I am glad you were not.

Vida Blu: I used to relish the harassers getting their comeuppance but unfortunately several I knew about just went to another city and I'm not sure changed their ways. Unfortunately they are Darwinian survivors too.
Anonymous said…
The very different stories described in these comments make it clear that the individual workplace--and body--one inhabits can have a lot to do with one's experience of sexual harassment. I know that my large-breasted friends seemed to endure too many off-color jokes and advances, while I, flat-chested and slight of stature, was treated more like a damsel than a dame. What IS it about men and breasts?

Because of such differences in individual experience and temperament, I would agree with those who say Roiphe's conclusions lack empathy. One tough-skinned woman may enjoy slugging it out with the boys while another colleague feels humiliated, even fearful, when exposed to harassing banter.

Still, something graceful is lost from everyday life when noticing how a color matches a coworker's eyes could ever be considered an affront, don't you think? Consideration and balance go a long way.

Duchesse said…
C.: In 1987, I read a piece in Spy magazine, "Busty Like Me", in which a small-breasted writer wore large, prosthetic breasts and recorded her experience, and yes, she noticed how much more attention (from looks to remarks) she drew. (The article is reprinted in the anthology "Spy: The Funny Years" but I cannot find the name of the writer.)

Among my large-breasted friends, every single one of them has stories of remarks and worse.
Duchesse said…
C. : Also wanted to say, a friend of mine is a sr. manager in a large global corporation. All managers were called to a meeting and told by their HR VP that they should not compliment anyone on their physical appearance, and I am not talking about body, even one's shirt, dress etc. "Strictly off limits" he was told.

When they asked why, they were told "It is traumatizing for some people, because of past incidents."
"Then", he said in the meeting, "are we getting rid of the dress code? Because if we can't compliment, we can't say anything- -positive OR negative, about appearance." The rest of the room applauded him.
Jade Wombat said…
Lynn Snowden is the author of "Busty Like Me."
Duchesse said…
Jade Wombat: Thank you from the bottom of my cups.
Well, when I was young and wasp-waisted with a 32dd rack (can't say "skinny" as I was always womanly) I received a never-ending series of guys grabbing my tits (one was on a bicycle - I was walking) bosses wanting to bed me - as a newcomer - and job ending when I turned them down, and creepy drunken advances from co-workers in a supposedly progressive environment. I think Katie is full of it.

Yes, I know that the environment in certain work subcultures in the English-speaking world, in particular the US, is averse to harmless risqué jokes and compliments (which never happened here in Québec) but the problem is that sexual harassment is a manifestation of power and control, not pleasant and normal flirtation and sexual attraction.

This blog has high standards of demeanor and politeness so I won't let loose with what I think of women such as Ms Roiphe, who is making her name by undermining women's hard struggles for equality and respect.

I love risqué jokes, by the way. That has never been an issue anywhere I've worked, nor have compliments about a pretty dress or eyes.
Anonymous said…
I'm with Frugal--this sort of harassment thrives in academe and can take truly insidious forms. Most disturbing to me is a kind of "sexual harassment by proxy." It's a practice of assigning junior women (non-tenure track) to team teach with abusive senior (tenured) faculty--then watching as the newbie struggles to maintain some kind of authority in the classroom. The most enthusiastic practitioner of that form of harassment I ever met was a woman administrator who used the system to punish newcomers (all women) to the department whom she regarded as "too popular" or "pushy."

So I'm always suspicious of the Katie Roiphes--there are harassers among the women too, and they are *much* harder to fight than the men.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: I've read the piece several times (and also, the many comments in the Times) and do not sense she is supporting any of the actions you describe going through. What she *is* in favour of is there in her title.

Experiences like yours are what gave rise to the policies and laws we now have in Canada- and the US, which is her frame of reference.

As many Times commenters point out, Roiphe is in a position of privilege and relative power that many women in the workplace do not enjoy, so may not realize women (and men) need the muscle of law and policy (and the resulting sanctions) to stop these behaviours.

The US is a more religious country; I have observed less acceptance of the risqué, especially in some organizations and geographic regions than in Ontario and Quebec.
Duchesse said…
Anon@9:27: Most harassment policies (and law, in the jurisdictions I'm aware of) hold the immediate manager responsible for harassment (sexual or otherwise) as well as the harasser. In other words, if a manager knows what's happening in her shop (via her own observation, or by a complaint) and does not stop it, she is also charged with the offense.

That is why most organizations (including educational institutions) have HR departments who handle these issues, and a variety of means to report them while maintaining confidentiality. Could this happen in the situation you describe? I hope so.
Rubi said…
I don't believe I was ever on the receiving end of sexual harassment, but having spent my career in ESL teaching and publishing, which is more skewed toward female staff, that's probably not surprising.

In my last corporate job, we were all asked to watch a web video course on sexual harassment in order to be in compliance. It was mortifying, and felt more like a band-aid than any sort of tool designed to train or empower.

But I'm all in favor of being both complimentary and a little naughty (as you well know), as long as you're aware of your audience and have a general idea of how your comments will be received.
Duchesse said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Duchesse said…
Rubi: (Too many typos in comment I deleted.)

A web course is a lousy vehicle for teaching any material that is values-oriented (harassment, diversity, conflict of interest). The course becomes at best an infomercial.

The custom-designed ones at least provide a concise summary of policy and information about how to report an incident.

Organizations resort to them because they are cheap, but to expect behaviour change from this type of education is ridiculous.
laurieann said…

I do agree with you that I've been very lucky. Either that or very dense. With regards to the risque, I enjoy a bit of risque banter; I really do. I was just very careful to keep it out of the work place or out of any earshot of folks I didn't know very well. It's also important to encourage women (and men) to speak up when they are being harassed.

I wish I could have lent some my work experiences to my mother who did put up with a good deal of harassment in the 1940's and 1950's.
Duchesse said…
laurieann: There is harassmant and also hazing, which is often non-sexual. When I knew women in the skilled trades (plumber, mechanics, etc. they would tell me of their tools being stolen or their work sabotaged. They learned to watch out for one another and to insist the union crack down on these nasty practices.

I once had a man tell me (at work) that I was taking a job from a man who needed it- and this was in the 1990s!
LPC said…
Direct and focused harassment is terrible. Too much ribaldry, hostile or inappropriate, is also difficult. But seems to me there ought to be a meet in the middle approach, a way in which we women can learn to enjoy and master general banter that includes the occasional risque comment. Not easy, but I don't like overly politically correct and over-reactive cries of sexist either. Lesser of two evils, I uppose.
Duchesse said…
LPC: I've noticed far more restraint among the Millenials than I did among men older than I when I entered the workforce 40 years ago. Or it might be that people don't tell me jokes any more, since I'm the age of their mother or even grandmother.
I'm with you. I've certainly enjoyed joking around at work, hearing some hilarious stuff, and I've also been harrassed, and also been told some quite hateful jokes. Intention has a lot to do with it.

Not sure what Roiphe's going for here. Maybe if you can't beat 'em, join 'em? It's easier to be on the side of the powerful, right? And potentially more profitable (for writers such as Roiphe). But it's cowardly and doesn't help us.
Alison said…
I'm 53 and have been in the work place since I was 15. I can't recall ever being a victim, if that's the right word, of harrassment of any kind. Perhaps I've been lucky or perhaps it did happen, but before it was defined as such.

No one should be made to feel uncomfortable in the work place, either by word or action. But at the same time, we've become so afraid of giving offense I can't help but wonder if that isn't a form of harrassement in itself.
Duchesse said…
ONEWEIRDWORLD: I think Roiphe is going for a little more tolerance before the "harassment" label is applied, *as far as* jokes and comments. However (and yours and others' comments have brought me to this) we need to be careful as harassers often begin the process by a few racy comments, checking to see if that is tolerated, then escalate. As someone who has not endured the behaviours many of the commenters describe, I may be a little too tolerant. Still, I believe there is a place for, say, a compliment on a new dress without it being sexually-oriented.

Ali: I think we need to be careful about language or we disempower the actual term. Harassment is "a course of conduct directed toward a person, that causes substantial emotional distress...and serves no legitimate purpose" (US Code, Title 18).

Therefore, not sharing a joke or risqué comment is not a form of harassment, but it may be censorship, a whole other kettle of fish.

In corporate life, most employees accept some form of limits to their perrsonal freedom. Some organizations are more constrained than others, and I like the less-constrained ones best. But I have seen enough harassment to beleive deeply in policy and law and its enforcement.

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