t seems we have launched into a full-blown epidemic of sexual misconduct in the short time since the Harvey Weinstein allegations surfaced. Roy Moore, Al Franken, and Charlie Rose are only a few of the individuals who have been outed as allegedly treating women inappropriately in the last several decades.
Hearing these accounts is alarming. No woman wants to be treated in such a way by a member of the opposite sex.
At the same time, however, it’s a bit troublesome to see how these unfortunate circumstances are creating a wall between the sexes. In a sense, both seem to have become so guarded that they are no longer able to interact with one another in a civil, mannerly fashion.
This nagging thought came into sharper focus with a recent chart produced by The Economist. Surveying five different countries, respondents were asked if they viewed certain conduct as sexual harassment.
Some examples (such as requesting a sexual favor) were obviously inappropriate, and were classified as such across all countries.
The question that I found most interesting, however, is the one which asked if a comment on a woman’s attractiveness can be classified as sexual harassment. Although many respondents gave a negative answer, those answering in the U.S. were a different matter. Roughly a third of younger individuals thought such treatment can be classified as sexual harassment.
I find that a little bit alarming. Have we intensified the fight against sexual harassment to such an extent that men can no longer feel free to offer a polite, kind compliment to women on a new dress, a certain hairstyle, or a mannerism or ability which is admirable? Have we encouraged women to be on guard against men to such an extent that we set even our little girls on edge against a hug from relatives at holiday gatherings? And if so, does it not seem that our efforts to create a less toxic environment for women may actually be escalating that toxicity for both sexes?
In a recent discussion with Intellectual Takeout, feminist Christina Hoff Sommers addressed this issue. She noted:
“You see we have this war of the sexes and men behaving abominably. But when you had manners it's easier to cultivate goodness through manners than through law. When you do law, you can't have a policeman there every minute making sure you're doing the right thing. But if people internalize ... showing a certain respect to one another and deference…
There may be a reason why in a civilized society we might want to develop some sort of code of gallantry and showing respect. And I know in the ’70s as a feminist I thought all of these things were demeaning and condescending to women, and oh, we're not going to have codes of gallantry! But maybe we were too hasty to throw that out and that there is value in this sort of decorum between the sexes.
If we want civility to return in the dealings between men and women, do we first have to stop labeling good, gentlemanly manners as sexism which must be stamped out?
Annie Holmquist is editor of Intellectual Takeout, an online magazine and sister publication of Chronicles.