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Thin Red Line: Flirting v Harassment

Photo by Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York | CC BY 2.0

The New Yorker 
just dropped the dime on NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, reporting that four women have accused him of sexual and physical abuse.  Two of the women, Michelle Manning Barish and Tanya Selvaratnam, publicly accused the prominent “progressive” of repeatedly hitting them, often after drinking, frequently in bed and never with their consent.

Schneiderman, who led a lawsuit against Harvey Weinstein and supported “#MeToo!,” said, “In the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity. I have not assaulted anyone. I have never engaged in nonconsensual sex, which is a line I would not cross.”  In the wake of The New Yorker’s revelations, Schneiderman resigned.

This follows the scandal involving Tom Brokaw, the former anchor of NBC’s Nightly News, and a former NBC correspondent, Linda Vester. In an interview with The Washington Post and Variety, Vester reported:

We were in the Denver bureau, and there was a conference room. I’m standing there, and Tom Brokaw enters through the door and grabs me from behind and proceeds to tickle me up and down my waist. I jumped a foot and I looked at a guy who was the senior editor of Nightly, and his jaw was hanging open.

Nobody acted like anything wrong was happening, but I was humiliated. I didn’t know Brokaw other than to say hello in the hall. He was the most powerful man at the network, and I was the most junior person, reporting for an entirely different show. It was really out of the blue.

In addition, a second woman, an unnamed former NBC News production assistant, claimed that Brokaw made unwanted advances to her.

In a strongly worded rebuttal, Brokaw insisted, “I am angry, hurt and unmoored from what I thought would be the final passage of my life and career, a mix of written and broadcast journalism, philanthropy and participation in environmental and social causes that have always given extra meaning to my life.” He added:

Linda Vester was given the run of the Washington Post and Variety to vent her grievances, to complain that I tickled her without permission (you read that right), that I invaded her hotel room, accepted an invitation to her apartment under false pretenses and in general was given a free hand to try to destroy all that I have achieved with my family, my NBC career, my writing and my citizenship.

According to news reports, Vester’s story was confirmed to Variety by her journal entries from the period and corroborated by two friends whom she had confided in at the time. Brokaw has never before been publicly accused of sexual harassment and has been married to Meredith Auld since 1962.

The alleged events involving Vester and Brokaw took place during the 1990s and now, decades later, have become a war of words, of he-said/she-said accusations and counterclaims.

Ironically, Vester’s accusation came at the same time that legendary TV entertainer Bill Cosby was convicted on three sexual assault charges originally brought by Andrea Constand in 2004; dozens of other women had accused him of similar crimes. Much has changed since Cosby’s first trial, which took place in June 2017,ended in a mistrial.

On October 5, 2017, the New York Times broke the story of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged abuse of female actors and movie professionals, including actresses Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd. Over the following days, weeks and months, more women came forward with stories of sexual abuse by not only Weinstein, but numerous other male entertainment industry bigwigs along with other men in politics, business and the arts. By the end of October, USA Today published a list of 85 men so accused.

A decade before Weinstein’s outing, the social activist Tarana Burke introduced the concept “#MeToo” as part of her work building solidarity among young survivors of sexual harassment and assault. Timemagazine signified the importance of the #MeToo movement and the female actors, and others, who came out against sexual harassment by identifying them as the Person of the Year, “the Silence Breakers.” It noted that in the days following Weinstein’s outing, “versions of it [#MeToo] swept through 85 countries, from India, where the struggle against harassment and assault had already become a national debate in recent years, to the Middle East, Asia and parts in between.”

Weinstein’s outing and Cosby’s conviction, like accused harassers cited in the USA Today story, are based on a social relation between two unequal people, of an unequal power structure. Many involve a boss or celebrity figure and often a young or less-experienced employee, most often a female. Such incidents, however horrendous, are only the most obvious forms of sexual abuse and/or harassment taking place. Every industry, well beyond the glamour sectors, is rife with sexual exploitation. A woman in construction, in the military or on a local police force may suffer the same abuse as a garment worker or farm laborer. Many men don’t want to give up male privilege.

More challenging are issues involving sexual abuse or harassment that take place at the everyday level in which the individuals involved are relatively equal in terms of social power. Physical power is another factor. These incidents often involve the personal interchanges that take place at a workplace, a frat party or a local bistro.

There is a thin red line separating flirting and harassment, of mutual attraction and abuse. For some women a simple comment from a male co-worker like, “You look good today,” can be experienced in any number of ways – as a complement with no attendant significance, a form of flirting and/or a violation of her personal space. The challenge for the woman is saying “Yes” or “No!” – and dealing with the consequences. The woman must deduce the ostensible motivation of the comment; and the male needs to be able to accept rejection of his gesture, whether it was well-intentioned or not.

The issue of male sexual abuse of women has generated considerable media attention and public debate. Feminists have been very active on college campuses protesting male harassment. The writings of Northwestern University’s Laura Kipnis, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, and the American Enterprise Institute’s Christina Hoff Sommers’ The War Against Boysand Who Stole Feminism? suggest the ideological divide.

In a recent CounterPunch article, “’MeToo’ and the Liberation of Sex,” Richard Schuberth argues, “’#MeToo’ has torn the liberal mask from the face of a profoundly patriarchal system.” He draws attention to what is at issue:

The alarming inability to distinguish sexual trespass from pleasurable seduction doesn’t stem solely from the age-old, never to be resolved ambivalence between desire, allure, and coyness but from a sexuality coded by the masculine which prevents both male and female from getting what they really want.

He notes, “Gender inequality is a means for the narcissist male to shore up his tottering ego and compensate his profoundly existential impotence through sexist power and the denigration of women.”

Adding a wrinkle to Schuberth’s observation, Allison Benedikt challenges much of the current debate. “When I was 23 years old,” she writes, “my boss would look down the gap at the waistband of my jeans when he walked past my desk. I was an entry-level fact-checker at my first magazine job, and he was an older and more powerful editor. My career, at the time, was in his hands.” She then goes on to recall:

Once, when we had finished working on a story together, he suggested we get a drink to celebrate. It was a Friday night, and I remember feeling extremely nervous as we sat across from each other in a dark bar. He was flirting with me, I could tell. The next weekend, he asked me out again. A few days later, he kissed me on the steps of the West 4th subway station without first getting my consent. We’ve now been happily married for 14 years and have three children.

She then argues: “It is completely within the norm of human exploratory romantic behavior for people to take steps—sometimes physical steps—to see if the other person reciprocates their feelings. It is OK to flirt with a person who you aren’t sure wants to be flirted with. It is OK to not be 100 percent great at reading signals. It is even OK to be grossed out by someone’s advances, as long as those advances stop once you make clear you aren’t into it.” She adds, “There are predators and harassers, even more of them than I thought, and there are some lines that are simple to draw, even if we haven’t been enforcing them until now. But there has to be room for a relationship like mine to happen. “

One of the more troublesome “lines” involving a very different–and more threatening–approach involves males associated with the so-called online world of “incels,” involuntary celibates. In late April, Alek Minassian, a 25-year-old man, was accused of plowing a van into a crowded Toronto sidewalk that left 10 dead and 13 seriously injured. On his Facebook post, he proclaimed: “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!” Who was Rodger?

In May 2014, Rodger was a lonely, troubled 22-year-old who killed six people (including his three roommates) and wounded 14 others near the campus of UC Santa Barbara, in Isla Vista, CA. He then killed himself. He saw himself as a “supreme gentleman” who couldn’t get a date, let alone end his virginity. He went online to rage about attractive women who, according to The Cut, “he believed had unfairly rejected him and about men who were more successful at dating.” (George Sodini, 48, may have been the first incel killer; in 2009, he walked into a Colliar, PA, gym and killed three women and wounded nine others before shooting himself.)

These male incels are part of a peripheral online community known as pick-up artists (PUA), sexually frustrated men who blame women for their misery – and virginity – and often advocate for violence against them. According to Vice, PUA is “a manipulative craft largely developed by Neil Strauss’s The Game, a book that provides its readers with techniques like ‘negging,’ which teach men to insult women in order to charm them into bed.” Rodger’s supporters have appeared on 4chan and Reddit, and celebrate May 23rd as “Saint Elliot Day,” the anniversary of his shooting spree.

These are but two–very different–examples about how the issue of sexual engagement at the everyday level is playing out. With the exception of incelkilling-sprees, the everyday nature of such encounters gains little media attention. However, it’s what most people live with.

Over the last half-century, sex has morphed from a moral issue, “sin,” to a legal concern, “consent.” Among consenting adults and age-appropriate youths, anything goes, including commercial sex. Consent assumes that both (all participants) are age-appropriate and rational, that those involved are not being manipulated, coerced, seduced or falsely propositioned. However, each of these concepts is very elastic and, in the passion of the moment, can be misunderstood. Today’s only true sex crime is the violation of consent, whether abuse, rape, pedophilia, child porn, sex trafficking or lust murder.

The rise of #MeToo and the outing of male celebrities for sexual abuse has unleashed a serious debate festering for decades. In the 1970s, Phyllis Schafly and other conservative feminists opposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and launched the war against Roe v. Wade (1973). In the 1980s, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnonproposed an anti-pornography civil rights law at public hearings in Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Boston. In 1984, they got the ordinance adopted by the Indianapolis city council, but the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional, a restriction of the right of free assembly. In 1991, the nation watched Anita Hill recount the sexual harassment she endured from Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. And then there was the three-year affair (1995-1997) between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky that only became public in 1998.

Now, two decades later, these touchstones in the development of the women’s–but especially feminist–movement are bearing unanticipated fruit. They bespeak a slow, but likely inevitable, shift in gender politics. Both the #MeToo–and the broader anti-sexual-harassment–movements will likely have more consequences as time plays out. Patriarchy, like racism, runs deep in the structure of American society and in the lives of all Americans. But it can be challenged and, hopefully, ended.

More articles by:

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out

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