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Why should she get over it? Naomi Wolf vs sexual harassment

By Leanne McRae - posted Tuesday, 23 March 2004

Naomi Wolf has committed the worst academic crime. She has claimed she was sexually harassed by a well-respected older male scholar (who has denied the event). Over the past few weeks, the press has been filled with headlines like “Crying Wolf” and “Naomi Wolf as victim? Oh, give me a break”. There have been articles sneering at her "victimhood" telling her (and other women) to "get over it". After all, a hand on the thigh is nothing to get upset about. Yet, as any woman (or man) who has ever been sexually harassed knows, – it isn’t about the hand or the physical contact – it is about how it makes you feel. Wolf describes being "cornered" and stood over by her harasser, and being made to feel worthless when she rebuked his advances. This is where the real rub (so to speak) lies. Sexual harassment is more than the act. It is the tone, the feeling and the consequences of that event that wreak the most havoc on its victims.

Among the worst-kept secrets on any university campus involves which lecturers have been rumoured to cavort with their students. Some lecturers are notorious for it. The men (there are women who harass, but in Wolf’s case in example, and in the majority, it is men harassing women) who engage in this action have a "robust reputation" as if it is just schoolboy charm misunderstood by the women under their care. We continue to excuse this behaviour, by dismissing the brush of the hand, the close personal contact as either just a bit sleazy, or no big deal. Women are not victims and should be assertive enough to control this event and how it makes them feel – or so the thinking goes. But when we place the blame and the onus on the victim for being victimised, what is the responsibility of the harasser? At what point do we, as a culture, demand that this behaviour end? When we tell women to get over it, we absolve men of any responsibility to change their behaviour.

Women have dealt with sexual harassment through a variety of means. There is no textbook to guide us through these uncomfortable and ambiguous situations. Virginia Trioli has astutely demonstrated that women often rely on subtle signals to avoid an unprofessional or embarrassing scene in the workplace.


Communication between socialised people often consists of the sort of messages that can’t be enunciated, that can’t be explained in a flowing narrative. But some people just don’t get it. When you speak to women about such events [sexual harassment] in the workplace, it’s astonishing how many of us try so hard to make a man’s gracious retreat from the situation as easy as possible.

Women should be clear about their feelings and intentions. But with many women trained their entire lives to be compliant and conducive to other people, it can be difficult to articulate their anxiety. Women can simply lack the literacy to indicate their displeasure. Men either do not have to or do not want to understand these moments. As a result, sexual harassment is tinged with mixed-messages, misread signals and uncomfortable silences.

What has disturbed me about the dialogue surrounding Wolf’s claims is the readiness of journalists, feminists and other academics to dismiss her. They have told her to "grow up", to "stop whining", and move on. Yet, she raises serious concerns. Whatever tone she coats her commentary, sexual harassment in universities remains rife. Time may have passed since this alleged incident, but we are still engaging in the same victimising and blame game as always. We have not learnt how to handle sexual harassment socially, politically or legally, which demonstrates its continued destructive discourse within workplace and university contexts. We do not yet have the strategies to curb this behaviour and the attitudes that permit it. If we can learn to animate a more considered discussion, then we might stand a chance of developing real changes to attitudes, policies and behaviours.

What is spotlighted by Wolf’s example is that sexual harassment is never about sex, it is about power – and this is never clear-cut. For example, some commentators have been startled (and therefore dismissive) that a young and attractive woman could be enamoured by an aging overweight man. Yet, our culture is inundated by images and examples of beautiful women attracted to older, but more powerful men. It is a cultural cliché – the middle aged, overweight and ugly heterosexual man that can still attract the ladies. These men offer women social mobility they do not enjoy on their own terms – which is perhaps their attraction. Understanding the more nuanced engagements between gender, power and politics in the workplace and in the university can unpick the problems embedded in the current dialogue.

If we take Wolf (whatever her intentions, agenda or interests may be) out of the equation, lecturers have a responsibility to maintain a duty of care towards their students. They should know better. They should behave better. In an age when men are crying "crisis" and attempting to make sense of their place and role in a society, we should be interrogating this attitude more closely – that it is permissible for men to approach women in this way, and how a man in a position of power should behave. When we dismiss harassment and place the blame on the women for being victims, we close down debate – a debate that can tell us more about men than it can currently tell us about women.

Men are often allowed (by social consensus) to get away with this destructive behaviour – this must stop. Women do have a role to play in this by learning to draw clearer boundaries and limits as to what they will put up with, but mostly it involves men in positions of power standing up and taking responsibility. While men continue to behave as Wolf claims and university institutions covertly permit it, we will be forever stuck in the cycle of victim blaming rather than productive and proactive social change.

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About the Author

Leanne McRae is the senior researcher and Creative Industrial Matrix Convenor for the Popular Culture Collective

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