A friend of mine in college was accused of sexual harassment. Let’s call him Mike (that’s not his real name). Mike was six foot three, with a lean well-defined muscular body. Athletic and fit without being bulky, like a runner or a swimmer. He had tanned skin, shoulder-length shaggy hair, and a boyish face that radiated innocence and charm. He constantly smelled of patchouli, and wrote poetry in a little notebook.
He was also hyper-sexual. He slept with a lot of women, and flirted with everyone. He flirted with teachers, the moms of the girls that he dated, and he even flirted with me. Mike almost exclusively slept with women, but when asked about his orientation he would say, with a wink and a smile, that labels “just don’t matter” and he enjoys sexual energy “no matter where it’s from.”
Sex was always bubbling under the surface when he was in the room. He was always making sexual jokes and sexual innuendos. Even the way that he sat could seem sexual: lounging around in baggy pants, with no underwear, his legs splayed wide open, a mischievous smile on his lips. Mike knew he was an attractive guy, and he loved attention, so spent a lot of time wearing as little as possible. Philosophically he was a nudist (“the naked body is natural, man!”), and he spent a lot of time walking around in public in nothing but his boxers. For him, this wasn’t specifically a sexual statement… except inasmuch as simply being alive was a sexual statement, for Mike.
Mike lived in a co-ed dorm. The building had four “wings”. It was a tower, with each floor laid out more or less like a plus sign: four hallways meeting at right angles in a center common area. Each hallway was designated for either men’s dorm rooms or women’s dorm rooms, but any given floor had hallways of both types. Each hallway had a bathroom, which was designated for the gender of hallway: in other words, the hallway containing rooms for male students had a men’s bathroom, and the hallway containing rooms for female students had a women’s bathroom.
If you happened to be visiting an opposite-sex friend in his or her room and you needed to use the toilet, you technically needed to go across the common area to a different hallway to find the right bathroom to use. But late at night this wasn’t enforced. The standard practice was to knock twice, listen for something like “Someone’s in here! Give me a moment!” and if no objection was heard, to just go in.
Mike’s side of the story: It was 2:00 am and Mike was in a bathroom in one of the women’s hallways. He was wearing nothing but boxers. Just as he was finishing up and leaving, a woman came into the bathroom. He didn’t know her specifically, but recognized her as a resident who lived on the floor. He was friendly and said hello; he chatted with her a little bit, and then continued on his way.
A week later, he was notified that he was under investigation for sexual harassment. According to the allegations, the woman felt he was being creepy and hyper-sexual, and was coming on to her. She felt cornered and uncomfortable. She also claimed he “flashed” her: specifically, that she was able to see his penis through the slit in his boxers. She believed Mike did this intentionally.
The year was 1992, and date rape was a serious hot-button issue on campuses. There had been a recent explosion of accusations of date rape in the media, and feminists had loudly taken up arms about the problem. Slogans and protests were the norm, and colleges reacted with politically correct defensiveness. Nobody wanted to be seen as “ignoring the problem” of college date rape. Then, as now, the attitude on liberal campuses was that the victim was always to be believed, no matter what. Because it was such a hot-button topic in the news, many colleges were eager to demonstrate that the faculty and administrators were totally on board with a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and assault.
So Mike went under investigation by a campus-assigned panel. It dragged out for months. He was not asked to testify; only the woman was asked questions. He became a pariah, as stories about him being accused of sexual harassment and/or assault (depending on how the story got told) traveled across the campus gossip network. One day Mike and I were sitting together on the steps of my house on the fraternity quad, and I asked him how things were going. He said he was probably going to be forced to move off-campus, and might drop out of school.
“That seems pretty severe,” I said. “How can they justify doing that do you?”
“She’s telling people I showed her my dick, which is totally not what happened!”
“What did happen?”
“I don’t know… boxers have that open slit in front, you know? I mean… I suppose its possible… the front might have just opened up, by accident, and she saw something. But it wasn’t on purpose! God… I wasn’t even flirting with her, we were just talking!”
I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what happened.
But I do know Mike. I know that what he calls “just talking” can feel like being under a heat lamp of sexual energy. He winks, he smiles, and he looks at you like he is imagining you naked and likes what he sees. He does this to everybody. He flirts with everybody, all the time, because he’s an attractive guy and he learned somewhere along the way that people like him more when he treats them like they are sexy. Of course, a woman who crosses paths with him in the bathroom has no way of knowing. She doesn’t know this is “just Mike being Mike.” To her, it must have felt very aggressive: tall athletic guy, late at night, wearing nothing but boxers, exuding sexuality.
There is another factor, as well. Although he denies it, I also wouldn’t put it past Mike to deliberately “accidentally” leave the fly of his boxers open, on the off chance that some girl would catch a glimpse, get turned on, and ask him back to her place as a result. To be perfectly blunt, that seems exactly how his mind would work. He constantly put himself on display. Is it outlandish to think that on some level he wanted people to catch a glimpse through his boxers? Of course not. It’s very plausible. On the other hand, it’s also plausible that he’s just a clumsy hippie fool that wasn’t even thinking about the fly of his boxers when he put them on. Sadly, both of these interpretations are very consistent with his personality.
What about the girl? Again, there are a lot of plausible theories. Mike’s sexual energy and brazenness was very off-putting to some young women on campus. I know this because I heard comments from many of them. There were some young women who may have been brought up in more sheltered or more subtle environs, and were not used to overt sexuality. There were women who were quite simply offended by Mike’s very existence: offended that he was both attractive and openly sexual, offended that he enjoyed casual sex, offended that he wasn’t ashamed of his body, offended that he had the audacity to dole out flirtation so indiscriminately. To some women, Mike was offensive simply because he was a brazenly sexual man.
Was the girl who accused Mike of harassment this type of woman? There’s no evidence of that. The theory that she might have been is insidious, because it can “ring true” in a certain way: we know that women like that exist, and we know that a woman like this would not hesitate to accuse Mike of sexual harassment given an opportunity. But there is simply no evidence that that is what is going on in this situation.
I think it is important to draw attention to this, because this interpretation of the “woman’s motives” is exactly the type of tale that “men’s rights” apologists cling to. They forever want to paint women as uptight and at fault. They want to make it the default assumption that women who accuse men of harassment are simply doing so out of prudery or anti-sex spite. So it’s important to bring up this “theory” and highlight it, in order to explain why it has to be dismissed. There is just no evidence that that is what is going on in this situation. It’s a theory some guys want to believe, but have no actual reason to.
On the other hand, we have to look at the context: it’s 2:00 am in the women’s bathroom. How does a normal prudent guy act in the situation? A normal prudent guy would think: “I’m in a woman’s bathroom, maybe I should be extra careful and respectful.” A normal prudent guy would think: “When it’s just me and her alone at 2:00 am, maybe I should give her some space and leave here alone.” A normal prudent guy would think: “Now is not the time to flirt with a stranger.”
But I know Mike, and he was not a normal prudent guy. He was a cad. He was a player. He was a free-love nudist hippie. And he flirted with everyone, all the time, and his biggest personality flaw was that he wasn’t bright enough to know when to stop.
Date rape is big in the news this year, just like it was in 1992. Unfortunately, nothing much has changed in the debate. There are still feminists who loudly proclaim that men accused of rape should always be presumed guilty, and the backlash among those in the media who worry about how false accusations might ruin men’s lives. Even some of the commentators are the same: Camille Paglia, for example, was a loud and forceful voice in the 1990’s speaking out against “date rape hysteria” and saying that overblown accusations of date rape detract from the real problems in our society, and sure enough she is still writing the same things today.
Part of the problem with this dialogue, both then and now, is that it sets up a false-choice scenario: either the woman is lying, or the man is a rapist and/or harasser.
Mike’s story shows that these aren’t the only two options. The reality is much more complex. Mike was a cad and a doofus and a flirt, and he may or may not have been aware that his fly was open. But I believe that Mike was not aggressively flirting, at least by his own standards. He was not trying to pick her up or get her into bed. He was not trying to manipulate her or impose some kind of intimidating “male gaze” upon her. By his standards, he wasn’t even being particularly sexual. He was just being his “normal self.” He thought he was being friendly. He probably thought he was putting her at ease.
But none of that excuses the fact that Mike was also being a moron. Dangerously so. It was 2:00 am, he was half naked, they were alone, and he should have known better. He should have behaved differently. Her feelings of fear for her safety were completely justified, even though Mike had no ill intent toward her. She had no way of knowing that.
So here you have the “unintentional sexual harasser.” When feminists say “rape victims should always be believed,” some men get defensive because they think the implication is that we should just assume that all me are lurking, evil malicious people who are out to victimize women. But that isn’t so. Mike was naive. Mike was innocent. Mike would never in a million years want to make anyone uncomfortable. In the sense that people usually think about it, in the sense of stereotypical personality types, Mike is not a “sexual harasser.”
But that doesn’t change the fact that on that unfortunate evening in 1992, he sexually harassed a woman, and ended up paying a price for it.