I think something that is missing in recent conversations about sexual harassment is the fact that this is part of a larger phenomena in which those with power can genuinely believe that their harassing behavior is ‘just good fun’ and that their victim doesn’t really mind.
It is the same thing we see when bullies (of either sex) tease their victims or when more popular friends denigrate the social failings of their less popular friends. Indeed, we see this in any number of contexts.
I think its important to understand this for a couple of reasons. First, if we want to actually fix the problem we need to understand that this isn’t just a matter of being a good person. Unless good people actively watch for this phenomena it seems they are psychologically vulnerable to thinking they are behaving appropriately despite causing real pain.
It’s also important because we need to recognize this kind of bullying and mean treatment causes pain regardless of whether it has sexual overtones. There are extra concerns when sexual issues are thrown into the mix but the basic problem remains the same. Also, by recognizing it as part of a larger non-gender specific problem helps remove the distracting gender war aspect from the problem and let people of both genders focus on what makes things better rather than how to demonize and blame the other sex.
Also, personally I’d love to know what underlies this tendency. Despite being someone who has been very much the victim of this kind of behavior its disgustingly easy to slip into it myself without noticing. Its like there is a kind of intoxication of social status that inclines one to ignore the feelings and concerns of those with less status than ourselves.
But if all the recent social changes accomplish is to raise the relative social status of women as a group without engaging in systematic change to make this behavior less common all we will achieve in the long run is changing who is treated badly rather than actually making the world a substantially better place….and the next group on the bottom may not have the kind of internal cohesion and social power to bring the issue to public attention again.