Let’s Deal with It! A Rational Response to Sexual Harassment in Secular Spheres

At one point in my career as an engineer in the aerospace industry, my duties included delivering training for, and ensuring compliance with, our organization’s sexual harassment policy. As you may imagine, the emotional responses from my all-male team varied widely: from resigned patience that this was yet another box to check, to pure indignation that they’d somehow have to stop being what they thought of as male to appease corporate management. Neither response fit my intentions for the course, and no one on my team walked away from that training feeling threatened as a male. Why? Because I focused on how the company’s policy is there to uphold the laws of the land, and on why those laws exist as they do.

The rationale is this: if companies and organizations want to grow and meet their objectives, they need to provide an environment that all participants, male and female, customer and employee, vendor and guest, find safe and non-threatening. Sounds easy, right? Well, what about that cute intern you always seem to find an excuse to ask a favor of? What about the associate who expresses an interest in you when you’re alone with him on the elevator? Do these scenarios constitute harassment, or just normal human interactions?

Here’s where the law helps us—in directly negotiating the issue in a work environment, but also indirectly informing how we approach behavior in other settings where adults come into contact with each other. It gives us tools to take an emotional topic like human interaction and put some logical filters on so we can make rational decisions about what behavior is appropriate, and what behavior isn’t. Notice I call out behavior, not attitudes. People can think or feel however they please about others but when those internal mental processes get externalized as harmful speech or actions it’s a problem.

As I understand it, most U.S. state laws and federal law classify two types of sexual harassment in a work setting: 1) Quid pro quo, and 2) a hostile work environment.

In cases of quid pro quo, something is offered or threatened in order to obtain sexual favors: a security guard promises not to revoke the parking permits of several female employees in exchange for dates; the boss’s niece offers to put in a good word in exchange for a broom-closet affair; or someone from another department whom you desire sexually offers to give his or her body to you if you help them get a promotion.

All of these behaviors are illegal, and for very good reasons. Perhaps foremost, no one wants to feel like an objectified piece of sexual meat. We all want to be valued as individuals for the contributions we make to help our organization as a whole get ahead, not just to see that our bosses receive sexual favors. Flipping that around, no one wants his or her legitimate success to be viewed as ill-gotten gains from having slept around with the right influential players. We all want to be rewarded fairly for our efforts, and we want others to recognize the validity of the rewards we reap.

Most of us can agree to this point. However, it’s the second type of harassment, the hostile work environment, which is a concept some find threatening in ways they can’t articulate. Partly that’s because no one seems to intuitively understand what a “hostile work environment” means. If I tell an off-color joke and everyone laughs, did I just create a hostile work environment? If I’ve got a picture of my husband in a tight bathing suit on my desk, is that creating a hostile work environment?

This is where the law got murky for me. My best understanding of a hostile work environment is one in which someone else feels threatened, intimidated, or offended, or in which a reasonable person should expect others to feel threatened, intimidated, or offended. So here we have the chilling fear of having to second-guess the thinness of our colleagues’ skins to avoid committing sexual harassment. In my own experience implementing a sexual harassment policy, I had to find some way to help my team understand that this wasn’t an attack on their personalities, and to validate their own stake in valuing a non-threatening workplace—men shouldn’t have to put up with feeling intimidated any more than women should. It hadn’t occurred to any of them that by agreeing to a common set of boundaries within our common context, they were buying into a system that would protect them as well.

So what does this have to do with humanism and other secular movements? Over the past year or so, a seething discussion of how to handle inappropriate behavior at secular conferences and events has erupted into a sudden series of changes in tone and policy among the major players. The topic of women feeling threatened sexually in the secular community or discriminated against because of their gender has caught fire in various online forums, including at websites like Skepchick.org and PZ Myers’ Pharyngula, and it was also discussed at the recent Women in Secularism Conference hosted by the Center for Inquiry in May. In a follow-up piece to her September 2011 Religion News Service dispatch, “Do Atheists Have a Sexism Problem?” Kimberly Winston recently asked, “Do Atheists Have a Sexual Harassment Problem?”

“Nontheists—both male and female—have shared stories of unwanted sexual attention at nontheist gatherings, including propositions for sex and unwelcome touching,” Winston wrote. “Chatter has ranged from calls for more women to attend nontheist events to personal attacks on prominent female skeptics for discussing harassment.”

The response to all this airing of dirty laundry has been overwhelming: nearly every major secular organization, including the American Humanist Association, has taken steps to implement policies against sexual harassment at conferences and events. While this may seem trivial, it’s not. Having strong anti-harassment employment policies does nothing to protect the organizers or participants at a conference from bad behavior by people not employed by the sponsor. However, just as in the workplace, we don’t implement anti-harassment policies for the sole sake of complying with the law, but also to create an environment that is conducive to the success of our business. The same is true of our secular community. If we want our movement to succeed, we must make sure that no one is left out (or abstains) solely because of a hostile environment. We just can’t afford the distractions from progress that the culture of harassment produces. As a movement, our viability depends on recognizing and resolving the problems of harassment within our own ranks: inappropriate quid pro quo offers, threats, and intimidation against those who voice unpopular opinions, sexual bullying (both online and at events), and ad hominem speech that’s directly disrespectful of a person’s gender identity.

It’s not necessarily about having a problem of sexual harassment, either. Any movement or group can discover a problem exists. The merit or fault comes with how that problem is handled. Instead of covering up these problems and letting them fester, the doors of debate have now been blown wide open, allowing a rational solution to the problem to emerge.

As with most complex problems, there is more than one valid viewpoint. On one hand, we certainly want to be as welcoming as possible to as diverse a group as possible. We also want to make sure that when anyone feels threatened, we step up and make sure that the appropriate actions are taken to ensure fair outcomes. That said, a little realism must temper our expectations: conference organizers can’t be everywhere at once, and we don’t want such a chilling atmosphere that normal social interactions are awkward and stunted. When we go anywhere else where there are lots of people mingling—a concert or a cruise, for example—we go with an expectation to look after our own safety. We watch our kids. We keep a hand on our purses. We make sure we’re sober when it’s time to drive home. We also expect that if someone else there crosses our personal boundaries—cops a feel while we’re waiting in line, for example—we will hold that person accountable. If the violation is egregious, we expect prompt and effective intervention by the venue’s organizers and, if needed, law enforcement. If, on the other hand, what a person perceives to be an inappropriate sexual innuendo is just a really clumsy attempt at flirting, we need to be honest enough with ourselves and each other to (a) call the clumsy flirter out on why their remark is so offensive, and then (b) let it go. It’s only when the offender can’t let it go that any kind of anti-harassment intervention by the conference organizers would be needed or even appropriate.

In other words, a sexual harassment policy for a convention will never be a silver bullet that prevents harassment from ever taking place. Rather, in its ideal form it would provide the resources for victims to seek redress, and would put potential offenders on notice that inappropriate behavior won’t be tolerated in our circles.

Like it or not, sexual harassment exists in our larger culture, so it’s not surprising to find behavior so pervasive finding its way into secular events (even those that espouse enlightened thinking, progressive values, and reason-based policies). While different organizations are approaching issues of sexism and sexual harassment from their own perspectives, there isn’t a single one still sitting in the shadows of denial. That, if nothing else, gives me confidence that this is a problem with a solution.