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Shawn Vestal: The problem with men who harass, and the men who enable them, is not a lack of training

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 23, 2017, 12:33 p.m.

As a man, on behalf of men, speaking with the full power and authority of the patriarchy at my back, let me just say: We don’t need sexual harassment training.

None of us needs a seminar to learn not to swap a job offer for sex. None of us is just one bullet point shy of understanding he shouldn’t lock the door and start masturbating in front of a woman. No man requires a PowerPoint to get that he shouldn’t ask a subordinate to watch him take a shower or text you a nude picture of himself.

Not one of us needs to “learn” that a 50-something professor should not stick his uninvited tongue into the ear of a student … or that an editor should not plop a hand on the thigh of a young reporter … or that a member of Congress should not tell an employee they had a wet dream about them … or that a restaurant owner should not ask a chef what kind of porn they like to watch or … or … or….

It’s not about what men don’t know.

It’s about what men have known too well: That we can get away with it. That it will be excused, hidden, justified and rationalized, and no one will be called to account. This is as true for the unwanted advance as it is for forced physical assault, and the fact that this is changing has nothing whatsoever to do with training.

So much of the sexual harassment tsunami that’s been unleashed shows very well what this is about: Men knowing exactly where the line is drawn and relishing the authority to step over – and other men sustaining that authority by looking the other way. Recall the illustrative example of the moment: the Access Hollywood tape. A serial groper brags about getting away with it, while another man chuckles along.

Not one bit of it was because we didn’t know better. None of it was because we didn’t have the proper information. None of it came from a lack of training.

At the end of a year in which an army of brave, righteously angry women are forcing a long-overdue social reckoning, we have heard a lot of calls for more sexual harassment training.

At NBC, where Matt Lauer was fired for, among other things, giving a co-worker a sex toy as a gift, executives are implementing … more sexual harassment training.

At Fox News, which has doled out tens of millions to settle complaints, executives are implementing … more sexual harassment training.

In the House of Representatives, where taxpayer money has been used to hush up scandals, members are calling for … more sexual harassment training.

We’ll see this play out everywhere. The coming year promises to be a boom time for sexual harassment training.

But it won’t be all the new training that brings change.

It will be all the new consequences.

I don’t mean to dismiss all training. Organizations must be better about letting people know how to report misbehavior, clearly emphasizing what is not acceptable, making victims feel safe coming forward, and outlining the consequences for breaking the rules. And to the degree that it’s vital for victims to know their employers will protect them – rather than their harassers – such training is important.

But the rush to train arises from organizational butt-covering more than anything else. It is a way to inoculate against liability, to fly a flag of seeming to take the problem seriously, to stand at a podium and perform the appropriate attitudes.

Meanwhile, let’s remember that sexual harassment training has been commonplace for years and years. Workplaces have been marching employees through numbing, sometimes comically ineffective sexual harassment training even as the culture of sexual harassment thrived.

Was the problem too little training?

Of course not. And yet ineffectiveness is not the biggest problem with the call for training narrative. Worse is that it arises from attitudes that let men off the hook.

If we need to be trained not to do it, after all, it’s not really our fault.

This is one expression of the cozy cultural wrap- around that fosters sexual misconduct. The idea that, on some level, it’s just natural. Just good old masculinity.

In this view, men sorta can’t help themselves.

We’re just the innocent victims of our appetites.

We hear variations of this routinely from those who want to minimize or dismiss the #MeToo watershed. We sense it underlying the idea that men must now be extra careful about being alone in a room with women, because the temptation to grope might overpower us.

These confused minimizers ask: How can a man even know whether it’s OK to tell a co-worker she has great legs anymore? Will flirtation be criminalized in this crazy new world? Why can’t women just slap away the problem?

It’s as though men need a sexual harassment GPS system rather than a simple human conscience, and it’s just more of the same old shedding of responsibility. As is the idea that we must fix the problem through training.

Men don’t need to be taught to be better. I don’t mean there isn’t a lot of learning to be done, but it’s never been the case that the problem was a lack of knowledge.

We have known better, all along, especially those of us who were laughers, not gropers. We have known better and allowed ourselves to go along, to get along, to go to sleep, to be worse than we knew we should be. To snigger and laugh. To hold our tongues. To dismiss and forget. It should have been obvious that this was odious and unjust, that it was widespread and unacceptable.

It wasn’t training that we lacked.


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