A (Sort Of) Defense Of Jerks

The public reaction to allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. and so many others is welcome and long overdue. The public revulsion to the disclosures, the almost daily revelations about other prominent figures, and especially the #metoo movement that encouraged women to add their own experiences of harassment to the public discourse have caused a lot of men to review their past behaviors, and to consider whether and when they may have gone over the line.

That said, if this particular moment in time is going to usher in a lasting, positive change to both private behaviors and public reactions to those behaviors, it is important that we recognize that a line exists and agree about where it should be drawn. As Ruth Marcus cautioned, in a column for the Washington Post, having under-reacted for so long, we need to take care not to over-react now.

It isn’t really over-reaction that is the danger; we clearly need to act–firmly and punitively–when we are faced with evidence of sexual harassment or worse. The danger lies in neglecting to make important distinctions. We are really dealing with three categories of (mostly male) conduct: people who are engaging in criminal behaviors, people who are abusing positions of power, and still others who are simply behaving like jerks.

Some of the allegations against Roy Moore fall in the first category.  His reported encounter with the 14-year-old is textbook molestation. His other behaviors probably rose to the level of stalking. Those actions aren’t simply wrong, they’re illegal. Similarly, the unwelcome touching Donald Trump bragged about on that notorious tape are sexual assault, not “locker room talk.” (Unfortunately, when you’re a “star”–excuse me while I puke–“letting you” do it means they don’t bring charges.)

Sexual harassment occurs when a person in a position of power or authority abuses that power in order to get some sort of sexual satisfaction. The satisfaction may “just” be bullying– creating what lawyers call a hostile workplace, and taking some sort of sick enjoyment from making a subordinate uncomfortable. (I recall a case where several male employees constantly posted raunchy posters and told foul jokes in order to torment the lone embarrassed female employee.) More often, harassment is a demand for a sexual quid pro quo–if you want that raise, that promotion, that film role, here’s what you need to do…The key to sexual harassment is disparity of power. If the person acting inappropriately is in a position to help or harm the object of his advances, the line is definitely crossed.

That leaves us with “jerk” behavior. This is the category where changing cultural norms really do play a part. When I was the sole female partner in a small law firm in the early 1980s,  two of my male partners occasionally engaged in “joking around” that would undoubtedly be considered offensive today. But we were peers, we exercised equal authority, and I’m confident that had I been offended, they would have apologized and stopped. The culture at the time encouraged verbal banter that would be frowned upon today. (Emphasis on verbal.)

Today, in most places, the culture has changed. As women have participated in the workforce and civic life in greater numbers, we’ve stopped making excuses for jerk behaviors–verbal or physical– that “gross out” or diminish the women who experience them. This post is certainly not intended to defend jerks who engage in boorish, sexist conduct.

What I am defending is the importance of distinguishing between categories of transgression.

There are reasons to be careful before equating jerk behavior with rape, or with Harvey Weinstein masturbating in front of unwilling women. There is a significant difference between Roy Moore asking a 14-year-old to touch his erect penis, or our reality “star” President grabbing a woman’s private parts, and an unwanted pat on the butt from someone  you can call out loudly and publicly without fear of repercussion.

I repeat: none of these behaviors are acceptable. A “good old boy” culture that permits or encourages any of these kinds of conduct needs to be changed–and it is, finally, being changed. But if we fail to distinguish between the boorish and the unforgivable, if we fail to calibrate the sanctions to the gravity of the offense, we risk trivializing the meaning of inexcusable.


  1. There is also reason, regardless of how sympathetic a claim may be, to evaluate the evidence. Not everyone who claims to be a victim has in fact been victimized. See, e.g, Emmett Till, or the McMartin Preschool.

  2. I am so glad that this behavior by men in positions of power is finally out in the open and being discussed. Hopefully, this dialogue will put men everywhere on notice that they can and will be exposed and punished for abusing women.

    In my younger days I was perhaps more bold than most women when it came to sexual harrassment. When men boldly made advances towards me I had the habit of calling them out very loudly in a public area so that the other employees knew exactly what happened. It was my way of putting them in their place and publicly shaming them for their unwanted attacks. I have always dressed conservatively, so there was never any invitation on my part in any way.

    It was always fun to watch their egos visibly shrink as they slithered away, never to again put me in an uncomfortable place because I made it clear that I would not tolerate that kind of behavior.

  3. That “good old boy” behavior began for most in their teen years; when testosterone was beginning to rear “it’s ugly head” (pun definitely intended) and was mistaken for urges they believed were beyond their control and they had every right to act on. Sex education, denied in schools due to the misinterpretation by parents that their children would be taught “how to”, when it was meant to teach us about our bodies and the responsibility of boys to understand that “no” meant “no” and the right of girls to say “NO” and end the situation without argument. But; that is just one old woman’s opinion who had “no” ignored and grew up in the age when we were subjected to all-powerful males on all levels, we are, or should be, more enlightened today and should have more power. A line from “All In The Family” when Gloria was trying to explain the meaning of menopause to Edith her reply fits here. “When I was a young girl I didn’t know everything every young girl should know. Now I’m an old woman and don’t know everything every old woman should know.” A wise friend, a man and former teacher in the IPS system, told me that sex education should be taught in schools because most parents know little beyond the “how to”, have puritanical views of sex and are too uncomfortable regarding anything about sex to be teaching anyone.

    There is a difference between Donald Trump and Roy Moore and their years of predatory attacks on girls and women and the poor choice and tasteless actions of Senator Al Franken. There is also a world of difference in the reaction to these accusations from these men. Senator Franken immediately stepped out front to admit his poor judgement and took responsibility for his actions; he also immediately asked for an ethics investigation of himself. The obviously posed picture and dramatic reading given by Sen. Franken’s accuser is vastly different than the demeanor of those who have accused Trump and Moore. I’m waiting to see if the second Senator Franken accuser can be validated; I believe he scares the Republican party due to his ability to question those such as Sessions and expose them for the liars they are.

    This is being acted out on the political stage but sexual harassment, abuse and these accusations have never been a political issue till they became a weapon in the hands of the most powerful in the country today. None of these actions is acceptable, nor should they be; but let’s not dump them all into the same category without investigation.

  4. “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything….”

    When Trump’s words were broadcast I mistakenly thought that it was just him. Not those good guys like Charlie Rose or Al Franken. Certainly not so many other powerful men. Despite spending my career in a male dominated field (construction) I experienced none of the harassment and molestation so many women are now reporting. Perhaps it was the management at the top who set the high standards for all that allowed me to succeed.

    As I watch this exposure of the “let’s not talk about it” behavior of so many powerful men, and the endless list of women telling all, I am thankful that this topic is getting the coverage it deserves. Maybe we will all learn more about our own sexuality, and in doing so clearly draw the lines that will allow men and women to work together in a security for all.

  5. When I read this crap every day it makes me even that more thankful to my parents in regard to how they raised myself and my siblings. Luckily for us, they raised as to be respectful of all people and to be polite as well. Maybe the fact that my Dad at one time ran the sex crimes unit in the Homicide Division of the Indianapolis Police Department drove the point home a little bit but it will really wasn’t needed. All of this is just appalling and it is really sad that people that you respect, like Charlie Rose as an example, would engage in such behavior and think that they were fine in doing it and that they had enablers on hand as smooth it out for them as they did it. That of course, was no real consolation for those that they abused.

    I saw a lot of this as well when I was in the Navy 40 some years ago and while I have lots of examples of how to act that I learned back then that have served me well all my life I also had numerous examples of how not to act that are stuck with me as well. While, obviously, this has gone on since Neanderthals roamed the earth it doesn’t mean that we still have to act like Neanderthals. Base conduct like this should never be acceptable but when those that we would normally look up to, such as sports figures, media types, movie stars, and other celebrities engage in such conduct how on earth do we go about improving our society and improving ourselves in the process? Virtually every one that would traditionally be a role model has debased themselves through their reprehensible conduct.

    I’m left with just wondering what next culture destroying revelation will be dropped in our laps next? With Russians sympathizers running the White House, a Congress that wants to rob the middle class blind to feed the rich with even more money, what will come next is beyond me. All of it though, further denigrates our culture and our country. With 24/7 media coverage everyone worldwide knows how hollowed out the American dream is quickly becoming from nearly every vantage point.

    Maybe they will all have mercy on us and help us to save ourselves but I doubt it.

  6. Running housing not-for-profits in the late 80’s – early 90’s, there was a nearly omnipresent banter of sexual innuendo. When the Anita Hill concerns were raised, I was shocked and closely examined my behaviors for similarities. I found boorish behavior (no hands, just stupidity). Thank God for Anita Hill and others like her! I could/should have done more to assure such behavior was not tolerated among my male subordinates. What passed for ‘good, clean fun’ was neither good, clean nor fun(ny).

  7. I’m glad to see your blog today reflect Ruth Marcus’s column. More women need to speak out about the differences in what is being reported. I have heard too many people speaking about “zero tolerance” in the past week. Zero tolerance policies are just stupid. If we leave no room for error in our world, we won’t have anyone doing anything. We are, after all, human beings with all the faults and foibles that go with it.

    What Roy Moore allegedly did to a 14 and a 16 year old was criminal. What he allegedly did to the woman in his office was stupid. Some of what Charlie Rose alledgedly did was obscene, but walking naked in your own home, even in front of others, is not criminal. Let’s measure our response to this before it goes way too far.

  8. I have been subjected to sexual harassment and abuse in it’s many forms in my personal life and while working in City government and I know the difference between criminal behavior, actual harassment and stupid decisions. So I say again; “…let’s not dump them all into the same category without investigation.”

    Tom; your mention of the Navy brought back a long ago memory about my brother; it has popped into my mind recently with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” faction vs. Trump’s wanting to rid the military of any and all who don’t profess his sexual persuasion…he doesn’t mention his own known criminal actions. My father was laying near death when my mother contacted the Navy to request an emergency leave for my brother; she spoke with an officer who informed her my brother was in the brig awaiting an “Undesirable Discharge”. His reason; “my brother’s drinking and profanity was an embarrassment to the United States Navy”. Sorry; Tom, but how is that possible?

    Butch had worked the emergency crew on the airfield at the Navy base in Maryland. A plane crashed and caught fire; Butch didn’t hesitate rushing into the burning plane, seeing the pilot was dead he pulled the co-pilot from the burning plane, he later died. My brother was given a commendation for his heroism. The Undesirable Discharge hearing removed that commendaton from his Navy record; did his drinking and cussing in any way change the fact that he endangered his life to save his Navy brothers? The behavior of men in the military regarding women in the military is still being quickly swept under the proverbial rug each time it is approached. Will the current political sex charges die an early death due to Trump’s ability to cover up his own crimes; or will it last long enough to force out or destroy the reputations of Democrats who are getting too close to the truth about his entire administration?

  9. #MeToo has morphed into #HimToo.

    I’m content to let the private sector discipline its offenders in its rather speedy fashion. On the other hand, I’m more concerned with the public sector’s foot-dragging in addressing issues of sexual assault and/or sexual harassment that occur during an elected official’s time in office.

    Last week the Washington Post reported (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2017/11/17/over-the-past-20-years-congress-has-paid-17-2-million-in-settlements/?utm_term=.c05fbc56b813) that Congress’s Office of Compliance paid out $17 million of taxpayers’ money for 264 settlements with federal employees over 20 years for various violations, including sexual harassment. It’s time taxpayers had a look into the inner workings of the office, which has for decades concealed episodes of sexual abuse by powerful political figures.

  10. Excellent analysis and introduction to reason. The only exclusion from this piece was the political gotcha game that is created to ensnare an opponent. The Al Franken case borders on that political assassination move. I’m not saying everything he did was on the up and up, but the Fox News interviews, the book deal and the photos of other aggressive moves by the female in this case, all stink of politically motivated set-up.

    This kind of thing will, of course, ensure that elected officials keep their hands in their pockets and make them a LOT more reluctant to engage female co-workers, employees or constituents in any way. Maybe that’s what you mean when you suggest we must be careful not to over-react.

  11. Bingo!

    In public we’ve been in the mode of “ignore” and “don’t believe the accuser” with little blips of “speak up and push back” as when Anita Hill testified (bless her!) But we were still stubbornly stuck in “don’t believe her” mode even then. The only reason Monica was finally believed was because she kept the dress (bless her, too!)

    It doesn’t help that when those in power defend the victim it is often for political reasons. Otherwise the expediency of disbelief and dismissiveness continues to be the norm.

    Pent up frustration, anger and helplessness has erupted into a flood of relief and hope in having an outlet to speak up and make a difference. But as Mary said in the first comment – “There is also reason, regardless of how sympathetic a claim may be, to evaluate the evidence. Not everyone who claims to be a victim has in fact been victimized. See, e.g, Emmett Till, or the McMartin Preschool.”

    We need to figure out how give everyone an outlet and protect the rights of both accusers and accused.

  12. I am beginning to see the sex scandals breaking into triangulation. What Roy Moore is alleged to have done with a 14 year old is criminal. Weinstein’s actions involved using his power to destroy in order to satisfy his sexual urges. Other instances concern men in power who feel entitled to grab or seduce because of their power or celebrity status. Supposedly Bush the Elder has also been accused of grabbing.

    The triangulation now tries to separate someone like Franken and Charlie Rose vs Trump, along political lines. With Trump you know what you are getting, someone who thinks his status allows him to grab. With Franken and Rose the betrayal is there: that is their actions speak louder than their words. It bothers me that people are making up excuses for Franken. How does someone like Franken ever regain his reputation?? He cannot IMHO.

    This is going to be a wild one.

  13. Given the context comprising Sheila’s three categories of sexual offenses – criminal, power disparity, and jerk behavior – Democrats are no less guilty than Republicans when boundaries are crossed. I would invite Democrats, however, who sometimes exhibit an ability to acknowledge and apologize for their behavior, to add a phrase to their public statements: “While I sincerely regret what I have done, I invite comparison of my actions with those of our Predator-in-Chief when determining my degree of guilt. ” This will keep the focus where it belongs and, through repetition, may deprive Trump of the free ride he always gets from Fox and often gets from more liberal media.

  14. To Nancy (above): It was great that “in your younger days” you were “more bold than most women” regarding sexual harassment and had the self-confidence to speak-up and confront men making inappropriate comments and actions. It takes an inner strength and knowledge of ones self-worth and value to do this. It is only more recently that girls and women are finding this inner strength. Unfortunately, some religious and political views still teach and encourage the subservience of women. There is a continued need to support education and activities that encourage self-worth within ourselves and yet also have respect for others.

  15. One thing that Sheila has dented my pool of ignorance about is the precision required of law which is always challenging because the only material one has to build law from are words. That’s just a challenge that many have taken on and the result of that effort has been carefully maintained by law enforcement and adjudication. As we should remind ourselves daily, good job mankind, a challenge accepted and met.

    It’s also under attack from extremist voters bred by “entertainment” media which is following the one rule of business, make more money regardless of the impact on others.

    The result? Trump is not in jail but in fact celebrated by some as Presidential. How is that even possible?

    As should surprise nobody part of the destruction of accomplishment that he is pursuing is to tear down the carefully assembled social contract that we have been building for centuries. Why? To build a country in his own image.

    One approach that he favors is politicizing science for one thing but even more critically the courts. He’s working to fill judgeships, the keys to maintaining our carefully built legal wall, with people who “think” like he does.

    There are any number of reasons to limit his term and therefore the damage he leaves in his wake. The more time he has the more damage will be done.

    If there is a cure it will be found in the legal structure that he’s attacking with such glee. That makes the most important civil servant today Robert Mueller.

  16. Sheila and Nancy are spot on!

    Most of us women have experienced all three of Sheila’s categories at some point in our lives. How we handle our response to a “marauder” male usually decides the outcome.

    I recall a dinner party at which my seat partner made a very aggressive overt move on me (under the table, of course). I pushed his hand away firmly. He smirked and told me he always got what he wanted. I informed him he wasn’t succeeding with me, and made a very obviously abrupt move to a chair at the other side of the table (noted by all at the dinner)….never had another problem with him!

    A man who has been taught to be respectful of others, both male and female, is rarely found in these situations. A woman who has been taught to recognize her self worth can usually control most situations, short of outright rape.

    Don’t mistake me for a male basher – I find most intelligent men delightful and a definite perk in life, even at my age!

    I came upon a quotation, author unknown, that is rather apt in this discussion:
    “The wolf in him still lingers – the wolf in him merely sleeps.” Apparently some men have more “awake” wolf than others.

  17. You all seem to have accepted that Franken is guilty of something. That has not been proven. The act of “groping” he has been accused of was clearly not even touching. The act of unwanted kissing is denied, unproven, and others have offered convincing evidence in favor of Franken’s side of the story.

    The accuser is a far right pundit/personality who works indirectly for Sinclair, which is trying to obtain approval for the purchase of Tribune, and one of their outspoken opponents is, you guessed it, Senator Al Franken.

  18. If I had a nickel for every time a man/boy came after me with his paws grabbing/touching me, I’d be a rich person hoping this tax bill would pass. #metoo

  19. Thank you, Sheila. I want us to be able to respond to this moment with good sense and in the correct context as much as I want this abuse of male privilege to stop right now.

  20. Our cuture has changed-for the worse. Racially because of our first Black Potus and many of us figured sexism would rise to the top if HRC was elected. Well, sexism is raging and Drumpf is the reason for that season.

    I’m guessing nearly half the population is willing to overlook Drumpf’s pecadilloes (but not WJC’s) and vote for a serial misogynist before they’d vote for a Dem.

  21. I’m ok with men feeling powerless for a while. Women who stood up or spoke out were shamed or blamed or called sluts or whatever. Or not promoted or lied about. Let the human male feel some unfairness. They’ve earned it.

  22. Sheila is right to categorize but I suspect that there is overlapping between categories at differing times, varying positions of power etc. I am therefore in favor of considering all such deviants as sexual predators and then sorting out how and what and why they got that way and what they did for purposes of punishment. I think, for instance, and subject to further proof, that there is a big difference between the conduct of a Moore and a Franken and that the punishment should be fashioned to fit the crime.

    I recognize that this area for discussion is a sensitive topic and am happy to see women openly coming forth with the evidence that is culture-changing. History has not been kind to women. Thus Jefferson wrote that all MEN are created equal. Thus women could not vote until the 20th century. Thus women in the workplace were routinely assaulted (and still are) because of the ridiculous notion that “boys will be boys.” Marauding groups of crusaders were sent by popes to the holy land to “rescue” Jerusalem from the Saracens, and en route raped countless Christian women.For every Mother Teresa there are scores of Hitlers and Stalins in history.

    People like Moore and Trump should be in jail rather than in the Oval Office and the Senate. These two are still among us due to statutes of limitations and voter apathy springing from the politics of resentment and the cross. They are unprosecuted felons, but thanks to women that culture may be headed for the dustbin of history, and not a minute too soon.

  23. AgingLGrl; I can say the same thing, it is as if it was expected of them or we needed it.

    Hollyd; did you ever wonder why Monica saved that semen stained blue dress? Was she so in love with Clinton that it was a treasured keepsake of her time on her knees? Or; did she somehow know she might need it as evidence in the future?

  24. Thank you Sheila for once again putting to words thoughts that I haven’t been able to formulate properly. I agree with you 100%.

  25. JoAnn – If I remember correctly, Linda Tripp advised her to keep it. Whatever motivated Monica to keep it or Linda to advise such is that it might give girls in non-consensual circumstances the idea and hope that with physical evidence they might be able to make a case. Unfortunately they were not likely to be believed.

  26. Angela Cosentino – It is interesting that you mentioned women being taught to be subservient.

    One of the things my ex said to me when we split up was that “I was not submissive enough”and that “men were walking egos and I should have stroked his ego more”.

    He was a cop.

    Carole H. Curtis – Like you, I found that embarrassing those men in front of their peers was the most effective way to put a stop to their bad behavior. instantly.

  27. Sexual tension is what grew life here. It can’t be subject to legislation, we’re not that smart, but there has to be effective legislation and enforcement to limit the consequences of it.

    I asked on Facebook for opinions on whether additional legislation is necessary or just more reliable enforcement.

  28. Hey Nancy; did your marriage vows promise you would “love, honor and obey”? Most of us missed that language in marriage licenses; assigning us to years of legal servitude. I sure didn’t read the small print; much to my regret.

  29. I think it is a waste of time to try to compartmentalize abuse. Jerks can turn into predators in the blink of an eye. I say this as a man. There must be thousands of female AND MALE victims of sexual abuse by both men and women. An unfounded accusation can also ruin a persons life and reputation. [See Duke Lacrosse players case]. And failing to take appropriate steps against a predator may only increase the probability of that behavior occurring again. THERE IS NO SIMPLE RECIPE FOR ABUSE…it can be emotional, physical and psychological.

  30. This is regarding a different issue but does fit under the heading of “A (Sort Of) Defense Of Jerks”. Remember recently I brought up the subject of the privatization of disbursement of public employees retirement funds and that I had messaged my Democratic Representative Dan Forestal; today I received the reply he requested his staff member provide.

    The message is from Charity Stowe, Legislative Assistant, Deputy Director of Legislative Affairs, informing me that what is happening is NOT “privatization”. I understand that the term has been replaced with “outsourcing” but the meaning remains the same and Ms. Stowe obviously wasn’t familiar with either term. It is NOT “privatization” because it has been done by Indiana Public Retirement System since 2009 when it was contracted to Xerox to disburse our retirement funds; it has simply changed vendors. I am NOT defending either Dan Forestal or Ms. Stowe but am wondering if I am the jerk for bothering to seek an answer to my question.

  31. Thank you, Sheila. And all the other commentors.

    “Jerks” MAY turn into predators, but that is not necessarily the path they will travel. Let us not accuse them of something they are not before they are.

    As Carole, I am able to separate boundary crossings by males in my years up to here. Sometimes someone taking the initiative was welcomed, and invited. Not always. But these unwanted incursions were all when I was no longer an under aged minor, and I could find another path, like Carole noted. And some times I regreted my willing involvements; however I am, and was, aware of the role I also played in those engagements, not always a victim.

    It seems to me that some of this could be political ploys for some other actions which are not what they seem to be.

  32. Nancy; good for you.

    Regarding that response from my Democratic Representative assistant; she responded to my reply that it was not her answer, she merely sent me the answer she got from INPRS – the Republicans – the information I requested was regarding the continuing help from RIPEA. Now I’m wondering if they know these are two separate organizations…back to wondering who is the jerk.

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