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Sexual Harassment Is Not a Disease, But It Surely Is an Epidemic | The Nation

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Salamishah Tillet

Salamishah Tillet

Where race and gender meet, where politics and pop culture collide.

Sexual Harassment Is Not a Disease, But It Surely Is an Epidemic


Sand Diego Mayor Bob Filner. (AP Photo)

This is part eight in my series on the global epidemic of violence against women. (Here are my posts on Serena Williams’s victim-blaming, the sexual assaults happening in Egypt, the forced sterilization of incarcerated women in California, rape and social media, George Zimmerman’s prior acts of violence against women, mobile apps to end sexual violence, and a review of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black.)

The storyline has become all too familiar: a well-known politician is accused of sexual harassment by several women; he first plays defense (a public denial), then goes on the offensive (a public apology), and finally, admits to past behavior and pledges to get “help.”

That’s been exactly the path for San Diego Mayor Bob Filner. Recently, seven women, ranging from a retired Navy rear-admiral, a dean at San Diego State University, and the head of the Port Tenants Association, have publicly come forward to accuse the mayor of sexual harassment.

During his press conference last Friday, Filner said, “I have failed to fully respect the women who work for me and with me, and…at times I have intimidated them.” His solution: two weeks of intensive therapy at a behavior-counseling clinic starting on August 5.

Though he acknowledged disrespecting women, Filner stopped short of admitting to sexual harassment. Instead, he deflected our attention away from the psychological and social harm that sexual harassers inflict on their victims to understanding his sexual harassment as something for which he can recieve medical help.

Though Filner has yet to disclose having an actual disorder, his rehab stint suggests that he believes his behavior can be medically diagnosed. This too conforms to another pattern of high-profile sexual harrasment claims. Just this month, show biz CEO Richard Nanula resigned from his post as chairman of the boad at Miramax after a co-worker claimed sexual harrassment. His defense: he was previously treated for sex addiction.

But even that is a deeply flawed rationale, because the debate over whether sex addiction should be diagnosed as an official disorder still looms large. According to a recent study conducted at UCLA that measured brain waves in self-reported sex addicts, “the brain response of these individuals to sexual images was not related in any way to the severity of their hyper-sexuality but was instead tied only to their level of sexual desire.” In other words, the scans did not indicate addiction.

Similarly, author of The Myth of Sex Addiction David J. Ley told The Huffington Post, “When [people] assert that sex addiction is like these disorders, they ignore the many ways that sexual behaviors are not like alcohol and drug use. Drugs and alcohol introduce a foreign substance into the brain.”

He went on to say, “We excuse people for diseases—we have destigmatized alcohol dependence so that people can get treatment. Maintaining [sex addiction] as a disease makes it more acceptable to people, and allows people to use it as a justification for…unhealthy choices.”

Taking it one step further, a medical diagnosis (whether it is sex addiction or not) can also be used to justify harmful and often illegal sexual behavior. Sexual harassment at work, on the other hand, is unwanted and unwelcomed sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other physical conduct or offensive or abusive remarks about a person’s sex or gender. Like the Filner scenario, power differentials are often at the heart of such allegations, and because men have more power in our society than women, the vast majority of sexual harassment cases involve female workers who have been harassed by male co-workers or supervisors.

The American Association for University Women reports that for “many victims of sexual harassment, the aftermath may be more damaging than the original harassment. Effects can vary from external effects, such as retaliation, backlash, or victim blaming to internal effects, such as depression, anxiety, or feelings of shame and/or betrayal.” According to data complied by Equal Rights Advocates, victims of sexual harassment lose $4.4 million dollars in wages and 973,000 hours in unpaid leave each year in the United States.

Politicians who are serious about ending sexual harassment must move beyond the disease or moral decay defense. Instead, as founder of Stop Street Harassment Holly Kearl told me in our online interview, “They can set a good example in their own life and treat everyone they encounter with respect and always ask for consent before engaging in any sexual conversations or activity. And they can set a respectful tone among their own staff and supporters and call out sexual harassment when it occurs.”

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On a policy level, they should make sure that workplaces comply with the federal and state laws, but also, Kearl suggests, “mandate sexual harassment education in local schools, and work with administrators at schools and campuses to ensure the enforcement of Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972 as it applies to sexual harassment complaints.”

It would be nice to believe that Filner, after his two weeks of therapy, would come back to work and lead the charge to end sexual harassment—in the schools, the streets and the City Hall of San Diego. But he probably won’t. And this is not just because 60 percent of San Diegans surveyed over the weekend believe he should be recalled if he does not resign. He seems to be unaware that to sexually harass women is far more dangerous than a pathology or breach of public trust. It is part of the larger epidemic of violence against women that preserves our system and social practice of male dominance and gender inequity.

And let’s be clear, that’s something that can be controlled and cured.

This is part eight in my series on the global epidemic of violence against women. (Here are my posts on Serena Williams’s victim-blaming, the sexual assaults happening in Egypt, the forced sterilization of incarcerated women in California, rape and social media, George Zimmerman’s prior acts of violence against women, mobile apps to end sexual violence, and a review of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black.)

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