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Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism

by Daphne Patai
Book review Copyright © 1999 by Cathy Young
Synopsis by Bert H. Hoff


Daphne Patai, Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism(Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999; 250 pp.). Order on-line

Book cover
Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism
by Daphne Patai
Order on-line

Second review, by J. Steven Svoboda

Daphne Patai, co-author of Professing Feminism, has written a real gem of a book about the sexual harassment industry (SHI). Meticulously documented and carefully reasoned, Heterophobia shines a beacon of reason and truth into the cesspool of lies and anti- heterosexual bias that is the SHI. The book adroitly distills the main thrust of the SHI as the eradication of differentiation between male sexual interest and abuse. All of a sudden, the SHI has redefined all male sexual interest as power.

My main criticism of this book is so inextricably intertwined with its considerable achievement that I must mention it now. I fault Heterophobia for the program defined by its very title, i.e., its failure to examine whether it is not MASCULOphobia which is the agenda behind the SHI, rather than HETEROphobia. Whether the focus on heterosexuality rather than misandry is a conscious political move on Ms. Patai's part or rather a reflection of a preoccupation with impacts on women, it is disturbing. I also found inadvertently revealing the very fact that Patai feels it necessary to explicitly assure the reader that she is "not arguing against heterophobia merely because it is bad for feminism."

I would criticize Heterophobia also for Patai's overall refusal to investigate whether some of the core precepts of feminism may be irredeemably flawed. In the face of all the overwhelming evidence she gives regarding feminism's deceptive, hostile introduction of the SHI, it is regrettable that she largely declines to broaden her critique of feminism beyond this single issue. Patai paints the SHI as an aberration which must be corrected, after which we can return to the rightful path offered by the less wacky branches of feminism. I strongly question whether the future offered by feminism is truly this rosy, particularly for people of the male persuasion.

Be all this as it may, Heterophobia has much of value to offer. Although it heavily concentrates on the academic setting with which Patai is most familiar, the majority of its conclusions are applicable to all contexts in which sexual harassment rears its ugly head. The SHI, the author demonstrates, has been alarmingly successful at surreptitiously mainstreaming the most radical anti- heterosexual (and anti-male) positions of feminists such as Mary Daly and Andrea Dworkin. It has thereby given feminists an alternate, covert route to outlawing heterosexual behavior.

Patai trenchantly critiques the SHI for its shockingly cavalier refusal to address the issue of false and trivial accusations. The damage caused by such accusations is typically far more grievous, she observes, than that suffered by its "victims." As has been observed before, although civil law nominally applies to sexual harassment cases, the consequences for an accusee's life far more closely resemble or even exceed the implications of a typical criminal accusation. Moreover, SHI manuals systematically omit any meaningful discussion of the presumption of innocence.

Patai has a sharp mind. Able to make fine distinctions herself, she heaps scorn on the SHI for basing much of its very existence on the blurring of distinctions. After all, clearly a vast chasm separates the most egregious cases of "quid pro quo" harassment (have sex with me or you're fired) from typical "hostile work environment" cases in which an action is brought based on the "victim's" subjective feelings of discomfort. Sexual harassment law is ideally suited to abuse since it is subjective and treats evidence very cavalierly.

And yet the SHI has brandished the rhetorical weapon of falsely implying a seamless continuum between the most trivial and the most egregious cases of sexual harassment. Indeed, Patai notes, SHI INTENDS to violate these conceptual boundaries, just as it INTENDS to blur the difference between the concepts of harassment and discrimination. As a result, it becomes more difficult to make light of clumsy passes which in a just world would merit no more than a snort or a chuckle. Patai even points out with some evident bemusement that women will find it much more difficult to exploit their sexuality in order to advance in the workplace!

Much of the rhetoric of SHI addresses "power." Patai does not shy from analyzing that word in detail or from demolishing the myth that any man enjoys power over any woman regardless of their individual circumstances. Instead, of course, it is the COMPLAINANT who all too often wields enormous power over the supposed harasser. Nor is Patai afraid to ask what kind of image of a woman is projected by an industry that claims that a 30-year- old married female graduate student is unable to behave autonomously? She notes that feminists, so often preoccupied with stressing or even exaggerating women's power, have no problem with THIS instance of infantilization of adult women.

Patai can understandably barely contain her incredulity in noting that no other area requires its "victims" to undergo so much training in order to recognize their grievances. The arrogance and contradictions of the SHI evidence themselves also in the SHI's attempts to render disagreement with its precepts impossible by claiming that women who value sexual relationships with men lack the ability to understand their own reality.

Patai's numerous detailed real-life stories about SHI victims crystallize the tremendous harm caused by this dogma. The best, most sensitive, most engaged professors are the first to be destroyed by false accusations from a vengeful or unstable student. Even the growing trend of woman-on-woman and man-on-woman accusations does not seem to be visibly slowing the SHI wheels. Breathtaking is the only word for the double standard demonstrated by the whole chapter devoted to Jane Gallop, who quite consciously cultivates lesbian affairs with her students and celebrates them as a feminist act.

Heterophobia distilled for me the profound changes the SHI has already wrought. Freedom of speech and thought in universities has already become a strongly endangered species where it has not disappeared. The potential impact should not be underestimated.

For all its successes, the SHI is starting to find itself embattled these days. The behavior it must resort to--the discrediting of opponents, the assumption of male guilt, the inflation of the problems--is becoming ever more desperate. Sooner or later, the bubble is bound to burst. Thanks to Patai's highly useful if flawed book, this moment may arrive sooner rather than later.

Another review, by Cathy Young, author of Ceasefire!


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