04/17/2012 11:09 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2012

The 'Nature' of Sexual Harassment

There was a funny moment last November in the middle of Herman Cain's troubles when he appeared on the David Letterman Show. Letterman pushed Cain hard--were all those women lying?--but the host had to pause mid-interrogation to acknowledge the elephant in the room: "I'm no stranger to sexual scandal."

Cain laughed so hard he almost fell off his seat, and then proceeded to declare that, yes, the women were lying. Here were two successful men who had gotten in trouble because of sex in the office: Cain, for sexual harassment, and Letterman, whose consensual sexual relations with female staffers created an environment in which women might think that promotion or influence came via his bed.

Most Americans agree that sexual harassment is a serious matter, but it's not surprising that Letterman's audience loudly laughed: there's no longer anything shocking about these sorts of revelations. If anything, they seem to be almost natural, a part of what it means to be a powerful man. And it's no surprise that Cain, sitting next to a television celebrity whose ratings soared after the exposure of his affairs, was initially committed to riding out the scandal.

This resignation is what troubles me. Politicians, Fortune 100 CEOs, and sports celebrities all regularly find themselves in the workplace sex-scandal spotlight, and observers find it harder and harder to generate much outrage or to care longer than a day or two. A bored reviewer of George Clooney's Ides of March, in which the liberal politician impales his campaign on the sword of his lust for a young female intern, seems to sum it up: we already know that our leaders are "only human."

The increasingly prevalent notion that this is just the way men are doesn't bode well for the future. This view tends to make sexual harassment purely about men's sexual desires, downplaying the cultural attitudes that perpetuate this behavior and overlooking the way these actions contribute to gender inequality by keeping the women (and men) who find themselves on the receiving end of unwanted advances from advancing. They call in sick or change jobs or wait it out and lower their career aspirations. Learning to live with "how men are" is not insignificant for working women. Surveys continue to show that at least one in five women have experienced unwelcome attentions. And in a society that more and more emphasizes "hard wired" gender differences--think, for example, of the recent bestseller The Male Brain with its chapter on "The Brain Below the Belt"--where are we headed?

History shows that what we now call "sexual harassment" has always been around, but it does not support the position that such behavior is "programmed" into men. On the contrary, evidence from the white-collar office over the past century suggests two points: first, that any "programming" comes from cultural understandings of masculinity, and second, that the numerous iterations of "that's just the way men are" have made matters worse for women workers who were told it was their responsibility to handle these advances.

Already by the early twentieth century, understandings of white-collar manhood had linked professional success with sexual access to women, especially at work. Images of the boss behind closed doors with a stenographer on his knee saturated society, confirming that a successful man's spoils included an attractive and willing "office wife."

By the 1920s, society assumed that any girl "modern" enough to work in an office was savvy enough to handle the occasional "Felix the Feeler." Such men were no real danger, psychologists assured everyone. They were just going through a mid-life crisis that would pass before harmless flirtation shaded into coercion.

The post-World War II era brought a few new twists and turns, but they proved to be a zero-sum game for women. New management theories emphasized the importance of workplace morale and frowned on uninvited pecks and pinches, but the postwar paper pushing executive also needed to be a "real" man, not just an organizational one. Pinching and pecking--or hiring prostitutes to help close a deal, a practice Edward R. Murrow exposed in 1959--were foolproof ways to prove one's virility.

In the 1970s, feminists named "sexual harassment" which soon led to alterations in the law, workplace rules, and attitudes. But despite these dramatic changes, it often seems that our masculine ideal is just a variation on the 1950s' emphasis on conquest with a corresponding belief that some women take advantage of men's sexual vulnerability. Most troubling is how often these behaviors are presented as built-in to our very being, which means the workplace can never change.

We need to return again to thinking about how our culturally created ideas about gender contribute to unwelcome and harassing behaviors at work. We need, too, to think about how this rigid gender binary contributes to the harassment of gay, lesbian and transgender workers. If we don't, we risk "hard-wiring" discrimination into our workplaces.

Julie Berebitsky is the author of the new book Sex and the Office: A History of Gender Power and Desire.