11/10/2011 03:25 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Despicable Behavior, But Is This Harassment?

I have been trying to dissect two stories that have come across my desk (or, perhaps I should say my computer) the past couple of days.

In one, a youngish blogger is in the middle of a brouhaha that involves a man asking her to his room as they rode an elevator together at four in the morning and includes the comments of, are you ready for this? Noted biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins. The basic assumption of both Ms. Watson and the men who wrote about her was that she had been the victim of what could have been a sexual assault. The other story is a report in the New York Times, and widely reported elsewhere, which claims that there is widespread sexual harassment of children in grades 7 through 12. While I am appalled at the sexual propositioning or harassment of anyone, male or female, I am not quite sure that any of the incidents in the two stories constitute what it seems is a clear definition of sexual harassment.

To begin, The Equal Opportunity Employment Comission (EEOC ) states that "sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964" and is "Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment." More about that can be found here. But what happened to Rebecca Watson in the elevator at the conference she was attending was not sexual harassment. It was an unwanted, sleazy, and unsettling advance that she quickly put to rest. It was only in the reporting of it, by her and others, that the issue took on another light. The revelation by Watson, made on a video blog, was written about in another blog, and, somewhere around comment #75 out of more than a thousand long comments, Dawkins takes Watson (although not by name) to task. The gist of his comment is that compared to the horrible things happening to women around the world, her whine is, well, silly. His main defense, when pressed, was that Muslim women (in specific) suffer from misogyny.

There, of course, his argument breaks down. Because what Ms. Watson was the victim of was not sexual harassment or even, really, sexual assault. She was propositioned, and she felt uncomfortable and nervous. What she was really the victim of was, indeed, misogyny, misogyny that, although slightly on the wane, is born out of classic male privilege. Male privilege may lead to sexual assault and it may well lead to sexual harassment as it has done in the cases of the now four women who have accused presidential contender Herman Cain, but it is just as often an outmoded notion of patriarchy. Women who are on the receiving end of male advances should not and must not call them all sexual assault or harassment. If that happens then the real issue of both will neither be properly defined nor properly punished. Ask any rape victim who still has to prove that she wasn't asking for it. Hell, ask Anita Hill.

It doesn't seem to hold water that the behavior talked about in the Times article is sexual harassment, either. Rather, it is a virulent form of bullying which often stems from the same kind of male privilege. Although the American Association of University Women, a nonprofit research organization, defines harassment as "unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically," according to the Times, in fact, every dictionary of note defines sexual harassment as something that takes place more specifically in the work place. It is, by those definitions, an issue of a power struggle between the harasser and the harassed and usually results in economic or job-related consequences. See what happened in the Herman Cain results. See the fear that women in the workplace have of reporting sexual harassment for fear of being fired or denied promotion. Witness the fact that the women who accused Cain are being vilified as liars.

This is not to say that sexual taunts or unwelcome advances among schoolchildren are not issues worth disclosing and remedying. But ugly jokes, touching, name-calling and the like are aspects of bullying, which, according to most studies, is now rampant. Calling someone a "whore" or "gay" is not sexual harassment: it is a form of tyranny: misanthropic and misogynistic. It is also an outcome of low self esteem, insecurity and a desire to make oneself look cool. Bullying is often done by groups of children and young adults; it can be carried out by mean girls as well as mean boys, and as one who was bullied as a middle-school girl, it can be torture. But I can in no way equate it with the sexual harassment to which I was subjected while working as a journalist. That harassment, more than thirty years ago, had no name back then. And as a young reporter and writer I thought I had to grin and bear it, just as I had tried to do with the bullying years earlier.

Richard Dawkins was wrong to make light of what happened to Ms. Watson, but he put his finger on the crux of the issue of harassment. We cannot tar all actions, no matter how much they speak of misogyny, with the same brush, just as involuntary manslaughter is not the same crime as pre-meditated murder. Ugly and brutish behavior toward women, behavior that sexualizes them whether they wish to be or not, is not cool. Institutionalized oppression is a whole other bag of worms. Unlike many countries who have laws against women's equality, we have a few (although not nearly enough) laws on the books which support women. But because the hundreds and hundreds of comments on both blog sites were all over the place, it is clear we have a long way to go to educate ourselves and our society in how to properly behave.

I am a feminist and have been for most of my conscious life. In no way do I minimize male privilege, the privilege of power, or the fact that, whenever they think they can get away with it, the so-called strong of both sexes will always take advantage of the so-called weak. Misogyny, bullying and privilege of any kind that results in our demeaning others in any way have got to stop. If we try and stop bullying, sexual or otherwise, in our schools, perhaps we won't have as many women having to fend off the unwanted advances of men. But, most importantly, perhaps we will have work places where women and men can work alongside each other without fear that their superiors or co-workers will make it impossible for them to make a living. Calling things that are not sexual harassment diminishes the horror that is sexual harassment. We clearly need to start a lot earlier in our campaign to equalize the sexes in terms of their treatment in society in general. Only in that way can we more clearly define, and prosecute, what constitutes sexual harassment in the work place.