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Ending Harassment Won’t End Romance

The backlash to the #MeToo movement says requiring consent will dampen the erotic spark. But it can actually help us understand each other better.

George Marks/Getty Images

This weekend, the Golden Globes were filled with actresses dressed in black, some who had brought anti-violence and labor organizers as their dates, in support of the ongoing #MeToo movement and the new #TimesUp campaign. The latter is an effort by famous, wealthy women to reach out to obscure, working women in solidarity to end sexual harassment, just the latest sign that something in the culture is shifting. But just before the awards, The New York Times ran the latest op-ed to voice concern that outing powerful men for sexual harassment will, somehow, end flirting, fun, and romance.

These arguments are all more or less the same, though some of the writers—like Daphne Merkin, author of the Times piece—claim to be feminists. As Merkin puts it, “Expressing sexual interest is inherently messy and, frankly, nonconsensual—one person, typically the man, bites the bullet by expressing interest in the other, typically the woman—whether it happens at work or at a bar.” The concern is that making sure sex is consensual will wind up “stripping sex of eros,” as Merkin writes.

These pieces seem to assume—even when written by women—that men are incapable of interpreting signals from other people about sexual interest. So men must be allowed to blunder headfirst into a “nonconsensual” encounter, because otherwise, how would we ever figure out how to have sex? This depiction of how sexual encounters happen is not all that different from what Donald Trump described in the Access Hollywood tape: “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.

Plenty of men who are not alleged serial sexual harassers have also expressed concerns, in public and private, that they have unwittingly crossed lines. When the “shitty media men” list went public, I was not the only woman writer who received emails from men asking if they were on it. Some of this concern is genuine—some men are very clearly grappling with this moment, trying to learn to be better. Others may not be, including those who seem to think that the answer is doubling down on a workplace without women or following the “Pence Rule,” named after Vice President Mike Pence, who refuses to have dinner with a woman unless his wife is present.

The fact is that it’s not just op-ed writers who have worried that men are incapable of reading and interpreting romantic signals. Social scientists and medical doctors have taken up the question of whether men have a harder time reading social cues than women. A 2013 study by psychiatrists used brain scans to determine that men tended to take longer to read facial expressions; a 2008 study by psychologists concluded, “Young men just find it difficult to tell the difference between women who are being friendly and women who are interested in something more.”

Some scientists (and a lot of lay readers) say this is evidence of women’s “natural” skills at reading people and men’s “natural” inability to do so. Such a conclusion would seem to support Merkin’s argument that men must be allowed to stumble around making advances, and that those advanced upon must grin and bear it as the price to be paid for continued existence of humanity, or “eros,” or something.

But that’s not the interpretation made by the researchers in the 2008 study, who noted, “These are average differences. Some men are very skilled at reading affective cues, and some women find the task challenging.” Such cue-reading, in other words, is a skill, not an innate ability. Socialization, gender roles, and gender stereotypes, another researcher noted, all teach women to be attentive to social cues that men are allowed to ignore or pass over.

Another factor is power. As Trump perceptively noted in the Access Hollywood tape, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Men with power, particularly in the workplace, traditionally didn’t have to worry that women might express opposition—or if they did, that it would matter. It is not an accident that the writers handwringing about the death of eros tend to gloss over the issue of power, as well as the appropriateness of instigating sexual relationships on the job in the first place.

Those same power imbalances help explain why women, in general, tend to be better at reading social cues. Women remain concentrated in occupations where care and service for others are central—there’s a reason labor leaders Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Saru Jayaraman of Restaurant Opportunities Center United were chosen to walk the Golden Globes red carpet. Those occupations tend to require the social skills necessary to interpret others’ needs, wants, and feelings (like the flight attendant of my last column). They also are, not coincidentally, the occupations where sexual harassment is common, where even the best-intentioned of men sometimes misinterpret a compelled smile for sexual interest. “For a good long while, I let myself think that the slender platinum blonde behind the counter at Pret A Manger was in love with me,” wrote Timothy Noah in 2013. “How else to explain her visible glow whenever I strolled into the shop for a sandwich or a latte? Then I realized she lit up for the next person in line, and the next. Radiance was her job.”

Radiance, and sometimes more. I once worked at a New Orleans jazz club as a cocktail waitress. Two weeks into the job, my boss told me that he had hired me because I wore seamed stockings, and that he expected me to flirt harder for tips. (How it was any of his business how many tips I made continues to elude me.) There was nothing erotic about a long shift weaving artfully around drunk men with a tray full of beer bottles and martini glasses, I can assure you.

Kate Bahn, Economist on the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress told me, “The exploitation of care workers and service workers extends beyond egregious examples of nonconsensual flirting that constitute sexual harassment. The interpersonal nature of this work, with the expectation that the worker will demonstrate genuine interest in a customer and intrinsic motivation to please, means that these workers are often limited in their ability to speak up at work, including bargaining for higher wages, because it’s in contradiction with the nature of their jobs.”

The expectation that I would have to navigate around powerful men’s feelings continued when I moved into journalism. As many feminist writers have noted over the years, in male-dominated occupations women, who are expected to be “naturally” caring, tend to be shunted into the “nanny” role. In journalism, Doree Shafrir wrote, that’s the managing editor. The old Victorian arguments about “separate spheres,” as Sara L. Maurer noted, continue to echo in women’s work today. Women are expected, for no extra compensation, to do the work of managing others’ emotions. As Angela Davis wrote, “In capitalist society, the woman has the special mission of being both reservoir and receptacle for a whole range of human emotions otherwise banished from society.”

To solve this problem, companies cannot use the “Pence rule” or reinstate those separate spheres on the modern workplace—they’re still there in too many cases already. And despite the fears of Merkin and her ilk, many women, as Melissa Gira Grant wrote, experience sexual harassment as a waste of time as as well as a trauma. Dealing with harassment is work. And it is work that women have so often simply been expected to do because it’s presumably in our natures.

Without this undervalued work, capitalism as we know it would cease to function. But as long as there is a presumption that the way women and men behave is simply natural, rather than a function of power, it will be harder to end harassment. The good news is that understanding when people are expressing sexual interest is, in fact, a skill, and therefore it’s one men can learn. It’ll take work, though—and maybe even giving up a little bit of their power.