"Americans Assiduously Avoid Anything That Might Smack Of Harassment:" A Professor's History Of Sex


Historian Tony Judt is battling ALS and crusading for “renewed social democracy.” He also thinks sexual harassment policies have ruined not only people’s fun, but the whole of modern liberalism.

In Wesley Yang’s New York Magazine profile, Judt comes off as an idiosyncratic and fearless thinker determined to persevere in the face of devastating illness. His claim that “You can’t run a society that is profoundly unfair for a long time without people becoming profoundly distrustful, and without social trust, there can be no common consent and no common goods, and no shared purposes” seems like exactly what we need to hear in these increasingly unjust times. From the way he talks about himself (he called a public lecture he gave at NYU “a good lecture by any standard, not just the standard of quadriplegics with bi-paps”), he seems like the last person to suggest his work should be immune to criticism because of his illness or because of the nobility of some of his larger social goals. And so I feel comfortable though not gleeful in saying: his essay “Girls! Girls! Girls!” really pissed me off.

Part of a series of memoir pieces by Judt on the New York Review of Books‘s NYRBlog, the infelicitously titled meditation discusses sexual politics through the lens of Judt’s own life. Some of Judt’s recollections are amusing (like his description of early-sixties women’s underwear). Others just seem myopic — he writes of a professor who “followed [a graduate student] into a supply closet and declared his feelings” only to suffer a career-ending censure for sexual harassment. Referring to the graduate student, he puts dismissive quotes around both “victim” (because being followed into a closet by a superior apparently isn’t scary at all) and — when he reveals that the student was actually a transwoman — around “she.” Judt would probably call this criticism linguistic hair-splitting, but there’s no need to focus on the small-bore, because Judt makes bad big points too. He writes,

Since the 1970s, Americans assiduously avoid anything that might smack of harassment, even at the risk of forgoing promising friendships and the joys of flirtation. Like men of an earlier decade-though for very different reasons-they are preternaturally wary of missteps. I find this depressing. The Puritans had a sound theological basis for restricting their desires and those of others. But today’s conformists have no such story to tell.

Who are these Americans “assiduously avoiding anything that might smack of harassment?” Not Mark Foley. Or Bob Packwood. Or David Letterman. Or Eric Massa. Or Bill Clinton. Or, allegedly, Bill O’Reilly, and Clarence Thomas, and on and on and on. I was going to include Roman Polanski on this list, but of course he’s not American, so presumably he’s more open to the “joys of flirtation.” As to Judt’s claim that “the Puritans had a sound theological basis for restricting their desires and those of others,” I’d actually argue that the right of women and men to go to work and school without being followed into supply closets, sexted, fondled, or being made to feel that their success or acceptance is dependent on their sexuality is a sounder basis for “restriction” than the Judeo-Christian notion of an afterlife, which Judt says he doesn’t believe in.

Based on the rest of his essay, though, I’m not sure Judt would find the above argument convincing. He also writes,

Why should I not close my office door or take a student to a play? If I hesitate, have I not internalized the worst sort of communitarian self-censorship-anticipating my own guilt long before I am accused and setting a pusillanimous example for others? Yes: and if only for these reasons I see nothing wrong in my behavior.

Presumably here Judt is defending not actual harassment but behavior that might cause others to suspect him of harassment. Still, he seems to believe that it’s his moral duty to push the boundaries of propriety because those boundaries themselves are a particularly deadening kind of No Fun. This argument is far from new. Ever since workplaces instituted sexual harassment policies, and ever since feminists started advocating against misogynistic jokes and language, opponents have complained that these limitations on what they do and say destroy something about American culture — something free and lively and wonderful, something Fun. These opponents usually forget that the old ways weren’t Fun for everyone.

Judt’s take on early-sixties sexuality shows he understands some un-Fun aspects of the past (like girdles). What he doesn’t seem to get is that a notional time when Men were Men and went after what they wanted wasn’t especially great for women who wanted something other than those men. Judt writes that “We-the left, academics, teachers-have abandoned politics to those for whom actual power is far more interesting than its metaphorical implications. Political correctness, gender politics, and above all hypersensitivity to wounded sentiments (as though there were a right not to be offended): this will be our legacy.” But to those who once had no “actual power” at all, “political correctness, gender politics, and above all hypersensitivity” feel more like “having a voice.”

Has this voice come at the cost of fewer closed doors, fewer theater invitations? Undoubtedly it has. Has it come at the cost of a less “free” working environment? Perhaps for some — but for others, the ability to go to school or work without what Judt calls “the joys of flirtation” may be a greater freedom. Yang writes that Judt’s voice has been diminished to “a hoarse whisper” by his illness — in one very literal way, he no longer speaks from a position of privilege. But his memories are colored by past privilege — he implies that his status as “chairman of the History Department at New York University-where I was also the only unmarried straight male under sixty” made him uniquely vulnerable to sexual harassment claims, but doesn’t acknowledge that this was in large part because of his relative power. Perhaps this doesn’t seem like “actual power” to him — and given that he’s a leftist academic in the early 21st century, it’s hard to blame him. But the power to fight back against unwanted sexual attention, to demand a workplace in which one is judged on work and not attractiveness, and to expect a certain level of respect in the speech of one’s colleagues —- these are “actual powers,” and Judt would do well to acknowledge them.

Image via Sears Catalog.

Girls! Girls! Girls! [NYRBlog]
The Liveliest Mind In New York [New York Magazine]

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