During her lecture on March 6th, 2012, Jen Salvatore brought up two ideas about feminism that have remained present in my mind since her visit, and that I believe have significantly affected my feminist train of thought, or at the very least given me a lot to digest during the past few weeks. Her first idea concerns concepts of feminist norms and ideals, in which she stated that these values are often challenged by her work as a feminist attorney working in sex harassment cases, and that what is true about the world has changed for her because we are “messy human beings” and “life is more complex than a rigid set of values” (Salvatore). Her second idea concerns feminist practice, in which she stated that in her career, and in many women’s careers and activist projects, it is necessary to be a “tempered radical” (Salvatore). I find both ideas incredibly intriguing and necessarily related in understanding Salvatore’s position, and both logical and “true” at surface level, yet problematic upon further reflection.
Upon reading Salvatore’s “Thoughts on Representing Women in Sex Harassment Cases”, I had a visceral reaction, cringing in disbelief at many of the statements that she was making against so many of the feminist values that I held to be true. As someone who has been involved in a sex harassment case at work, in which I brought claims against a person who forced me to watch pornography on the job (he was found guilty and terminated), I was offended by Salvatore’s claims that women are contributors to sex harassment, that women’s behavior and dress in the workplace are relevant, and that the harasser is not always fully to blame. Based on my feminist education, beliefs, and own experience, these claims seemed to be unbelievably offensive, untrue, and counter to everything that a feminist “should” stand for. Had I not, in fact, been a “victim”? Had my harasser not been completely in the wrong? However, upon further reflection, and taking into account Salvatore’s comments about the messiness of human beings and complexities of life, I begin to understand more the position that she is taking.
My sex harassment case was pretty cut and dry: we have a conservative dress code and behavior code at work that I follow, the harasser was in a position of power over me, threatened my job security if I did not watch pornography with him, and I immediately went to his boss and then Human Resources after the event. I realize that it is practically impossible for me to take an objective view of my involvement in my case, but it seems as though the factors involved made me a “victim” (I find that word problematic, but it seems fitting for the discussion at hand) and the harasser fully to blame, and that the case was largely about power. However, upon reflection on examples of cases that Salvatore shared with us, I began to realize that in no way are most cases as “black and white” as mine might have been, if it even was. There are often work flirtations, questions about where to draw the line when both parties are flirting equally and may not have expressed explicitly what makes them uncomfortable, and relationships that may cross the line from professional to something else. People quite often become partnered with their coworkers, likely resulting in messy consequences if they break up while remaining coworkers. Furthermore, I know from firsthand experience how difficult it is to disclose behavior that has made you uncomfortable, especially when it was unwanted and feels shameful, and especially when it seems as though that person has the upper hand in the situation, despite his (or her) actions; these feelings may make one hesitant to disclose their story and cause them to wait for weeks, months, or even years. These factors all make great sense to me, and help me to understand Salvatore’s point of view in which she must always question her client’s intentions and be aware that she (or he) may have something to hide.
However, I’m not sure if Salvatore merely labeling these cases or people or life as “complex” completely remedies the situation she finds herself in, in which she no longer feels as though traditional feminist norms or ideals fit her experiences. I would have liked to see Salvatore spend more time analyzing corroborating factors of childhood abuse as well as mental illness that she brought up. These issues seem extremely important in understanding fully the women with whom she was working. Furthermore, I’m not quite sure if Salvatore correctly expressed her change in feminist beliefs; it’s one thing to see that cases might not be cut and dry and that sex harassment may be furthered by both participants, whether intentionally or not, and may be based on sex rather than power, and another thing entirely to completely change one’s set of values because one sees that it is not easy to “win” a case like this due to the complicated nature of the situation. I think, or at least hope, that Salvatore was trying to communicate that she has learned, in general, that some feminist beliefs might be more complicated than what they may first appear to be, and that especially for a lawyer, she needs to take these complications into account in order to win cases or at least get favorable outcomes for her clients. I do not think, or at least hope, that Salvatore truly believes that there are no “victims” in sex harassment: whether or not one is wearing suggestive clothing, acting flirtatious, or even engaging in sexual relations, once this person has made it clear that they do not wish to be treated in a particular way, say “no,” or no longer wish to participate in sexual relations, she (or he) should be respected. If she (or he) is not respected in her decision at this point, I think that she (or he) clearly becomes a “victim,” and the harasser is the one to blame. The harasser may have gotten mixed signals and may be in a more complicated position than many feminists, including often myself, may wish to acknowledge, but I stand strong by the statement, “No means no.”
Thus, I think that Salvatore was merely trying to share that she no longer goes into cases with the feminist ideals that would make her believe that they will be “black and white,” and that the woman (or man) is the “victim” with no previous involvement and the harasser is some incarnation of evil: as she states, we are “messy human beings” and “life is more complex than a rigid set of values.” This rigid set of values still holds true, though, I think for her, she just must apply it in different ways, and not have unrealistic expectations of her clients and the harassers. Salvatore’s discussion of her change in feminist norms and ideals was really interesting for me because of my prior experience, and it mainly made me consider the events of my case from the harasser’s point of view, and what sorts of issues he may have been going through at the time (if at all). I had found myself demonizing him and harboring a lot of anger for what had happened to me, so it was a nice, and unexpected, release to have a fellow feminist tell me that maybe he was not quite as “bad” as I once had thought. From her lecture, I would like to take with me the thought that appearances can be deceiving and that I should constantly question my beliefs, while trying to maintain some sort of moral compass, whatever that might mean in any particular situation. Not all situations that I encounter will fit into this category or that, and thus I must constantly shift my point of focus, look at situations from all perspectives, and question myself and my beliefs in order to remain thoughtful, fair-minded, and intellectually active, as well as in order to grow in my feminist beliefs and activism.
This brings me to the second idea that Salvatore shared, in which feminists must often be “tempered radicals.” I think that her stories about her change in feminist norms and ideals are an example of tempered radicalism, in which she believes one thing, but due to confounding factors that could be explained by feminism or by psychology but may not be received well by the general public, and the fact that she might have to explain a client’s behavior to a likely not feminist jury, she must tone down her feminism and attempt to meet people halfway. To me, “tempered radical” seems to be synonymous with liberal feminist, and I generally am fairly critical of liberal feminists, and become angry that they are working within the same system that serves to oppress them. However, the way that Salvatore explained her tempered radicalism, in which she uses it to her and her clients’ advantage, made sense to me, and I can see the ways in which working within the system (in my case, with the goal of overthrowing the system one day), can be helpful for short term goals. While I refused to give up many of my radical beliefs and mentality, I have decided to actively find ways that I can make things better now, rather than waiting for a future time that frankly, I might not even be alive to see. As inspired by Carol Jacobsen, I recently held a letter writing party, in which my friends and I wrote 47 letters to local legislatures opposing the privatization of prisons. I found myself wanting to critique the prison system, and suggest alternatives, but knew that I would be lucky if my audience even considered looking into opposing the privatization of prisons, much less considered becoming a proponent of disintegrating the prison-industrial complex system, so with tempered radicalism in mind, I tried to appeal to Republican sensibilities instead of bombarding legislatures with a radical manifesto. While I think that it is dangerous to become too comfortable in working within the system, and in not looking further ahead in which fixing a system that works on broken ideals is impossible, I do think that in the meantime, it may be helpful to some people, and could have potentially positive outcomes that could further a radical agenda later on.