Harvey Weinstein preyed on women for decades, and used his power to limit their ability to escape his assaults or bring him to justice. He mustered his legal team and press contacts to smear and threaten women who tried to take action. He conducted his despicable behavior with the same meticulous care he demonstrated in his Oscar campaigns, building a machine to hurt and humiliate women.
Weinstein is unusual in the amount of power and the number of people he was able to coopt in the service of his evil, but all sexual assailants and workplace harassers depend on structures of power and norms to help them harm others. We give them cover when we normalize behavior that is just shy of assault, allowing predators to pass as just a little too pushy or boisterous.
Rapists are aided by the prevalence of rape-adjacent sex—that is, sex that isn’t legally rape, in that consent is not withheld; but consent is not secured, either. For instance, sex with someone you don’t know well enough to tell whether they’re just tipsy, or too drunk to consent. Sex with someone whose “Well . . . okay” you aren’t sufficiently familiar with to distinguish coyness from fearful acquiescence. Sex with someone whose beliefs about sex you don’t know, so you find their boundaries by trial and error, not by talking ahead of time, with your clothes on. (It’s no coincidence that all of these scenarios are much more likely when people have sex with strangers or near-strangers. It’s very hard to will the good for someone you know only as a generic type.)
The more common rape-adjacent sex is, the harder it is for a potential victim or a bystander who might intervene to speak up. A determined rapist doesn’t look so different from a careless partygoer, and both of them have plausible deniability: The sex they’re about to have might not be experienced as rape.
In the office, vulgarity similarly functions as near-harassment, even when a raunchy joke is genuinely appreciated by its hearers. Every moment of crudity normalizes sex-as-assault, if only at the level of making someone else uncomfortable.
C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, distinguishes between raunchiness as a sin against chastity (when it is “in order to excite lust in themselves or others”) and as a sin against charity (“in order to shock or embarrass others”). I’d add that sometimes it is a sin against conscience, as when people engage in depravity to maintain a callus on their soul. Friends who play Cards Against Humanity (“a party game for terrible people”) will learn to dismiss the small still voice of conscience as mere squeamishness.
The more we embrace vulgarity and the breaking of taboos as liberating, the more predators will flourish. In their wake, more well-intentioned people will do violence to their friends and colleagues, thinking that because their behavior was normal it was safe.
For instance, it’s hard to tell whether the Hollywood executive who assaulted the actor Terry Crews at a party understood what he was doing as assault. In a sufficiently depraved culture, greeting someone by reaching out to grope their crotch might truly be seen by the assailant as all in good fun, or at worst, if the victim reacts badly, an honest mistake.
Miki Agrawal, the CEO of Thinx, a company producing underwear for menstruating women, pitched herself and her company as unbound by taboos about women’s bodies. So, when she regaled subordinates with details of her own sexual life, changed clothes in front of subordinates, and commented appreciatively on a subordinate’s breasts—following that quasi-compliment with a request that she expose them—she may have seen her behavior as progressive. Her employees experienced it as hellish.
In my own work, I was once showing a (female) new hire how to use our company’s messenger program, and asked her to send me an emoji to try it out. She sent me an eggplant icon followed by a cluster of three water drops—it represented an ejaculating penis. “Oh,” I said, “you sent me a very sad eggplant. It’s crying.” She was a little confused. “Is that what you think it is? Do you know what an eggplant—” I cut in, “I know, but I don’t really like it,” and moved on to the next task on our list.
I once had to walk out of a gathering in my own living room, when one of my housemates had his friends over and they began discussing and comparing, in lurid detail, the genitalia of their past lovers. I had no intention of participating in this breach of intimacy by hearing the details of bodies that had been presented as gifts to these men and were being tossed as rubbish to anyone who would take them.
Fighting back against this kind of casual crudity is necessary—both because vulgarity does violence to our understanding of ourselves as sexual beings, and what our sexuality is intended for, and because it blurs the lines around assault. We should not allow predators to hide behind the notion that we all use sexuality to make each other uncomfortable some of the time.
Supervisors, who have less to fear, should be particularly attentive to friendly-but-foul talk that makes their office a haven for harassers. Standing up to vulgarity is an act of stewardship, a chance to beat the bounds of your community, praying for all those who have been entrusted to you.