Heterophobia: a review

by Wendy McElroy

Daphne Patai, "Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism."

In her latest book, Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism, the iconoclastic feminist Daphne Patai comments on how little debate the issue of sexual harassment has occasioned within feminism. The silence is especially strange when you consider the virtual warfare that has broken out over the subject of pornography. To insiders who peer into the feminist movement, there must seem to be a consensus on sexual harassment which is so strong that it survived even N.O.W.'s bizarre defense of Clinton, although he clearly abused women. Of course, heretics like Nerra Sohani took gutsy steps -- e.g. denouncing the First Lady in the March 4, 1998 Salon Magazine for reacting "in the manner of the traditionally oppressed" by "standing by her man" -- but more prominent feminists tended to attack the harassed women rather than the harassing man. Patai's Heterophobia constitutes the first mainstream feminist voice to speak out in protest against the disastrous impact that the Sexual Harassment Industry (SHI) has had on both men and women. Heterophobia ends the silence. And, as an academic who has witnessed first-hand the social experiment of "sexualizing subordination" within the university system, the woman knows what she is talking about.

The main theme of Patai's book is this: [T]he current judicial, quasi-judicial, extra-legal, and administrative application of sexual harassment law, especially as manifested in the 'hostile environment' doctrine and as practiced in colleges and universities, represents an unwelcomed and dangerous shift in both law and custom."(xv) But the most controversial aspect of Heterophobia will surely be Patai's contention that the SHI is an intentional and extremely successful gambit employed by prominent feminists, such as Catharine MacKinnon, who wish to bring men "to heel." Patai persuasively argues that the main objective of "sex regulators...is the dismantling of heterosexuality altogether."(xv)

This is the echo of an old theme within feminism. In her book The Second Stage (1981), Betty Friedan expressed extreme alarm at the anti-heterosexual bias that seemed to dominate the higher echelons of the movement. Second Wave feminism -- the feminism that arose in the '60s -- made heterosexual women feel that they were not 'real' feminists because they were sleeping with the enemy. Patai substantiates Friedan's alarm. She provides citation after citation of heterosexual women who apologize for loving men and of lesbians who question such women's purity. For example, in Heterosexuality: A Feminist and Psychology Reader (1993), Doris C. DeHardt explains that "she used to believe she could facilitate her clients' heterosexual relationships. Now, however, she thinks that 'feminist marriage is, like military intelligence, an oxymoron.'"(Patai, p.142) Male-bashing, heterosexual-bashing, has become a characteristic within much of contemporary feminism. And sexual harassment laws have become the main political vehicle for the expression of heterosexual-bashing.

Lin Farley's pioneering work on sexual harassment, Sexual Shakedown: The Sexual Harassment of Women on the Job, appeared in 1978. Within its pages, she chronicled appalling and blatant instances of gender discrimination. She also acknowledged the self-conscious manner in which some women used sex in order to advance themselves in the workplace. From this starting point, militant feminists argued that women should be included in the protection offered by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of secondary characteristics such as race. This legislation, in conjunction with Title IX of the Education Amendments to the Equal Opportunity Act (1972), prohibited "verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, imposed on the basis of sex, by an employee or agent of a recipient of federal funds..."(p.18)

That was the view of sexual harassment in the '70s. In the '90s, the issue has evolved to the totalitarian point that a 6 year-old boy in North Carolina was recently suspended from his first-grade classroom for kissing a female co-student on the cheek. Patai considers such extremes to be the result of "the construction of a social problem on a national scale." She eloquently presents the dangers and destructive power of legally denying heterosexuality. Such an attempt not only flies in the face of biology, but threatens the underlying legal fabric upon which individual rights rest.

Consider one example: in the university system (and many would argue in the legal system as well), when a charge of sexual harassment is leveled, the burden of proof is shifted to the accused. The accused is guilty until proven innocent. Sometimes the accusations are based on nothing more than politely questioning a feminist position. In one case, a markedly over-weight professor responded to a taunt shouted-out in class by a student who commented on the extreme 'size' of his chest: he observed that she had no such problem. As a result of the witch hunt that followed, the professor committed suicide. The university's main concern seemed to be that his death would discourage other similarly abused women from "speaking out."

Heterophobia has the refreshing charm of realizing that such incidents mean we are already living in a dystopian future gone mad. To the movement's shame, it is a feminist world. To the movement's credit, there are voice such as that of Patai's who are speaking sanity to the madness. And she speaks in feminist terms by unmasking the anti-woman assumptions of sexual harassment, e.g. women are not able to compete successfully with men on an even playing field: we are so weak and emotionally fragile as to require government protection in our social and professional interactions.

Heterophobia is a well-reasoned and well-structured book that is a pleasure to read. It is broken into three sections: The Making of a Social Problem; Typifying Tales; and, The Feminist Turn Against Men. My favorite is 'Typifying Tales' because, there, Patai gives voice to the unstated side of sexual harassment. Namely, the horrifying human toll it has taken on those who have been accused, including female professors such as author Valerie Jenness.

Patai begins and ends with a haunting question: will current sexual harassment theory and policy create a better or worse society? Her answer is clear. Current sexual harassment policies create only conflict and dysfuction. Her answer is also convincing.