Edwin Lyngar offers his take on the recent sexual harassment allegations at Homeland Security.
It’s the classic “man bites dog” story. The chief of the staff at the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Homeland Security has gone on “voluntary leave” following allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination. The case is only unusual because the accused, Suzanne Barr, is a woman. A guy named James Hayes filed the complaint after he was fired.
Of course women can discriminate against men. Women can even favor and promote women over more qualified men, just like men have done for other men as a matter of course over previous decades.
In my professional life, I’ve heard the stories and accusations against some women in leadership roles, always whispered. Men have claimed that a woman “passed them over” because she only “promoted other women.” I think some of these accusations are probably true but just as many are likely false. It’s hard to know unless you’ve worked for someone like that, and I never have.
The question of sexual harassment is far more interesting to me in the Homeland Security case. An NBC news story reported: “The affidavits alleged that Barr created a ‘frat-house type atmosphere’ (emphasis mine) at ICE ‘that is targeted to humiliate and intimidate male employees.’” I can only consider these claims from a man’s perspective, but I find them hard to swallow.
I started my professional life in 1992, and I’ve watched men clean up their speech and behavior around women. In particular during the late ’90s everyone was talking about sexual harassment. We all got training on it and some men got fired over it, but we all got the message—watch what you say to women.
Over the past decade or two, men have avoided saying sexual or degrading things to women, but, outside earshot of a woman, many men are as bad as ever. This is a deep truism that many women do not understand or accept.
I knew a maintenance guy who liked to describe his sexual conquests, down to a specific rating on the tightness of a particular woman’s vagina, always at work of course. After the second or third agonizing story, I took great pains to avoid him. I’m no prude. I swear and swagger, but I found the descriptions of his sexual escapades nauseating. We don’t work together now, but in the years we did I never once stopped him or chastised him or considered “reporting” him to anyone. We’re men, and we don’t tell other men what to say or how to act.
Women have very little insight into this masculine world, although they think they do. The men’s clique still exists. Men still talk about every manner of filth and sex, but women just aren’t invited. If they try to participate, I suspect they get hammered, like Suzanne Barr.
Even as men have cleaned up around women, I’ve noticed more frank talk coming from the ladies. This is just my experience, and it could be a number of factors. In work settings, I’ve been quizzed by a woman about “nooners” and oral sex. The questions were tame compared with how men talk amongst themselves, but they still scared me. I don’t ever want to offend a woman coworker and I don’t want any trouble. Plus my wife doesn’t appreciate it.
Even when a woman has on occasion made me uncomfortable, men are the most unpleasant gender to work with. No woman has ever called me a “fat fuck,” but I’ve been dubbed this by men I’ve worked with. In response, I’ve called them “stupid sacks of shit.” I know that I can never get in trouble for these manly exchanges. It’s less prevalent in white collar America, but it still happens.
I think the real problem in all of this is when women try to participate in manly discourse. It isn’t fair or right; it just is.
As for Homeland Security, I’m always a little wary when a person makes a sexual harassment after being fired. It’s so easy to lodge complaints after the fact. At the same time, I want to be careful to not “blame the victim” or discourage legitimate cases from coming forward. The only hope is for a fair investigation, although cases like this are pre-poisoned by politics.
I don’t know if Suzanne Barr harassed James Hayes. If James Hayes was wronged, I hope he gets made whole, but if Suzanne Barr created a “frat-house environment” perhaps it was her attempt to level the playing field. Chances are we’ll never know.
Edwin Lyngar is a writer and author living in Reno, Nevada. He graduated from Antioch University in 2010 with his MFA in creative writing and also holds an MA in Writing from the University of Nevada, Reno. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Bellingham Review and Ontoligica. He blogs about parenting, family life, and writing at www.edwinlyngar.com and is in the process of finding a home for his first book, a memoir titled Guy Parts.