Joined: Jul 03, 2020
|Posted: Thu Aug 27, 2020 7:01 am Post subject: Is 'Ladies Lingerie' a Harmless Joke or Harassment?
|Last month, during a conference for scholars who study international affairs, Simona Sharoni, a professor of women's and gender studies at Merrimack College, asked a crowded hotel elevator what floor everyone needed. Richard Ned Lebow, a professor of political theory at King’s College London, replied, “Ladies’ lingerie” (or, as Sharoni remembers it, “Women’s lingerie.”) Several people laughed. Was that sexual harassment?
Academics have been debating the question among themselves since last month, when Sharoni filed a formal complaint about the incident, triggering an investigation by the International Studies Association. The ISA would later conclude that Lebow must apologize in writing by May 15.
So far, he has refused.
The story went public last week in a Washington Post column. “It was a lame, outmoded joke,” Ruth Marcus wrote, “the sort of thing you say in a crowded elevator to alleviate the discomfort of being jammed among strangers, an artifact of the days of fancy department stores with operators announcing the floor stops.”
She felt “the days of women feeling compelled to stay silent in the face of sexist remarks or conduct are thankfully on the way out,” urging readers, “hear something, say something, by all means,” but argued that intent matters too, that “not every stray statement by a 76-year-old man warrants a resort to disciplinary procedures,” and that Sharoni’s complaint was “frivolous” and “counterproductive.”
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“For goodness sake,” she wrote, “let’s maintain some sense of proportion and civility as we figure out how to pick our way through the minefield of modern gender relations.”
A very different judgment is included in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s coverage of the controversy. Craig N. Murphy of Wellesley College, a former president of the International Studies Association, declared, “Personally, I can understand why someone hearing the elevator remark would take offense. Sure, it’s an old joke, one my father used to repeat in the 1960s, maybe even into the early 1970s, which was when he started to learn about what he called ‘male chauvinism.’ I still tell some of my dad’s stupid jokes, and I hope I’d be gracious if someone pointed out that, as a result, I’d mindlessly said something offensive. I hope that, in time, Ned will see it that way.”
If not, the matter doesn’t appear as if it will go away.
The ISA’s deadline for a written apology looms ahead. It is unclear what will happen if Lebow persists in refusing to issue it. In turn, he has asked the ISA to reverse itself and apologize to him or risk possible legal action. And his objections have now been repeated in newspapers around the country, thanks to a write-up by the Associated Press. “This is a kangaroo court and is damaging to my career because there are people out there who somehow believe I'm a misogynist,” he told the news organization. “I'm not a Harvey Weinstein or one of these people who are repeat offenders. There's never been anything like this with me, quite to the contrary, I have mentored and supported women throughout my career.”
He believes there are stakes beyond whether he was treated fairly or not, arguing that the ISA’s actions will make others “even more likely to censor themselves.”
And Sharoni, for her part, feels that she has been personally mistreated and that there are larger stakes that compel her to speak up for her position.
“Honestly, I am so exhausted of confronting sexism in the academy and paying a high price that I am reluctant to attract more media attention,” she wrote me by email. “Still, I am aware that this not about me as an individual.” In her telling, Lebow “lashed out and engaged in victim-blaming and character assassination instead of apologizing,” and the ISA isn’t doing anything about it. She wants to see press coverage of the ostensible effect on marginalized groups “who witness yet another example of what happens when someone speaks up, even if one simply follows policy and is in the right, even if someone is a tenured full professor who spent a lifetime researching gender-based violence.”
After corresponding with both parties, I have no doubt that they both earnestly believe that they were wronged and that they are now standing up for a greater good. You’ll no doubt form your own opinions about which party is in the right, and I don’t imagine that I’ll change it, so I won’t even bother telling you mine.
What I do want to persuade you is that nothing is to be gained by vilifying either—that no matter who is right or wrong in this case, society will never be rid of people who tell the wrong joke at the wrong time, nor people who frivolously object to pitch-perfect jokes. Blaming outliers who are wrong for whatever mischief ensues is an evasion. They do not get to dictate how the rest of us react.
So sure, render a quick verdict about the lingerie joke.
But know the most consequential problems illuminated by the dispute between Lebow and Sharoni have little to do with them personally.
Their dispute is more fruitfully seen as a public stress-test for the subculture of academia, where lots of formal disagreements about sexual misconduct loom in the future. This is a relatively easy case in many respects: everyone agrees on the facts. The parties reside at different institutions, so needn’t work together. And a dispute over a single joke is much less fraught than one concerning an allegation of sexual assault or a pattern of abuse that stymies a career.
Yet both parties in this dispute and many onlookers strongly object to how it has unfolded. Everyone is right to be dissatisfied, regardless of who is correct. Digging into this relatively easy case, I quickly saw how intellectually unprepared a prominent corner of academia was to adjudicate even a simple complaint about a joke.
The unenviable job of representing the International Studies Association in this matter belonged to its executive director, Mark A. Boyer, a professor at the University of Connecticut.
He received this complaint from Sharoni:
This morning around 10:20 AM I stepped into a crowded elevator at the Hilton. Because I was standing near the buttons, I offered to press the floors for people in the elevator––mostly ISA attendees and all white middle-aged men, except for myself and another woman. One of the men, Ned Richard Lebow, did not share a floor number. Instead he said, with a smile on his face, "women's lingerie," and all his buddies laughed.
After they walked out, the woman standing next to me turned to me and said, “I wonder if we should have told them that it is no longer acceptable to make these jokes!” It took me a while to figure out that this man thought it was funny to make a reference to men shopping for lingerie while attending an academic conference. I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that we froze and didn't confront him.
I view this as a violation of ISA's Code of Conduct and would like to file an official complaint. As a survivor of sexual harassment in the academy, I am quite shaken by this incident. If you need to reach me, please call [redacted].
Lebow was quickly notified that he was under investigation. The email he received included the text of the complaint, noted that it would be forwarded to the Committee on Professional Rights and Responsibilities, linked to the ISA code of conduct, and concluded, “ISA, its officers, and committee members treat this process as confidential. You are asked to do the same.”
Lebow was surprised by the complaint. He replied to Boyer by offering context that he felt sure would clear the matter right up:
I feel sorry for the woman who has nothing to think about but a relatively inoffensive offhand remark in a lift at ISA. In the US, you may not know, and perhaps nor does she, that in the old days, when they had elevator operators, people in department stores would name the items they were shopping for if they did not know the floors.
“Women’s lingerie” subsequently became a stock line.
In a followup email, Lebow added, “I fully concur that ISA should investigate and, if necessary, take appropriate action, if there are serious transgressions of ethical practices or violations of our responsibility to treat equally people regardless of their social or gender categorization.” At the same time, he wrote, “the organization has a responsibility to dismiss frivolous complaints like this one. I am not pleased that you have seen fit to recommend that the Committee investigate this complaint. It encourages more frivolous complaints and detracts attention from serious ones that deserve real attention.”
(The decision to investigate wasn’t actually Boyer’s call—as a matter of protocol, all formal complaints made to the ISA trigger an official investigation.)
The ISA’s code of conduct says under “Addressing Grievances” that an individual who thinks he or she is a victim of a violation “should, if practicable, seek to resolve the matter informally with the person against whom the allegation is made ... If this is unsuccessful or inappropriate to the situation, then the Complainant may seek redress through the procedures outlined under 2 and 3.”
Lebow wasn’t the complainant, but he decided to email Sharoni in hopes of an informal solution. He was civil but not entirely conciliatory:
Dear Simona (if I may),
I was very surprised to learn about the complaint you lodged against me with ISA. I certainly had no desire to insult women or to make you feel uncomfortable. I am struggling to understand why you were offended, and perhaps you can enlighten me in this regard. It may be that you interpreted my remark out of context. In my youth––the 1940s and 1950s––lifts were not automatic and had operators. In department stores they would ask customers for their floors but also call out what could be purchased on each floor. It became a standard gag line to say “ladies lingerie” if someone else asked you for your floor in another lift.
Like you, I am strongly opposed to the exploitation, coercion, or humiliation of women. As such evils continue, it seems to me to make sense to direct our attention to real offenses, not those that are imagined or marginal. By making a complaint to ISA that I consider frivolous––and I expect, will be judged this way by the ethics committee––you may be directing time and effort away from the real offenses that trouble us both. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter.
Sharoni didn’t reply.