What does Catholic social teaching tell us about sexual harassment?
The cornerstone of Catholic social teaching is the defense of human dignity. Every person has innate and infinite dignity imparted by God. All actions in and by society may be judged as just or unjust, good or sinful, based on whether or not they uphold this fundamental dignity intrinsic to every human life. Here are three reasons why sexual harassment violates Catholic social teaching.
1. Sexual Harassment is a Violation of Human Dignity
Sexual harassment violates the dignity of the person being harassed. If you are a victim, it communicates that your value is not based on your dignity as a human person. Your value is based on the sexual role you play, without your consent, for the person harassing you. It is diminishing: It reduces you from a full person to an object for use by the harasser. Healthy sexuality does the opposite. A healthy sexual relationship affirms agency and dignity within the vulnerability of desire.
There is a spectrum of inappropriate harassment. Al Franken’s grope and Matt Lauer’s locked door are different. But everything along the scale communicates the same message: I have the power to lock you down, the power to make you the object I want. It is terrifying and humiliating.
We live in a society that tells women and girls that the tug of dignity we feel pushing back against the narrative of our sexual objectification somehow makes us crazy or mean.
As a teen, I laughed when it happened to me, when I felt that terror and humiliation. I thought something was wrong with me for being uptight. We live in a society that tells women and girls that the tug of dignity we feel pushing back against the narrative of our sexual objectification somehow makes us crazy or mean. Our social norms for women uphold the violation of our human dignity. These norms instill in us the pernicious beliefthat we reach the fullness of our humanity when we are treated as sexual objects.
2. Sexual Harassment is a Violation of Participation
The complement to the principle of human dignity in Catholic social teaching is the notion of solidarity. The assurance of individual dignity rests on protections guaranteed by society. We often think about this in terms of the common good: the idea that every person has a right to receive from society those things that are necessary to maintain their dignity.Water, education and health care are all examples of things C.S.T. holds up as common goods.
But C.S.T. offers a less-talked-about and even more revolutionary component of solidarity than the common good: participation. Participation is the idea that every person has the right to contribute to society as an aspect of his or her dignity.In other words, not only does everyone have the right to get what they need (common good); in order to fulfill one’s dignity, everyone must be able to give as well. This is not to say that everyone needs to be a nurse or a social worker. It is simply to say that human dignity flourishes when one is able to participate in society, whether as a waiter or builder or banker.
Sexual harassment happens everywhere: walking down the street, at home and online. The place where our national “reckoning” is happening, however, is at work. A study by the online journal of Sociologists for Women and Society showed that 80 percent of the surveyed women who reported either unwanted touching or a combination of other forms of harassment also said they changed jobs less than two years after the harassment.
In the workplace, sexual harassment is not really about sex.
This provides us with an answer to the question of why sexual harassment happens. In the workplace, sexual harassment is not really about sex. The natural expression of male sexuality is not violent. The reason men express sexuality violently in the workplace is that women are a threat to male dominance. The goal is to intimidate women and remind them of where exactly they stand in the power structure. By taking away women’s humanity, men take back their workplace dominion.
3. Sexual Harassment is a Violation of the Dignity of Work
C.S.T. argues that work itself must be dignified. This does not mean you need to be doing something prestigious; quite the opposite. It means that whatever you are doing to participate—fixing cars or computers, teaching first graders or leading business meetings, cleaning an office or performing surgery—you should be able to do your work with dignity. An employer should guarantee reasonable hours, provide a safe work environment and pay a just living wage with which one can support a family. Dignified work enables a person to participate and flourish.
The headline stories in the news around sexual harassment have been about women who are, for the most part, white and who work in elite circles: prestigious newsrooms, movie production companies and political bodies. Many of these women were able to walk away from their jobs. While it is a violation of C.S.T. when women are harassed out of participation, it is still a privilege to be able to choose not to participate.
For the poor, particularly those who work in the service industry, retail, restaurants or domestic work like cleaning and child care, there is no other option but to remain employed. This kind of work, often in intimate and less regulated settings, is plagued with sexual abuse. Such work is often done by women of color, women whose bodies have historically been treated as open sexual property—a profound and ongoing violation of human dignity. At the intersection of this historical and political reality, sexual abuse thrives today. The maid at the hotel may not be coming for your job, but she still needs to be reminded grotesquely of her place, while her harasser reminds himself that the power to take defines his humanity and place in the world.
Naming the Lie
All three of these violations of C.S.T. arise from the same lie, one even deeper and more fundamental than the lie to women that the fullness of their humanity is in their sexual value to men. The lie is that male libido is uncontrollable, that the desire to take is natural. Our social norms for men tell themthat they reach the fullness of their human dignity as insatiable takers. Kindness, accepting refusal, mistakes, failure, trying again, tenderness: These are not acceptable ways of being a man. They must take.
Our current president represents the apex of what it means to be a man in this mindset. This leads to violence by men all over our nation. Ironically, this imperative to take, to harass, to violently turn the world into their object, robs men of the experience of the fullness of their own human dignity.
C.S.T. helps us see and judge our social reality, a reality plagued today by sexual harassment. It can also help us discern the world God wants for us, one in which men conceive of their humanity as grounded in fostering rather than diminishing the dignity of others—and one in which women flourish as we participate in society on our terms, with dignified work.