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Sobering up to sexual harassment realities

Don’t blame alcohol for wandering hands

Champagne on ice. All photos by Pax Ahimsa Gethen.

Today, I read an article in the Washington Post entitled “No booze at your office holiday party this year? It’s the ‘Weinstein effect.’” The lead set the tone:

This year, you could arrive at your company holiday party to find a woman from human resources distributing drink tickets, two per head, as if it’s communist Russia and we’re rationing trash red wine now.

Now, I’ve never really enjoyed alcohol, and I’ve been a non-drinker for over eight years now. I’ve also been away from traditional office employment for over nine years (though I did work in office jobs for 15 years before that). So maybe I can’t relate to the idea that limiting free alcoholic drinks to two per person is akin to severe austerity. How many people work for companies so flush with cash that the “whiskey-filled well of the open bar” the article describes is a standard feature of year-end office parties?

Regardless, my main issue with this article is the suggestion that sexual harassment in the workplace might be curbed by limiting or eliminating party drinks. Sexual predators do not need alcohol or other substances as an excuse to harass others. A man who does not respect another’s personal space might take advantage of the informal party atmosphere to be bolder than he would elsewhere, but it is primarily his attitude, not access to alcohol, that endangers his targets. President Donald Trump, who has been accused of sexual harassment by over a dozen women, has been a teetotaler for decades.

I am fully aware that alcohol lowers inhibitions. But the notion that alcohol consumption drives men to molest is nearly as short-sighted as the assertions after every mass murder in the U.S. that the perpetrator must have committed the act because of mental illness. (Unless, of course, the perpetrator is brown-skinned or known to be Muslim; then they are presumed to be Islamic terrorists.) Millions of people, including myself, suffer from mental illness, but do not go around shooting people or running them over with cars.

Likewise, many people, sadly, abuse alcohol, but do not go on to assault others sexually unless they had the potential to do so to begin with. Alcohol certainly can be an aggravating factor in sexual assault, but that is not the same as saying that drinking causes men to assault women. While people of all genders can be both perpetrators and targets of sexual assault, men are the primary aggressors. We must hold men accountable for their actions and address the roots of toxic masculinity to eradicate this behavior, and those roots were not grown in a bottle.

Whether in moderation or excess, I am not defending or encouraging drinking. Alcohol is a toxic substance, and alcoholism is a serious disease; my sister-in-law died by suicide largely as a result of it. Though I don’t use any drugs myself, I think it’s ridiculous that the recreational use of marijuana, which is much safer than alcohol, is illegal in most of this country, while booze flows freely.

Personally, I prefer to attend events where no alcohol is served, and no one is drinking or using drugs. My spouse and I threw a big concert party for my 40th birthday, and we served no alcohol, as I wanted to make it a “safe and sober” space. Some of the attendees weren’t thrilled about this; one of the bands went to a bar beforehand, and another performer brought a flask. I just enjoyed drinking “mocktails” myself.

The only kind of drink I liked: Sweet and fruity. Umbrella optional.

Fruity mixed drinks were the only alcoholic beverages I liked before I quit drinking anyway; I realized it was the sugar I wanted, not the liquor. My very last drink was a crappy strawberry daiquiri at a tiki bar, which I only went to because a friend told me the hotel it was in was shutting the bar down, and there was a big movement to save it. I spent a lonely two hours there waiting for my friend, who ultimately didn’t show up, texting me that it would take too long to get there and he’d heard the bar wasn’t shutting down after all. I quit drinking there and then. You’ll rarely find me in a bar anymore unless I’m there to listen to or photograph live musical performances.

No matter what substances one indulges in however, there is no excuse for sexual harassment. Getting someone else drunk in the hopes of lowering their inhibitions enough to accept your advances is also predatory behavior. But plenty of harassment takes place in environments far removed from bars and clubs. Whether at work, at home, or on the street, a sober predator can be just as dangerous and damaging as one who has been drinking.

Companies who truly want to make a safer environment for their female employees would do well to redirect some of the holiday party funds, whether or not they ration drinks. They should use the money to recruit and hire more women in positions of responsibility, and rewrite their policies and training materials to emphasize that sexual harassment will not be tolerated — and follow through on enforcement. Doing one without the other is insufficient. A workplace— regardless of industry—where 85% of the managers are men will remain a fertile environment for harassment no matter what policies are in place.

I won’t end this with a cheery suggestion to “drink responsibly” and enjoy the holidays. The irresponsibility of men has been driving sexual harassment since long before office parties and long before, as the WaPo article puts it, the “era of Harvey Weinstein”. Just as on Thanksgiving, a lot of people are going to be facing abusers in their own family between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The man who sexually molested me for years when I was a child died years ago, but the estrangement from my family that eventually resulted has made the holiday season a tough time for me, as it is for many victims and survivors of sexual harassment.

Drink if you want to, but unless you have explicit, enthusiastic consent — and minors are not capable of consenting to sexual activity— keep your hands, lips, and lewd words to yourself. Whatever guise they appear in, we must stop enabling and excusing predators.

ETA, Dec. 13: The Establishment, a publication funded and run by women, posted a good article on this topic today: