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Workplaces Without Borders And Sexual Harassment
Workplace sexual harassment doesn't require a workplace
In her excellent Citadels of Pride, Martha Nussbaum talks about “workplaces without borders.” An example is the performing arts. Performers—musicians, actors, dancers, etc.—usually have a gig for a particular length of time (a movie, a run on a Broadway show, an album) and then have to audition for more work. Our laws and norms about sexual harassment are designed for workplaces with borders, and transition poorly to workplaces without borders—which make those industries prone to serious sexual harassment issues.
Our society treats sexual harassment outside the workplace differently from sexual harassment inside the workplace, and quite rightly so. Outside the workplace you can often just tell the harasser to fuck off. Inside the workplace, you’re trapped, enduring sexual harassment in order to pay your bills. Sexual harassment can shut women out of entire fields, limiting the scope of their lives purely because they don’t want to hear men commenting on their tits all the time.
Let’s say you’re a film actor in the 1990s who is working on a non-Miramax production. In a certain sense, Harvey Weinstein1 is not your boss: he’s not writing you checks. But in another sense Harvey Weinstein is always your boss, because you never have a stable position, you’re always looking for work, and if at any point you piss off Harvey Weinstein you could wind up unable to pay your rent next month.
You might say “well, if Harvey Weinstein asks out of nowhere whether your breasts are real, when you aren’t working on a Miramax film, he’s boorish and misogynist and a creep, but he’s not engaged in workplace sexual harassment—there’s no employment relationship between you and him.” But in a very real way that’s wrong, because even if Weinstein isn’t your employer right now, he might well have been your employer last year and be about to be your employer next year. Because the workplace is borderless, Weinstein’s behavior still creates a hostile work environment.
But who are you going to complain to about it? Even if HR had been empowered to rein in Weinstein (which of course it was not), it would say “we have sexual harassment rules for our actual film sets. We do not and cannot have sexual harassment rules for our employees’ behavior after hours with regards to people we are not paying.” The other option would be an absurd imposition into employees’ private lives. And Weinstein is in some ways the best case—if it’s a director who’s going to be working for a different studio next year, you’re going to complain to whom exactly?
Similarly, it’s quid pro quo sexual harassment if your boss implies you’ll get a raise if you sleep with them, get fired if you don’t sleep with them, etc. Weinstein regularly threatened to blacklist his victims if they didn’t cooperate, or promised to give them parts in movies if they did. But what’s striking is that he often didn’t have to. His victims knew very well what was on offer if they had sex with him and what he (a famously vengeful man) would do if they refused.
Quid pro quo sexual harassment in the performing arts can be hard to detect. It’s easy to notice if you’ve been fired or demoted, but you can never really know why you didn’t get a particular part or why all the work has suddenly dried up. Weinstein would falsely claim that women he had blacklisted for refusing sex with him were nightmares to work with, so there was no paper trail. Movies Weinstein worked on would turn down tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of potential employees every year—it wouldn’t be that surprising for some of them to be women who had turned down Weinstein sexually, even if no quid pro quo sexual harassment occurred at all.
How do we deal with workplaces without borders? Avoiding the perpetrator, or helping vulnerable people avoid the perpetrator, is obviously insufficient. It is also a hostile work environment to have to limit your actions in order to avoid someone sexually harassing you.
All too often, the solution is for the victims to publicly come forward about their experiences, in the hopes that the public backlash will cause the harasser to face consequences. This is a terrible solution. It puts a heavy burden on the victims. It stops working when the public inevitably gets bored and doesn’t pay much attention. And the public is easily deceived, as it has little incentive to investigate any particular accusation.
Most workplaces without borders contain “normal” workplaces with borders within them, such as the movie set or the producers’ personal assistants. Sexual harassment that occurs in the “normal” workplace should be fully investigated and punished, which will help prevent borderless sexual harassment by removing harassers from positions of power. Similarly, companies should be strict about quid pro quo sexual harassment.2 Of course, anyone who moves from harassment to assault should ideally be arrested and tried in court.
Nussbaum suggests that, in the performing arts, unions can create a procedure for sexual-harassment complaints and investigation, as part of their duty to protect their members. I am unsure whether a forward-thinking company in a borderless workplace could come up with a policy about outside-the-workplace harassment which appropriately balanced their employees’ privacy with preventing borderless workplace sexual harassment. It seems like it ought to be possible, but I’m not sure what it would look like.
However, I’m mostly interested in bringing this concept to people’s attention in the hopes that it will clarify discussions about sexual harassment. I’ve seen a lot of people have difficulty expressing exactly what is wrong about the way they were treated and how it was different from an ordinary creep at a party.
In particular, the AI risk community strikes me as, in many ways, a workplace without borders. While it’s not as borderless as the performing arts, the job turnover rate is high, and many people work independently using grant funding. The Centre for Effective Altruism’s Community Health Team serves some of the function that a union might, but their powers are quite limited.3 I’m genuinely uncertain what a good structural solution looks like—one that does not rely on individuals’ personal virtue and disinclination to harass others—but I would like to open a discussion.
Citadels of Pride: Sexual Abuse, Accountability, and Reconciliation, by Martha Nussbaum. Published 2021. 296 pages. $14.
Weinstein is kind of a bad example, because he also committed a lot of violent crimes, which these dynamics don’t apply to.
And, yes, a person consensually having sex with a producer or director in exchange for a part is ethically quid pro quo sexual harassment, although don’t take your legal advice from me.
They can ban people from CEA events but they can’t, say, thoroughly investigate with adequate due process, conclude someone is a serial sexual harasser, and prohibit any effective-altruism-affiliated AI risk organization from hiring them for the next three years. To be clear, I’m not saying they ought to have more powers than they do; I in fact think CEA shouldn’t have control over effective altruist hiring decisions.