It is nothing new that public figures are being condemned for illegal acts. Hugely popular figures have been brought down with violations like tax evasion and bribery and fraud of various kinds. Most recently, however, public figures are being spotlighted for conduct that, while clearly illegal, has been a tolerated feature of our culture for a very long time. The image of the “ladies’ man” and “the wolf” have been grudgingly accepted even if studiously avoided. Sexual assault has always been forbidden, but the definition of what constitutes sexual assault as a prosecutable crime has not always been clear.
The recent revelations regarding sexual misconduct by public figures is a watershed moment precisely because it is a full frontal attack on this cultural tolerance of much sexually oriented conduct. Grabbing a person’s behind is now being called the crime that it is. Talk, from Trump’s bragging about outright sexual assault to verbal harassment by a boss, is now no longer acceptable as “locker room talk” or even “boys will be boys.”
All of this is a welcome change in our culture. However, it creates a real problem for women. Just as men, particularly in white collar settings, dress and groom to enhance their professional appeal, so women have the right and desire to dress and groom in such a way to use their appearance to take their rightful place in their chosen profession. The tough question for women, however, is how to do that without playing on their sexual attractiveness to men.
The whole idea of female attractiveness has been at least subliminally sexual. Why, for instance, does a woman use lipstick if not to attract men to her lips? Why does female clothing include the feature of plunging necklines, a feature almost totally absent from the clothing of men? Why does female dress uncover their legs while male dress rarely does (and, frankly, rarely should)?
The problem for women is this: their attractiveness, in an era of zero cultural tolerance for improper sexual advances, may cause men to exclude women from the kind of personal contact that creates opportunities for advancement in the world of business. Those Friday night dinner-and-drinks, those golf outings, those sporting events, where the members get to know each other and bond with each other, are all critical events in the advancement in various businesses. Women want to be a part of all that, but men might very well decide to exclude them for fear of getting into situations where they could be accused of improper conduct or speech.
Here is the point. Cultural changes are incremental for a reason. One change in a cultural outlook affects the entire cultural worldview of a group. What we are really witnessing here is a fundamental sea change in our culture’s subtle, almost subliminal view of women as somehow inferior. It is, in its own way, the same kind of change that our culture has had to make about people of color. That change had its sea change moment with the abolition of slavery, but that happened over 150 years ago, and we have yet to rid ourselves of that prejudice.
The rights of women have been greatly improved by the wholesale condemnation of sexual harassment and assault. The change in attitude, as needed as it is, will take far more time.