Sexual tension is natural
We have seen and heard much in recent days about sexual harassment, both on campus and in the world around us. Like many others, I was caught up in the drama of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, and was left dissatisfied with the outcome. There were no clear good guys and bad guys here: Whether or not justice was done, there was in the background the whole unseemly spectacle of a nation trying to peer into the private lives of two private individuals. Perhaps it was necessary, perhaps not. But it still was an embarrassment.
Did the heightened consciousness to sexual harassment that resulted from all of this justify the insult? Time will tell. But I am also worried that we may have learned the wrong lessons.
One extreme position that is gaining momentum would eliminate all sexuality from public places, including our offices, labs and classes. Cartoonists everywhere nervously joke about secretaries being asked to sign legal waivers before a colleague will offer a compliment. I call this extreme because, I fear, we are focusing on the "sexual" rather than on the "harassment." Just as there is harassment that is not sexual, so there is a natural sexual tension which is natural and healthy. This tension, when acknowledged and treated with respect, allows for a more human workplace. Respect for others should not mean pretending to ignore those qualities that make us who we are, and gender is certainly one of these.
A second arrant reaction is to bring everything out into public scrutiny. On campus, for example, the "Safer Sex" video is touted as just the very thing to make us responsible citizens. And, after all, it's for health reasons! I believe that the destruction of the inherently private nature of sexuality is doomed to failure, because it ignores one of our most basic human traits: the capacity for shame. We need to be private about some things, and we feel robbed of something precious when our somatic integrity is invaded.
What these two extremes have in common is that neither values sexual differences as an important ingredient in social life: one ignores them, and the other does not respect them. So how then, to walk the ever-shifting lines between respect and aloofness, between private and public? We are just beginning to learn the rules, and will need to keep our moral sensitivities well maintained and free of cobwebs if we are to succeed.
Rabbi Dan Shevitz is the Jewish chaplain and director of MIT Hillel.
This is the first in a series of weekly columns by the MIT chaplains. Opinions expressed are those of the author alone. The chaplains welcome responses and will use this space to deal with questions raised by members of the community.