The #MeToo movement brought to light the astonishing prevalence of sexual assault; women felt empowered to share lurid stories of groping, rape, and drugging by powerful men.
In Buffalo State professor of philosophy John Draeger’s mind, it’s not just the egregious behavior that should be checked, but the nuanced actions that can precede it. His article “Everyday Sexism: What’s the Harm in Looking?” (International Journal of Applied Philosophy. 2016) explores men’s lingering looks at women.
While some woman might dismiss such looks as just another of life’s minor annoyances, they create a toxic environment, nonetheless, said Draeger, who began focusing on ethics on his doctoral dissertation in the early ‘00s. Since then, he’s studied racial injustice and gay rights, as well as the treatment of women.
His research suggests lingering looks can prove devastating to a woman with a history of trauma. He points to documented evidence that women continue to be on the receiving end of unwanted catcalls, leers, unwanted touching, rape jokes, and other forms of degradation. He considers leers in relation to marital rape, which was legal until the 1980s. Before then, husbands were not held accountable because sex “on demand” was thought to be part of the marriage contract.
“While frequent and socially sanctioned, marital rape was not (and is not) morally justified,” said Draeger. “Likewise, lingering looks are quite common, but this need not mean that are morally justified.”
It’s not just one inappropriate glance that is the problem, he said. It’s the cumulative effect.
“It’s not one person walking across grass that ruins it,” he said, “but everyone walking across the grass that does.”
The overarching problem is that lingering looks reinforce the message that women are mere sexual objects to be used and discarded, he said. Such looks negate that women are smart or talented and bring multiple skills to the workplace. And this is a centuries-old problem that needs to be addressed from a place of respect.
Draeger suggests that men challenge their buddies who make suggestive remarks about women while women refrain from shaming other women.
“Each of us should strive to do the right thing at the right time in the right way.” He said. “We need not be moral saints but should also not ignore the fact that justified inaction can leave us tainted.”
At the same time, he said, some people who cause offense don’t necessarily mean to do so. Insensitivity should not be confused with malice.
“Both are morally troubling, but we should strive to be nuanced in our discussion of them,” he said. “As moral works-in-progress, each of us should be humble enough to recognize that we can do better. However, civility recommends that we not think the worst of wrongdoers. They may well show themselves to be thoroughly reprehensible, but it is also possible that they are morally out to lunch and need to be kindly brought back to the table.”
About John Draeger
Draeger earned his doctorate in philosophy from Syracuse University, with a focus on ethics. He joined the Buffalo State faculty in fall 2005 after teaching at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. He teaches courses in ethics, political philosophy, and philosophy of law. He also directs Buffalo State’s Teaching and Learning Center. His current center projects include work on higher-order thinking, general education, and metacognition.
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