Plausibly Deniable Harassment

There's a fascinating op-ed in the New York Times today about the sort of sexual predators who prey on housekeepers.  Apparently it's not uncommon, though the incidents described seem to be more along the lines of exhibitionists than people actually attacking the maids:


It's not an everyday occurrence but it happens enough to make this question all too familiar: "Mr. Tomsky, can you give the new girl Room 3501 until next Tuesday? That man is back, the one who loves to let his robe fall open every time I try to clean." So, yes, we assign the room to the new girl.

But not before hotel managers roll up to the room, flanked by security guards, to request that the guest vacate during cleaning, or at least promise to remain fully clothed or risk expulsion. Often it need not be discussed in detail: those guests who can't seem to tie their robe properly usually know exactly what they're guilty of. Typically, an unsolicited phone call from management inquiring if the service in their room is up-to-standard, and offering to send a manager to supervise the next cleaning, improves their behavior. I remember one exhibitionist guest, in New Orleans, cutting me off before I could get down to business:

"Sir, this is Jacob, the housekeeping manager -- "

"O.K., fine, O.K.!" And he hung up. That was that.

Kevin Drum says:

Unfortunately, this doesn't really surprise me. Honestly, though -- and I suppose I'm just being naive here -- I'm surprised hotels don't have a no-tolerance policy for this kind of stuff: do it once and you're thrown out and blacklisted forever. What's the justification for extending even the slightest forbearance toward this kind of behavior?

His commenters suggest the usual combination of greed and indifference, but I think that's too uncharitable. The problem is suggested by the piece: the exhibitionists are careful to maintain plausible deniability.

I travel a lot, and I've had housekeepers walk in on me in various states of undress, especially in hotels with turndown service (yes, yes, now that I'm a more seasoned traveler, I try to engage the chain or the deadbolt before I undress).  Not a big deal for me, but I'm sure it could happen to a male traveler perfectly innocently.  So could a wardrobe malfunction--the robes in many hotels are not exactly overgenerous, especially for the burgeoning middle-aged physique of a chairborne warrior.

Now imagine you've got a customer who has been accidentally encountered in his birthday suit. Presumably he's embarassed . . . and now you have the housekeeping manager descend on him, yell at him for being a perv, kick him out of the hotel, and blacklist him.  

Now imagine you're the guest. If it happened to you you'd be humiliated and enraged--insult to injury, and no matter if the wound was partly self-inflicted. You would almost certainly never give that hotel your business again.  You would tell all your friends about the officious clothing Nazis at [insert hotel chain here]. You might well sue.

Maybe there should be a blacklist for serial offenders, but again, I was a serial offender at a certain hotel in LA with early turndown hours--I assume they didn't report me because, well, women don't usually do that sort of thing.  

Don't get me wrong; rich guys get away with stuff they shouldn't.  But that's not the whole story.  There are grey areas where we all know what's going on, but we can't prove it.  When I was working on a pretty big network overhaul at a mutual fund firm--doing the kind of work that at the time was almost never done by women--there was an executive with a very, very deep desk that he had pushed against the wall.  Somehow, when I went in there to work on his computer, he was always there--and his computer was always pushed to the far edge of the extremely crowded desk, forcing me to essentially bend over his desk in order to do anything.  (Naturally, he never offered me his chair.)  Creeptastic.

I knew what he was doing, and I'm pretty sure that he knew I knew it.  But what was I supposed to say:  "Don't put your computer there?"  There was no good way for anyone in his firm or mine to have that conversation. Eventually I delegated most of the work in his office to a male colleague, and his computer moved (back, I assume) to the middle of the desk.

Even fifteen years later, I don't really have a better solution.  My company was not exactly a bastion of feminist sentiment, but even if it had been, how could we prove that he hadn't put the computer there because he liked the distant perspective it gave him on his stock portfolio?

You could cast this as just another abuse of power by a rich guy.  And to be sure, it probably would have been easier to get one of the mailroom guys to behave himself--but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have said anything in that case either, because it does no good to make enemies at any level of the firm when you're a consultant.  On the other hand, if he'd been grabbing me, there were people in management there who I know would have tried to address his behavior.

Ultimately, as unpleasant as it was, I think it is better to be in a system where we give people the benefit of the doubt than one where any action that could have the slightest sexual connotation is presumptively harassment.  Yes, it lets creeps get away with a lot.  But it also means that the rest of us can put our computers where we want them--and don't get kicked out of hotels because we forgot to bolt the door.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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