March
1st 2009
“But he’s such a nice guy!”

Posted under: Gender, jobs, unhappy endings, women's history

mrniceguyVia Feminist Law Professors, Thus Spake Zuska asks, “Why do we think only really hideously evil human beings could be sexual harrassers?”

Now, regular readers of this blog know that Historiann’s path to career happiness and job satisfaction never did run smoothly until about the summer of 2004 or so.  But I’m very happy to report that I was never sexually harassed by anyone in the groves of academe–not in the past 22-1/2 years, anyway.  So take this hypothesis for what it’s worth, but, don’t you think that being a “nice guy” is a great cover when you’re sexually harassing people?  Men who have good social skills and can read people’s reactions to them accurately are probably much more adept at 1) abusing their power over women students and subordinates, and 2) getting away with it than men who, because they are less socially skilled, aren’t regarded so much as “nice guys,” but rather as creepy, strange, or just socially awkward.  Men who are perceived as creepy, strange, or socially awkward may be more likely to be reported as sexual harassers precisely because they’re not perceived as having a large number of allies and therefore they’re not influential in their work environment, whereas men who are socially skilled probably are seen as central rather than marginal players and as people who are decision makers (or who are allies of the decision makers.) 

So my guess is that “nice guys” probably get away with sexual harassment much more often than other men precisely because they are more adept socially.  Zuska is right that the amazement over the “nice guy” status in the incidents she discusses seems more than a little naive.  It’s like people who are surprised to find out that the child molester down the street isn’t the crazed, unkempt loner muttering to himself while he walks the dog, but rather the beloved father of four who is known for the fantastic, show-stopping birthday parties he throws for his children and for his volunteer work with the Boys and Girls Clubs.  (Well, duh.)

What have you all seen and heard?  Have you known any “nice guys” like this?

28 Comments »

28 Responses to ““But he’s such a nice guy!””

  1. Belle on 01 Mar 2009 at 9:20 am #

    Hell, yeah. Not in academia, but IRL. Because I spent so much of my life outside in the business world, I saw this all the time.

    The only time I saw it in academia was when my senior colleague’s behavior was brought to light by somebody outside: the people in the Admissions office called him Dr Boobs. When I heard it, I was astonished… and then that report was echoed by many others outside the department with ‘oh, he’s always done that, and the students tell me about it, but he’s such a nice guy nobody wants to make a fuss…’

    Creepy.

  2. Clio Bluestocking on 01 Mar 2009 at 9:38 am #

    Hell to the yeah, as the young folks say. I’ve known more than one harasser in my day, and the last one knew how to play the nice guy — or the jovial old guy in his case — role very well. When his whole office filed a suit against him, the local press found many outside people who went on and on about what a “great guy” this man was, and how “such a great guy would never ever do something like this — it must be some sort of conspiracy.”

    Also, as you are saying about the child molesters. Think of the whole priest situation, or when teachers are accused or found guilty. It’s always the one that people loved and trusted. By that means they gain access to what they want. I’ve known one — probably the only time that my female status protected me from sexual exploitation. He was the favorite teacher. He coached all of the boys’ sports team, parents had no problem letting their sons go on camping trips and other outings with him, he won teaching awards, everyone wanted to be in his class. Fifteen years later, he was busted for molesting his male students (one of whom I knew very well).

    I’m reminded of a line from the Addams Family goes, “I’m dressed as a serial killer. They look just like everybody else.”

  3. Historiann on 01 Mar 2009 at 9:54 am #

    Lucky you, Clio B. and Belle! I frequently wonder if I’ve been unusually sheltered from this particular kind of criminal offense.

    Clio B. is exactly right that the Church’s pedophilia follows the same pattern. It’s always the most popular teacher who was beloved by parents and students alike. These predators are very psychologically adept. The only difference is that when it’s young male victims, there’s less victim-blaming than when the victims of harrassement or abuse are female, because girls and women are seen as designed for men’s sexual use, so therefore the consent deflection is more effective.

  4. Satsuma on 01 Mar 2009 at 10:08 am #

    Sexual harassment is really about men’s belief that they can do anything they damn well please to women and get away with it. I’ve seen “nice guy” type harassers and “creepy” types, but either way, they are what they are — patriarchal pigs. I’m not the “nice” woman type– I’m aggressive, out, lesbian, and not the fawning type of woman. Men who have picked on me have been grabbed by the throat and threatened with bodily harm unless they stop their nonsense. It’s amazing how fighting back very quickly, getting real aggressive real fast puts an end to the harasser’s career in the office.

    I don’t care about public opinion, and I will not tolerate sexist comments or any kind; subtle or overt bad behavior by men. I believe when women massively slam back, fight back, and have a court system where these guys are thrown in jail immediately to be beaten and raped by hardened male criminals, then we’ll see men cleaning up their act. It is men who cause this, and men who can end it. I have yet to hear any men get outraged and I mean OUTRAGED over this evil behavior on the part of men. They just act like nice guys and let it go on and on and on. I for one am the woman that will be their greatest nightmare should they say one wrong word in my presense. Men know this, they don’t mess with me.

    It’s why men get so angry (white men I may add) over political correctness. Notice how it’s almost always men who get outraged over being made to shut up! It’s about power, and men aren’t used to being made to shut up, so they explode like Rush Limbaugh over talk radio and advocate the harassment of women. It’s always about power, and when women massively stop tolerating every wrong word from men, and when other men start sticking their cowardly necks out and ending this, we’ll have an equal work place. Until then, just stomp on the jerks.

    I have no patience or tolerance for sexist men of any kind. Someday, I want to live in a world where I can go out on the town, and women will be so powerful, that these pigs will cease to exist.

    Maybe heterosexual women tolerate this behavior more than I do– or I simply savored the thrill of victory over my enemies, I don’t know.

  5. Historiann on 01 Mar 2009 at 10:35 am #

    Satsuma–I appreciate your rage! I think it’s harder for straight women to fight back in many cases because they may believe themselves to be more vulnerable to a “she asked for it!” or “she wanted it” kind of response from both the aggressor and from the larger community. I also think that straight women are probably more prone to blame themselves and to interrogate their own behavior, as in: is my clothing too provocative? Well, I did laugh at his dumb jokes–did he read that as flirtation? Etc. Add to that the fact that most victims of sexual harassment are usually younger and less powerful in the organziation than the harassers, and you can understand why many women find it difficult, if not impossible, to fight back as you have.

  6. Dr. Crazy on 01 Mar 2009 at 11:34 am #

    I think that there’s a good amount of what could be construed as harassment that happens in higher education – it’s just a matter of whether people name it as that.

    In know a person (professor) who’s on his fourth or fifth marriage. Each and every one of his wives he met in the classroom. Is that harassment? Is it inappropriate? How many female students did this person have inappropriate contact with whom he *didn’t* marry? But nobody asks those questions, and everybody sees this person as a charming guy.

    I’ve experienced a couple of situations (when I was a student) that felt “off” to me, though nothing specific or concrete ever happened. I’ve got to think that those situations contributed to my tendency to gravitate toward women and gay men as mentors throughout graduate school – it was just a way of avoiding things that made me uncomfortable or that had the potential to cause conflict that I wasn’t equipped to handle. The problem is, not everybody has the avoidance option that I had.

  7. Lilian Nattel on 01 Mar 2009 at 11:48 am #

    Yes, I completely agree. That’s been my experience as well. The creepy stupid ones get caught. But if you compare the stats on who gets caught to the stats on how many people have experienced abuse, then it’s evident that the creepy caught ones are far in the minority. However I wouldn’t call them nice guys, not even in quotations marks. Accomplished, charming (if they are), but not “nice.” I think people are always surprised because otherwise life is either scary or demanding. It’s scary to think that anyone could be an abuser, especially the people who have most access to your kids and so in the best position to gain trust. Or else it’s demanding to look below the surface and observe how people really are. Do they encourage others or do they just wear other people’s accomplishments as trophies? Do they encourage children’s (supervisees in the case of adult harassers) independence from them? Or do they keep them close, luring them in, discouraging other people’s involvement and influence? Do they control or do they let go? Do they show respect, real respect, not just manners?

  8. Geoff on 01 Mar 2009 at 12:22 pm #

    I had a girlfriend who had a class with such a professor at a CSU campus in the early 1990s. His MO was that he would give his female students an artificially low grade to get them to come to his office, giving him an opportunity to make some kind of overt or covert quid pro quo. I sat in on one of his classes before he was fired, and he was a very genial, likeable person, someone the students generally felt favorably toward. Likely this behavior had gone on for years before he was busted at a time in his career when he could have simply retired.

    I think we tend to underestimate the multi-faceted aspects of our personalities in general, and the cases under discussion here are one manifestation of that. The mass media bears a large part of the blame for the stereotyping of attractive & articulate people = good people and awkward & blemished = flawed or bad people, to be reductive. While it’s easy to say in conversation that we don’t subscribe to such associations, even the most objective among us has trouble avoiding them when making snap judgements in real life.

  9. Historiann on 01 Mar 2009 at 12:54 pm #

    To clarify: I think Geoff means Cal State U., not Colorado State U., right?

    Lilian raises an interesting point about power and control. I think she’s right that one should be very alert when otherwise “nice” people seem to have a strong interest in controlling a person or a relationship, and refuse to allow other people to make their own decisions/come to their own conclusions. Trying to control others, out of whatever motives, is an important tell.

    As for Dr. Crazy’s example of the serial-student marrier: I think prof-student relationships are unethical on the professors’ parts, but they still can be consensual. For me, it’s the issue of consent that’s more important, rather than the specific behavior in question.

  10. Janice on 01 Mar 2009 at 1:01 pm #

    Since I don’t blog pseudonymously, all I can say is yes, your characterization of issues is spot-on from what I’ve seen and heard tell.

  11. susurro on 01 Mar 2009 at 3:31 pm #

    In my past life as a DSV consultant to the state, we always emphasized “power + control + privilege” and part of that privilege comes from being good at manipulating people as you point out historiann. Most abusive people are very good at seeming like “such a nice guy” because that is what allows them to continue a pattern of abuse over decades in the same place even if not with the same person. Sanctioned sexism ensures that creepy guys also assume they have the male power to control female sexuality even if their privilege is not social but rather only race, class, rank, etc.

    Gay vs. Straight – I would caution against thinking that straight women are more likely to accept or internalize abuse. There are both similarities and differences in how women from different backgrounds and desires internalize and respond to abuse, why they are targeted for abuse, how they are perceived/treated, and what services are available to them (and in some cases what laws apply to them). I’ve done support groups for both lesbian and straight women survivors and heard similar comments from both, as well as extremely different ones.

  12. Erica on 01 Mar 2009 at 6:35 pm #

    My only “bad” harassment occasions have been from total assholes. But there are a lot of minor things — winks, or those sly comments that you aren’t sure whether they’re inappropriate — which I got from the nice guys. (I sure as hell didn’t think they were nice guys after that, but nobody would have EVER thought HE would do THAT…) It’s one of those things that just wears on you after a while, especially in a male-dominated field such as engineering; the majority of your colleagues don’t have that problem and don’t really understand it, so you don’t bother complaining.

    Then there were times when we’d be in a meeting, and Male Colleague #1 would be talking to #2, about how #3 had apparently said something untowards to Female Colleague. Both were saying, “Really? #2? Couldn’t be!” until I’d pipe up, “No, he can be a real sleaze sometimes.” Sometimes the little light would dawn in their eyes (“there’s a pattern here”), sometimes not (“clearly women just have it out for #2″) — it was not guaranteed.

    Silly and mildly relevant: http://wheresmyjetpack.blogspot.com/2009/02/formal-friday.html :)

  13. Geoff on 01 Mar 2009 at 6:55 pm #

    Yes, CSU in this case is Cal State U, of which there are about twenty campuses.

  14. cgeye on 01 Mar 2009 at 9:12 pm #

    After today’s NPR rehash of the troubling cover-up of Hassidic rabbi sexual abuse charges in Brooklyn, I’m beginning to suspect that being ‘a nice guy’ is a prerequisite for becoming an abuser vital to one’s community. As if raping boys and harassing girls is a tip the community gives to its leaders, as long as those rapists hold other damaging secrets close, work cheap, and form the patriarchal bulwark of that community.

    I’m also beginning to think that the revival of patriarchy where it really hurts — in isolated religious communities, and other social settings now beleaguered at least externally by the economy — demands sexual abusers as its leaders. If said communities can’t pay people well or equally, and if they must keep women and children in line, how else will they maintain order except through rape?

    But, Satsuma? Prison rape *is part of the system*. That rape of a man you hate only empowers that man to leave prison and rape his wife, his girlfriend, his children: Us. And do you really want a fratboy joke punchline concept to be the only thing that serves as justice for us?

    To turn it around, would you want any uppity dyke in dutch with the police to get broomhandled pro forma, ’cause that’s a frat joke, too? Alrighty, then.

  15. susurro on 02 Mar 2009 at 2:31 am #

    I hate to keep being the PC police here, but rape happens in all communities and is perpetrated by men of all faiths, creeds, and lack thereof. It seems ill-advised to vilify a single religion or all religions in an increasingly secular world. It’s about power, and men who believe in nothing still believe in power.

  16. Satsuma on 02 Mar 2009 at 3:20 pm #

    cgeye- I’m serious. How do we punish men? How do women fight back? Why don’t we have 20,000 women police officers out on the streets dealing with these idiots?

    I have no patience for the soft treatment men receive. I believe men only understand the threat of very grave punishment. They won’t change unless women take real power in the world. Whoever has the power to imprison and lock up forever, and define what the real crimes against women are, will rid the world of these men.

    As far as I’m concerned men are guilty until proved innocent. My blood boils at the aggressive sexist attacks on Hillary Clinton, the woman hating propaganda on national talk radio, and the classrooms women have to sit in where these preditory men think they can get away with it.

    Will men change? Hold a gun to their head, and have a one strike policy. Maybe then they’ll think twice about ever disrespecting a woman ever again. And this is a mild blog post, because my fury knows no end!!! I am so sick of women living under a reign of terror that is the very nature of men worldwide. I want this to end today!!

  17. Just Jokes « No good girls, no small talk, no bull on 02 Mar 2009 at 8:56 pm #

    [...] Jump to Comments http://feministlawprofessors.com/?p=8618 [...]

  18. rea on 03 Mar 2009 at 10:09 am #

    Re: child abusers – the never-prosecuted but definitely child abusers/molesters in my home town ran a pre-school (even after their foster kids were taken away from them). 10 years later, the pre-school had closed but they were both working in the public school system as librarians. No formal charges were ever brought (that I know), which may have been what allowed them to continue to work around children, but it still creeps me out.

  19. Daniel Hoffmann-Gill on 04 Mar 2009 at 3:15 am #

    Nice guys don’t sexually harrass, because that would make them idiots rather than nice guys.

    I must say that with the spectre of sexual harrassment cases looming over human interaction, it can sometimes lead to safety first behaviour which is no doubt good for avoiding lawsuits but not what you want when it comes to romance.

  20. Historiann on 04 Mar 2009 at 7:11 am #

    I don’t think that accusations of sexual harrassment are really a danger for most men, so long as they pay attention and make sure their attentions are wanted. Also, avoiding hitting on students or other non-peers below you in a work environment will pretty much guarantee that there are no misunderstandings.

    It’s really not difficult at all, unless you get your kicks abusing your power over someone else!

  21. Daniel Hoffmann-Gill on 05 Mar 2009 at 10:36 am #

    It depends if some people do not wish to abuse the channels of legal action that can be taken.

    Some people do that and a more common sense approach can be utilised.

    It’s not one way traffic.

  22. Historiann on 05 Mar 2009 at 10:44 am #

    Sorry, Daniel–you’re barking up the wrong tree at this blog. This is a feminist blog, so most of us are highly, highly skeptical that sexual harrassment is something that equally jeopardizes men and women. In general, feminists believe that the problem with sexual harrassment is that it is severely underreported by women, and that when it is, it’s discounted or overlooked by institutions and processes that are theoretically designed to help them. We don’t believe that the biggest problem with sexual harrassment is that some women might make false accusations against some men.

  23. femme inista on 05 Mar 2009 at 7:29 pm #

    Yes, and with the complete lack of protection offered by institutions when incidents are reported, one is faced with the possibility of career loss. A sexual harassment office can only assure the reporting individual that it is illegal for the harasser (or his comrades) to retaliate, but there are no teeth to actually prevent such retaliation. In my case, this guy better hope I never leave the profession I am in, because I will finally talk. Frankly, openly and loudly.

  24. Historiann on 05 Mar 2009 at 9:19 pm #

    femme inista–I’m sorry that you’ve had experience with this. You may find that you’ll get to a place where you can talk, whatever line of work you’re in. Regardless, I hope you have friends and good support in dealing with the consequences of someone else’s bad behavior.

  25. Daniel Hoffmann-Gill on 06 Mar 2009 at 10:29 am #

    I have got that this is a feminist blog but surely, any political moniker you give yourself is not a barrier to common sense and a wide view when it comes to any issue?

    One way traffic on any idea, from one angle, is never useful, best to thoroughly interrogate it from all perspectives to acheive the best possible solution.

    It’s funny, currently I’m engaged in a furious debate regarding violence towards women in the UK, a raft of male bloggers are underplaying the extent of it (a view that I find most repulsive, being someone who had the honour of working with women who had been abused and writing a play with them to highlight the truth) but their stance forces me to make sure I investigate all the date, all the angles and to try and unpick their reasoning.

    In that case, it stems from a lack of belief that in 2009 some men still treat some women like that, it comes from their own faith and their own actions but is not reflective of the wider issue. As I said to them, more women than not in my life have been the targets of abuse.

    I tell you this so that you don’t think me a bigot but rather a curious visitor investigating your ideas.

    All the best to you.

  26. Historiann on 06 Mar 2009 at 10:40 am #

    Thanks, Daniel–I appreciate your coming back. I’m not saying that men are never the victims of false accusations–just that that’s not the way the world usually works. Each case has to be evaluated in light of all the evidence–and that’s rough going for women victims who really are victims, because they are overwhelmingly younger, poorer, and less well established than their tormentors.

    So when I say this is a feminist blog, that’s not to say that we know the “truth” in every case, but rather to suggest that we attend the larger context in which these crimes are committed and how they are (all too frequently) covered up and/or left unpunished.

  27. Sorry! (Carnival of Radical Feminists, pt 1) « incorrigible radical feminist on 23 Mar 2009 at 10:28 am #

    [...] But He’s Such a Nice Guy at Historiann. [...]

  28. Branjor on 23 Mar 2009 at 5:06 pm #

    This post got me to thinking and wondering about an incident that happened long ago and I always thought of as innocuous. I was in high school at the time and taking Honors English. I really had a crush on the teacher of this course – the only crush on a male I ever had in my whole life. He was blond, intellectual and a really nice guy. Anyway, I was way late in coming up with a topic for my term paper, later than everyone else. So the teacher took me home to his house to think of a topic for the paper. He sat me in his dining room, told me to sit there until I thought of a topic, and left the room. The only other person in the room with me was his baby daughter, who was sound asleep in a crib, so she was no fun. I couldn’t play with her. So I just sat there for about an hour or so. Then he came back into the room and asked me if I had thought of a topic. I don’t remember what I said. Then I just went home and that was that!

    Well, it was great that he didn’t try to molest me or anything, but now I’m wondering about the incident. Why take me to his home? What would he have done if I hadn’t just sat quietly in the dining room, but had sought him out? I wonder. The possible answers make me shiver.

    What does everyone else think of this?

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