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Lauren Berlant on the Jokester, the Predator, and Sexual Harassment


At the New Inquiry, Lauren Berlant reflects on the figures of the jokester and the predator in light the recent flood of allegations of sexual harassment against powerful men. Among other things, she proposes that it is structural oppression that determines who gets to define a touch or gesture as “just a joke” instead of assault. Here’s an excerpt:

Here’s the thing about the jokester and the predator. Power shows its ugliest tentacles most clearly in these figures, yet they seem at opposite extremes. Where the predator creates a situation they can exploit, it is often cushioned by a menacing sense that they control the interactive space and that they’re unavoidable. When a goof performs a joke, which is mostly spontaneous and casual, it is shaped by the play of surprise and hard to process in the moment. Time and fresh awkwardness provide the jokester’s cushion, however slight. In both cases the target suddenly feels baffled or overwhelmed.

It is hard for people to get their minds around this. It can seem like a false equivalence between the predator and the jokester. Like all analogies, it’s partial. But now it’s powerful to link them, because both are clearly protected by privilege: by control over time and space and the framing of consequences in domains of capital, labor, institutional belonging, and speech situations where the structurally vulnerable are forced to “choose their battles” or just act like a good sport.

It’s not just women who must feel compelled to take it and eat it: It’s anyone institutionally less powerful, including men when they are. Structural power is expressed in such incidents. Incidents add up to environments, toxic atmospheres: Often people lower in the pecking order find ways to live in them by imitating some habits of the powerful while honing varieties of defensive stealth like sarcasm, gossip, self-harm, or dissociating. Usually they keep quiet about the cost of staying in the game by appearing to be game. This is why keeping things “in scale” is not possible: Many forces converge in the intimate encounter with structural power, and they’re often not fully equivalent at the level of event.

But if everyone is vulnerable to harassment and teasing, the world of humiliation and dings, sexualized, racialized, and lower-rank workers are way more vulnerable. It’s not unusual to undergo these encounters as a predictable kind of unwanted overcloseness, whether or not it’s darkly predatory, jokey, or both. It’s often both.

Image: Al Franken, former US senator, speaking on the floor of the senate. Via CNN.