Circular Logic Normalizes Sexual Harassment

Have you ever scrolled through one of those internet lists of vintage advertisements? The ads are, at times, hilarious. I’m talking plump, innocent ...

Nov 8, 2014

Have you ever scrolled through one of those internet lists of vintage advertisements? The ads are, at times, hilarious. I’m talking plump, innocent children clad in quaint 19th-century garb, playing next to embellished lettering that reads “COCAINE TOOTH DROPS.” Hilarious, if you share my sense of humor. Other ads feature a more chilling set of products and advertising strategies. Some use children to market cheap firearms and trumpet sexist slogans to sell a miscellany of commodities  — the tagline, “Most men ask, ‘Is she pretty?’ not ‘Is she clever?’” is used to sell Palmolive soap — from beauty products to food items.
Today, we laugh, or grimace, but a few generations ago, perhaps only the strangest of these ads merited a second look. We can assume that most of them actually served their intended purpose: to sell products. Between then and now a shift has occurred. Our sense of what is normal has changed.
To define what is normal is a process. We tend to think of normal occurrences or interactions as phenomena in stasis: they are the very proof that nothing has changed. Yet as our wickedly old-fashioned advertisements show, the ordinary has not always been so.
Before U.S. American men left to fight during World War II, trousers for women were uncommon. But as women took over the workforce, particularly factory jobs, trousers emerged as the more pragmatic option. By the 1970s, it was illegal for schools to compel female students to wear skirts. Trousers are now fully incorporated into the female U.S. American wardrobe. They go largely unnoticed; they are normal. The boundaries of normal fluctuate with the status quo.
Most would accept this understanding of normalcy, until we apply it to repetitive phenomena less pleasant than fashion or advertisements like recurring acts of aggression directed towards marginalized groups. These acts are explained away as exceptional. After all, “it’s not always about race,” “not all men are like that,” etc. Yet, we implicitly persuade the victims of these supposedly random acts to ignore their micro-aggressors, catcallers and Facebook-harassers. To ignore them because “these things happen all the time,” and it “just isn’t worth your time.” The awareness that something is wrong, that this is not normal,dwindles along with the victims’ resolve.
Unfortunately, this circular logic rules in arguments about gender-specific forms of aggression and particularly about sexual harassment on university campuses. I am not interested in entertaining a detailed discussion of these topics here. Instead, I invite the NYU Abu Dhabi community to contemplate a broader issue: What routine aggressions do we excuse ourselves from dealing with on account of their frequency? What will we allow to be normal?
Emma Leathley is a staff writer. Email her at 
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