What Will We Teach Our Children about Sexual Boundaries? A Blog by Michael Gurian

Today’s date is 12/7/17. What I write here will attach to today’s date yet, I believe, also be universal, not time-sensitive. The scandals are growing.  Our children --whether in school or at home—likely notice the furor. Especially if they are now adolescents or emerging adults, the issue of appropriate sexual conduct and boundaries is crucial to their survival.


*Warren Moon, the renowned quarterback and Seattle Seahawks announcer, has been accused of a number of sex-based crimes and is taking a leave of absence. 

*Minnesota Senator Al Franken announced he would resign from office for his own groping scandal. In news reports about his resignation, Alabama Senator Roy Moore’s name was used as a mirror image of a Republican involved in alleged sexual misconduct.

*President Trump is again in the news as media outlets remind us that he, too, has been accused of a number of sexually based offenses, including groping.

*Former President Clinton was mentioned today in a review of his alleged sexual aggressions during to his tenure as Arkansas governor and then President, including the Monica Lewinsky affair.

And, today, I was asked by a media outlet to comment on all of this from two viewpoints: first, what children and families should learn and teach; and, second, what is going on in workplaces and colleges. During this interview, the reporter, a woman, said, “I feel strange about even talking to a man. I mean, how can a man understand what women feel? But because of your expertise, I would like to know your perspective.” 

The reporter’s honesty was welcome--it inspired this blog and I hope some of what we discussed makes it into her final article. If our present #MeToo movement devolves into us vs. them sexual politics--in which the bottom line becomes “men can’t understand women’s victimization and pain”--it will not have the legs we want it to have—legs that will build lasting social change. We’ll end up with overreach and backlash, and the new conversation will become a politicized and polarized mess. 

This is what happened with the “campus rape culture” conversation in 2011 – 2012 and now we are cleaning up egregious errors in which colleges are losing tens of millions of dollars for avoiding due process, falsely accusing young men, and ruining lives, both female and male.

What Does a Man Know?

Alphas and other people in power—most of them men, but not all—have long used sexual favors and sexual aggression to exact narcissistic and personal pleasure from people of less power—often women. As a father of daughters, I celebrate the #MeToo movement. Traumatized voices are being heard and our culture is newly committed to the principle that people who do bad things sexually should absolutely be held accountable. Workplaces are already moving toward more in-depth sexual harassment training, again. Kevin Spacey was fired off the set of the new J. Paul Getty movie and Christopher Plummer put it at the last minute. Change is occurring. Men in power in Washington are resigning.

In some ways, this may be a new conversation for many people, but in many ways, it is not new. I have two personal involvements in this debate, and both pull me toward a deeper dive.

First, my own childhood. As some of you may know from references in my books, I was a victim of sexual abuse and sexual assault at 10 years old. I survived and have thrived beyond that trauma, but those six months of abuse and then the very difficult aftermath involved a lack of sexual boundaries between someone in power and a child. The experience took me into ten years of therapy and healing. 

Those years of internal work also impressed in me a calling.  Because I suffered violence and constant powerlessness, I have empathy for others who suffer, across the spectrum—female, male, trans, straight, gay, black, brown, white, and all others. Because my sexual boundaries became amorphous, I understand how crucial it is to teach children and adults values-based sexual boundaries. 

My abuser was, like many of the alphas losing their jobs today, ambitious for narcissistic sexual power—he was also, I believe, mentally ill.  I recently learned that he experienced depression in his adult years and, after facing trial for other abuses, committed suicide. As his victim, I could have turned out the same way he did, as can anyone who is a victim of ongoing violence, but, instead, I became a student of gender dynamics. Rather than narcissistic, I feel humble in the face of both the scientific miracle and, at times, monster, sexual power is and can be.

So, when the reporter told me she wasn’t sure much could come from talking to a “privileged white man who couldn’t understand female victimization” I decided to agree with her, since, she also said, “I only need 15 minutes of your time.” This conversation was clearly not the forum to debate any of the big themes like suffering, truth, science, or sex. But both the paucity of her approach and her thin, to my mind, assumptions about such a complex relational issue tore at my heart. 

A social debate about sexual boundaries should be a primal debate. It should be and is one about which I feel qualified to speak. While there are ways that women can’t understand men, and men can’t understand women, if we let “men can’t understand” be the “new” thought of the #MeToo movement, we will fail ourselves and our children. We’ve heard that idea before, and it creates a gender war that helps fuel the situation we are all in now.

Sexual Power in the Workplace

My second personal involvement is not personal but professional. I began my post-academic career in the world of corporate sexual harassment training.  In Leadership and the Sexes and on www.genderleadership.com you’ll see a number my own and my colleague’s clients. Some were Fortune 500 companies.  My team and I helped train corporations on male/female leadership differences, gender and marketing, sexual relations, and all of the other areas of practical politics and dynamics important to workplace cohesion and productivity, especially in workplaces in which sexual and gender tensions existed (which was and is, most successful workplaces). 

In the past two decades of doing this work, I noticed both the possibility and impossibility of legislating sexual dynamics. First, the impossibility: more than ½ of dating, romantic partnership, and marriage grows from workplace relationships. Most people in a workplace over a period of decades will likely feel some kind of sexual confusion at some point. Research has indicated for decades that men feel more sexual confusion than women; men tend to be more awkward in their sexual dance. But most women, too, at some point, will feel feelings for someone that surprise them, and in many cases, they will act on those feelings.

Smart workplaces know this. Sexual tension and inadvertent “errors,” are generally not the cause for immediate termination now, in 2017. If they are, that workplace will generally find itself less productive and worse at team-building than the next corporation. Why? Because most workplaces today know the impossibility of legislating all sexual energy just as, though some Puritanical forces try, we can’t and shouldn’t legislate away humor and empathy.

Yet, a business leader I talked with last week told me his workplace was, in the wake of all the press coverage about male sexual predators in the workplace, considering a return to the experiments of a few decades ago (experiments that still exist in some companies) of “zero tolerance” for sexual innuendo, flirting, touching a shoulder, or otherwise, in any way, making a woman feel uncomfortable. Zero tolerance means immediate firing.

We need to be very careful with this kind of thing. Zero tolerance for actions that are not criminal nor hostile generally ruins a workplace. I remember the days when companies would say, “If she feels uncomfortable, he is done.” The business leader I talked with told me, “No one today wants to look like they are not on the side of this momentum. Zero tolerance for any female discomfort may be coming back.”  While this kind of policy may have seemed to work in small pockets—workplace bubbles—workplaces understood over the years that “hostility” and “hostile work environment” were more realistic than “I felt uncomfortable” because “uncomfortable” was, in its own way, too amorphous, and too unfair.  

Real Sexual Harassment—What Is It?

Real, hostile, dangerous sexual harassment goes on. It goes beyond a person feeling flattered by the attention on Tuesday but disliking it on Friday because it caused discomfort. The real harassment creates powerlessness and what we call “harassment trauma.” It is generally repeated and often involves a flagrant abuse of power.  These distinctions—and these painful realities for victims—can be discussed with our children and young people and, I believe, should be, when they reach an age of cognizance of sex.

To explore the difference between discomfort, which adults can respond to, and hostile sexual action, let me use cases we are all reading about. In doing so, I will say “alleged,” since none of us can know, today, on Dec. 7, 2017, all the details or facts. 

In one case, Roy Moore, who is running for the Senate, allegedly propositioned a number of early to middle teen girls when he was in his thirties—he is twice that old now. Because this involves hebephilia, (love of an adolescent) it is a form of pedophilia in part because he apparently did it a number of times and in part because he had power over these adolescents. The sheer difference in age provided that power, and if these allegations are true, this man committed a crime.  To me, his alleged actions fit the definition of sexual harassment, and perhaps more. If these allegations are proven, he should not be a leader who will legislate the lives of children from the Senate floor.

In a different case, Garrison Keillor, a man in his seventies, lost his job as a beloved radio show host because he allegedly touched the back of a woman while giving her a hug. I have to ask: What, here, warrants the firing of this man from his job? Only in the most Puritanical world in which human beings are not allowed physical touch, would this inadvertent--or, even if advertent--flirting gesture rise to the level of a crime against this woman. Workplace productivity, now robbed of a man of significant reputation and clout, declines and without gain, neither for the woman who was touched on the back, nor any other woman or man.

But you don’t know all the facts, one might say. 

That’s true. 

But innocence should precede guilt until guilt is proven. 

But Keillor had power, one might say, and the woman, presumably, didn’t, so his touch of her back had to be harassment. 

I don’t see it. 

Touching someone without hostility and without groping of sexual parts has to be proven criminal or dangerous, to me. If it is simply awkwardness or a man being too forward, it is reason, absolutely, to have an HR director say to the man, “Ms. ______ felt uncomfortable when you __________________________, and this is your first strike.” 

This kind of case-by-base analysis is better, since on another day, in another situation, either the man will do something awkward or the woman will. A punitive workplace that is punitive without significant reason—i.e. without hostility established—will fail us all.

But the woman felt uncomfortable, one might say. And I understand that, but “discomfort” is not sexual assault. Those of us who know what sexual assault is know the difference. 

What is the Difference, to You?

For you, the line between assault and awkwardness, violence and aggression, groping and touching, or crime and confusion may be different than the line I am trying to draw, but you must have a line, and I hope it will be a realistic one. If you believe that every discomfort should lead to punishment, you will likely find yourself regretting that belief, especially if you have sons. 

If awkwardness and flirting, touching and hoping, dating and even marriage, become criminalized or punishable because of “momentum,” some women may be protected, but many men will be punished without purpose. Once that momentum gets going, men will turn on women, applying the same “discomfort” standard to their relationships with female co-workers and bosses under Title IX or other legal vehicles. 

Twenty years as a corporate trainer has taught me: there are millions of men, invisible in this conversation, who have felt very uncomfortable in the face of things women do in their workplaces. Once these men speak up, their lawsuits will cost taxpayers--when government agencies are involved-- and private companies when they are not, hundreds of millions of dollars. 

We need to decide, collectively, the correct difference.  

What Do We Teach Our Children?

Hopefully we can teach our children to become adults who account for what is happening around them, and retain values throughout that accounting. Teaching this accounting will mean helping children understand where they stand in competing social trends.

In the first set of trends, we live in a society that portrays--and thus, encourages--nearly all sexual behavior.  With the exception of rape and pedophilia, which are, thankfully, presented as criminal and detestable, sexual flirting, touching, groping, manipulation, and power plays are everywhere. In some TV shows and movies, women have sexual power over men (female-driven sit coms, for instance); in others, men have sexual power over women (male-driven action movies, for example). 

Children learn what they see and they see women and men doing thousands of things during a media-saturated childhood that involve sexual boundaries crossed over as people seek to love and be loved; gain power and then lose it; feel feelings and then feel even more intense feelings. Men tend to aggress more (even though, certainly, there are more sexually aggressive females in today’s social media than ever before) and whoever aggresses, women tend to judge which males they want to enjoy or pursue and which ones they want to repel.

An example: last night, Gail and I watched the final episode of Longmire, a quality police drama on Netflix set in rural Wyoming. In all five seasons, there has been sexual tension between the two leads, Sheriff Longmire and his deputy, Victoria (Vic) Morelli. The two of them, despite the power differential, have experienced sexual tension together—sometimes pursuing it with flirting and mutual camaraderie and twice with actual sex. 

Much of what they’ve done would be considered sexual harassment (him harassing her since he is the Sheriff and she is his subordinate). There have been times when both felt uncomfortable with the other. But HR was never called. Whatever our moral take on that, the show provides one of countless examples of sexual boundaries being blurred in media that you can talk about with early to middle adolescents

Your children have seen all this before: they’ve seen shows where subordinates and their bosses are flirting, touching, backing off, trying again, and then consummating sex acts which, sometimes, lead to more discomfort and yet, often, more mutual pleasure and joy--the workplace that leads to more than half of our dating and marriages.  These are images to show children when they are old enough to understand. Boys, especially could lose their livelihoods if they don’t understand sexual boundaries—yet, too, if they overplay sexual boundaries, they could lose the opportunity to find a future spouse.  This is our reality.

Meanwhile, these stories, movies, TV shows can help girls understand the difference between power-over and discomfort-during. I have two daughters, both now grown. They relied on me for part of their education and I was always honest with them about how complex the sexual dance in the workplace was.  They knew what I did for a living. Our home was a “conscious” home, in which everything got discussed when the child was the correct age for the discussion. 

Sex and power were intertwined, I helped them to see. There are gray areas in sex and love that you have to remain conscious of. 

Empowerment was key in my daughters’ upbringing, and that included 1) speaking up when they felt uncomfortable, but also, 2) analyzing situations without an immediate punitive value, if a situation was nuanced.

Back to Real Cases Today: Resolving the Power Differential

But you could rightly say that all of this still does not resolve the obvious power issue.  Most workplaces have a simple policy—if a subordinate feels uncomfortable with a superior, that’s that.  Some of the context for this policy comes in response to allegations like those leveled at Bill Cosby, who is accused of putting women to sleep in order to have sex with them. I hope we all agree this is a crime, not only because of the invasion but also his power over the women.

But I wonder about the Al Franken resignation. Years ago, he allegedly groped various women on a USO trip and other show business venues. We don’t know enough yet, but so far, have we seen evidence of a crime, harassment? My wife, Gail, a family therapist who has worked very closely with women’s issues, did not agree with Franken’s resignation. “Wait a minute, what has he done that harmed these women? What is going on here?” It looked to her like politics running amok, especially, she said, when it does not appear Franken did anything like our president has been accused of doing. “Is this really justice?” she asked.

Louis CK allegedly masturbated in front of women who gave consent, but since they were not his equals, could they really give consent? This is a powerful case to discuss with adolescents. Some people in a discussion group will say, “The women can’t have power, so it’s sexual harassment.” Others will say, “Why are we infantilizing these women? They are adults who gained assets from the sexual transaction and were quite capable of consent.” 

Of course, this is December 7. We don’t know what will emerge later. But each case helps us help our children to discuss the role of power difference in harassment. When I was abused, I was a child; my abuser committed a crime because I had no power. But Gail’s sense of injustice regarding Al Franken was largely about the fact that the women he touched were women, not children. 

When do adults have power?  How do adults give up their power? What price do they pay?

These are crucial questions to discuss with children.

Is a man always more powerful than a woman? Our society seems to think so, since most sexual harassment complaints are filed against men.  But are there ways women have more power than men? That questions usually leads to a very deep conversation.

Is an alpha male (or female) who sits higher in the hierarchy always guilty of sexual harassment if he makes a lower-level worker sexually uncomfortable? 

Some people will say yes, some no. What do you say? What do you hope your children will say?

Our society will likely continue to say that nearly all sexual discomfort should lead to an HR investigation or a firing. But those of you--alpha and beta males and females who married based on the give-and-take of workplace sexual power must, at some point, tell your children what your experience was. They deserve that honesty. 

A Final Opinion from a Foreign Service Retiree

Let me end with something my father said to me today, as I was writing this article. 

He began his career in American Studies then retired after 25 years in academe to join, with my mother, the Foreign Service. Together, my parents served in Washington, D.C., India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and in various posts in Eastern Europe. They retired at 65 and my mother passed away six years ago. My father’s family in New York and Hollywood had interests in the movie business. Dad, 88 now, left all that for teaching and cultural exchange and his perspective is interesting, from both worlds. 

“Son,” he said, “Listen, all of us in Washington knew about the cronyism and abuse of power in Congress when I served there. Most of us hated it but couldn’t do anything about it.  Same for Hollywood.  In my family’s day back then casting couches were very real things—and apparently still are. It’s terrible on both fronts. The guys who are doing this stuff deserve what they get.” 

Then he looked at me pensively. “But, I’m seeing some craziness in all this, too. It’s political Puritanism. It’s impossible ideas flooding through. If I live long enough, I’ll see it all backfire when people we don’t really want to lead us are elected just because they stood up to the media feeding frenzy. And the cycle will go on and on and on.”

I think he’s right. The furor will calm down and then we will have to return to the bargaining table to decide what is sexual harassment and what is not. Though I am saying this today and the day matters; though, tomorrow, new revelations will likely get displayed in our media, I do think the concept of realistic social policy can survive today and tomorrow. I think our children need it desperately if they are going to navigate the real world. 

And so I hope you will talk about all this at your dinner tables, your quiet rooms of discussion, in your schools and neighborhoods when appropriate. Few conversations will be more important to many of our children later than your answers to: “Mom, Dad, what is sexual harassment?”