contributor perspectives

Harassment: A Problem of Geostrategic Proportions

Ian Morris
Board of Contributors
10 MINS READNov 29, 2017 | 08:00 GMT
A protester brandishes the slogans

A premodern farming society could function only if women remained in the home, but a modern industrialized society is entirely different. In the 21st century, a country where one in six women working in Congress has experienced sexual harassment -- as the journal CQ Roll Call reports is true of the United States -- will struggle to compete with a country where the equivalent figure is lower.


On Monday morning, I got an email containing my certificate of completion for SHP-1001-WEB-FY17, California's mandatory harassment prevention training for supervisors and faculty. As a university professor, I'm legally required to complete this two-hour online course every other year. This sort of requirement is new; back in the days when I was a graduate student at Cambridge in the 1980s, some senior faculty members regularly referred to a particular women's college — in jest, they would sometimes add — as the "happy hunting ground." One grand old man of the academy, some of whose classes I took, left among his effects when he died an album containing dozens of photographs of young women, all sleeping in the bed in his college rooms.

Something else that's new is that graying men in positions of power over younger women are being called to account when they abuse these positions. Over the past several weeks, the politicians John Conyers and Al Franken, the journalists Charlie Rose and Glenn Thrush, and the film producer Harvey Weinstein have all been disgraced, and some of them dismissed, for predatory misbehavior. The political commentator Bill O'Reilly met the same fate earlier this year, as did television executive Roger Ailes in 2016. In 1998, President Bill Clinton, the most powerful man in the world, almost lost his job for lying about sexual activities with a young female intern, and in 2011, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, lost his job over allegations that he had raped a hotel maid. To be sure, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency despite his tape-recorded "grab 'em by the (obscenity)" boast, and, as I write, Roy Moore looks likely to win a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama though he faces accusations of sexually assaulting women as young as 14. But even so, both men's alleged exploits have certainly made their lives more difficult.

Roman emperors did not have these problems. Nor, indeed, did powerful men in pretty much any age before our own. "Let beautiful virgins be selected for the king, and let the king appoint commissioners in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather together every beautiful young virgin," Persia's fifth-century B.C. King Xerxes I announces in the Bible. Another Persian king, Khosrow II, is said to have owned 12,000 women during his reign in the seventh century. The great and the not-so-good of our own times might well be forgiven for looking back in envy and wondering what went wrong.

An Age-Old Struggle

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles," Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously said in The Communist Manifesto. They might equally well have said that the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of the war of the sexes. No two societies have been the same, of course, but the fact remains that everywhere we have written evidence — which takes us all the way back to 3000 B.C. in the Middle East — men have won this war. Without exception, men in complex, literate, agrarian societies had greater legal, political and economic rights than women did, as well as more freedom to seek extramarital sexual partners. Almost without exception, men were free to marry as many women as they could afford to support and to use force to compel their obedience. What rights women had largely depended on the willingness of their male kin to protect them.

But while history has in a sense been little more than a series of variations on this grim theme, prehistory was probably a different story. Anthropologists in the 20th century discovered that foragers living in small, highly mobile bands that hunted wild animals and gathered wild plants had very different lifestyles compared with later civilizations. And as 20th century archaeologists learned, until about 11,000 years ago everyone in the world was a forager. Men tended to make the bulk of the decisions in foraging groups, but sexual hierarchies were very shallow relative to those of literate farming societies. Wives were just as likely to take lovers as husbands; abused women would simply walk away from their spouses; and headmen who failed to convince the females in their band as well as the males soon saw their authority wither.

Men's Secret Weapon

Among hunter-gatherers, the war of the sexes ended up in something like a stalemate. What changed this — men's secret weapon, as it were — was the coming of farming. The domestication of plants and animals allowed people to produce much more food per acre, which our ancestors, following the practice of all animals confronted by abundance, converted largely into more of themselves. Birth rates rose to the point that the typical farmwife brought seven babies into the world and spent most of her adult life pregnant or minding small children. (Most women who survived into adulthood died at around 40 years old.) Landscapes filled up with permanent villages, and complicated divisions of labor grew up to accommodate the needs of agricultural economies.

In almost every documented farming society, the categories of labor were strongly gendered. Men toiled in the fields and workshops, and women in the home. This was no accident: Women were well placed for domestic work because it could be combined with child care, while men were well placed to work outside the home because so much of this activity called for brawn. Unlike the man-the-hunter/woman-the-gatherer opposition that prevailed among foragers, however, the man-in-the-field/woman-in-the-home division gave men near-total control of wealth creation and, in turn, dramatically increased their leverage in negotiations with wives, daughters and sisters.

And a woman's economic dependence didn't end there. Her well-being depended heavily on marrying a man who was not just able-bodied but had also accumulated the capital needed for farming, either through years of hard work and saving or by inheritance. Either way, men tended to be ready to marry when they were around 30 years old, while the mates they generally preferred were teenage girls with long childbearing careers ahead of them. Further, inheritance of material resources mattered much more in a farming society than in a foraging one: Hunters and gatherers have very few goods to pass on, while for agriculturalists, receiving flocks and well-watered fields as a birthright makes all the difference between a lifetime of affluence and one of poverty. In a farming environment, paternity became a life-and-death issue, because if a man's wife cuckolded him, another man's offspring might effectively steal everything the husband had owned. Strict policing of girls' premarital virginity and wives' marital fidelity replaced foragers' rather casual sexual attitudes.

Naturally, there were countless variations. Gender hierarchies were shallower in ancient Rome than in ancient Greece, for example, and some societies, going back at least as far as Egypt in the first century B.C., went to the extreme of mutilating girls' genitals to reduce sexual desire and guarantee chastity. Still, in every single case for which we have evidence, the logic of farming produced patriarchy within the household and left unprotected women at men's mercy. Women who went out beyond the protection offered by their male kin had few defenses against the Harvey Weinsteins of their world — which made segregation of the sexes, of varying degrees of strictness, entirely sensible.

Shifting the Balance

The tide turned in the war of the sexes only in the past four centuries or so. Beginning in northwest Europe around 1600, the proportion of people engaged in farming started to fall, thanks in large part to the rise of a new economic system based on Atlantic trade. Europeans found that if they shifted from the agricultural to the manufacturing sector, merchants could export some of their manufactured goods to West Africa to exchange for slaves, then sell the slaves in America to buy sugar, cotton and other desirable commodities before sailing back to England or Holland to sell these products there. They could then buy a new set of manufactured goods, beginning the whole profit-making process again.

This mechanism — the "triangular trade," as economic historians call it — generated wealth on an unprecedented scale and had enormous consequences. Rising wages allowed northwest European craft workers to eat better (and more regularly) than their peasant predecessors had. The combination of superior nutrition and advances in public health, hygiene and medicine drove down infant mortality. At first, populations soared as death rates fell and birth rates stayed high. But by 1650, parents were already adapting to the new demographic regime, and the average Englishwoman was bearing fewer than four babies. With fewer children to look after, European women had more time on their hands, potentially increasing the supply of non-household labor just at the moment the Atlantic trade was driving up demand for craft workers. The results? Ancient prejudices against female labor outside the home started crumbling in the 17th and 18th centuries, and, very slowly, women's economic power began increasing.

The transformation accelerated after 1800 as Europeans learned how to release the energy stored in fossil fuels and use it to power machines. The further this went — from coal to oil and from steam to electricity — the less European economies depended on muscle power and the more interchangeable male and female labor became. In some industries, notably textiles, female workers were already preferred over males in the 19th century. The real takeoff, however, came in the next hundred years, as soaring industrial productivity made possible a huge shift in labor toward the service sector, where brains, organization and reliability are what matter, not muscles or aggression.

Adapting to the New Economy

Women rushed into the service sector, creating a new demand for machines that could take over the household drudgery that competed for their time. Engineers obliged with washing machines, electric irons and countless other "engines of liberation," as social historians sometimes call them. Just as important for freeing women to work outside the home, better food and prosperity kept driving infant mortality down. In the United States, one baby in four still died before reaching a year old in the 1850s; by 1970 the rate had fallen to just one in 50, and by 2014, it was down to one in 163 (though in Japan, the figure is one in 400). Women responded by demanding better contraception and spending even less time bearing and rearing children. Worldwide, live births fell from a mean of five per woman in 1950 to 2.4 per woman in 2013  — and, in the European Union, just 1.46. These changes increased women's economic power and undermined patriarchy even more. In the half-century between 1940 and 1990, the proportion of American women working outside the home doubled, and whereas in 1960 just 4 percent of American wives out-earned their husbands, 23 percent did in 2014.

The balance of forces in the war of the sexes is shifting decisively away from men. A premodern farming society could function only if women remained in the home, but a modern industrialized society is entirely different. The better it does at drawing women out of the home, the larger its pool of labor and talent and the more likely it is to prosper. This equation makes the Harvey Weinsteins of the world a geostrategic issue. In the 21st century, a country where one in six women working in Congress has experienced sexual harassment — as the journal CQ Roll Call reports is true of the United States — will struggle to compete with a country where the equivalent figure is lower. That's why I found myself completing California's mandatory harassment prevention training for supervisors and faculty last weekend, while Charlie Rose found himself unemployed.

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