As I engage with the current dialogue about sexual harassment, I continue to be struck by how people want to simplify it. This widespread harassment that is bubbling to the surface has many layers and many meanings and we do ourselves a disservice when we try to box it into being about one thing. Let’s get more complex and nuanced in our thinking.

The other day I posted this on Facebook:

“We have two problems here: a power problem and a sex problem. If we continue to fail to discuss our problematic views of and expressions of sex as a major part of the problem, we will continue to fail to address sexual harassment. Sex and power are inextricably linked through gender, exploitation and self-expression.”

Someone promptly corrected me, saying that sexual harassment is about power and NOT sex.

Why can’t it be about both?

Sex and Power: We Have to Look At Both

What is so scary about saying, “This is about our problematic views of sex and the poor ways we deal with sex?” The ideas that sexual assault is always about violence and sexual harassment is always about power limit us and prevent forward movement.

This approach took root in second wave feminism when many feminists believed they had to extricate themselves and their feminism from sex in order to make progress.

That didn’t work. It implicates sex as the problem child we don’t talk about.

If we care about equity in all areas of our lives, sex needs to be at the core of our feminist analysis. And why wouldn’t it be?

Sex and gender are deeply interconnected and we continue to parse out the many ways they are related. The jury’s still out, it’s a complex case.

The gender imbalances of power that patriarchy supports bleed into our bedrooms all the time, making it ever difficult to have a healthy sexual life.

If we lived in a culture with healthy approaches to sexuality, where sexuality and sex were both normalized and even celebrated, and where accurate, non-judgmental information about sexuality was readily available to all, we would not have this problem of power being abused through sexual means because we would have more respect for sex.

If we had more healthy ideas and expressions of sexuality, we would not deform it into something shameful, negative and problematic. Sex isn’t problematic but our expression and treatment of it often are.

If men learned about healthy sexual expression and respect for people of all genders, if they learned about boundaries and consent and how to respect and express those things, they would relate to their own sexuality in a more healthy way, rather than suppress it or repress it. When sex is repressed, it comes out sideways or in ways we do not expect because sexuality needs to be expressed. It’s a huge energy and a huge part of who we are and it will come out one way or another.

We can learn to hold our sexual energy powerfully and to use it respectfully and appropriately, or we can be unconscious about how to utilize this power inside of us and then it will spill and splatter all over other people in potentially harmful and non-deliberate ways.

If women learned to embody their sexuality without feeling like they have to put it away to protect themselves, and if they trusted themselves to set appropriate boundaries and to express their needs and wants, they would also have a very different experience.

And, of course, even if women have all of that, and yet, they still exist in a totally toxic environment where their boundaries can be used against them and they face potential retribution for upholding them, they will still have a very hard time and will face consequences for their perceived outspokenness or for simply standing up for themselves.

Sexual Gatekeeping and Its Consequences

Women are made the gatekeepers of sex because predators are so good at invading our space, being wildly inappropriate and pushing us in ways we don’t want to be pushed, keeping us perpetually on guard. It’s exhausting to be the gatekeeper all the time.

In observing the clear magnitude of the problem, and moments like this one with Uma Thurman, we can begin to see how much energy women expend just to protect ourselves and survive in this world, to fend off predators and hold ourselves upright. If we are constantly forced to focus on our own safety, it takes energy away from our creative projects, from the things we really want to focus it on like our careers or our children, and our attention is split everywhere.

Imagine worldwide how much energy this saps from women. It is mind-boggling and it has to stop.

And women often end up gatekeeping in situations where they do not need to gatekeep, or where it really shouldn’t be their job, like in their long-term relationship, and that can spoil what might otherwise be a thriving sexual relationship. It’s a role we are used to having to play.

So yes, sexual harassment is about our distorted ideas about power and how to leverage it over others with less power, like women or people lower in the workplace hierarchy. And sexual harassment is also about sex: predators are seeking outlets for sex because they haven’t learned enough about healthy ways to do that, or because they are unfulfilled in some way in their personal sexual lives. Sex has been used to control nations and people—in particular, women—for centuries.

And since we have to “keep it clean” at work and pretend that the workplace is sexually sanitized, this disallows us from addressing the full scope of the problem.

Yeah, maybe we shouldn’t need sex education at work, just like we shouldn’t need it in schools if all the parents were doing their job. But the reality is that the workplace is a microcosm of the larger world. The sooner we address our workforce holistically and include sex in the dialogue, the sooner we will end sexual harassment and return all of that wasted gatekeeper energy to women so they can thrive the way they want to in their careers. Imagine how much more productive we could all be.