Jordan Peterson
Jordan Peterson is a psychologist and best-selling author who knows how to get a rise out of the media (Image via VICE News)
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Jordan Peterson

Is society ready to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace effectively?

In a recent interview with VICE News, Jordan Peterson made headlines again with his question about whether or not women should wear makeup in the workplace.

In the current climate of sexual harassment accusations and the changing landscape of male-female relationships in the workplace, what is acceptable behavior, and how does society mandate these behaviors? Jordan Peterson says everyone needs to know the rules first.

Without a doubt, Peterson sure knows how to make headlines. It all started in 2016 when Peterson, a clinical psychologist, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and author of the bestselling book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” released a series of videos on his YouTube channel criticizing political correctness and the Canadian Bill C-16.

His controversial rhetoric catapulted him into the public eye, where he garnered both criticism and praise. In an interview with Channel 4 News, Jordan Peterson discussed gender, postmodernism and the pay gap between men and women. Subsequently, his interview went viral, and Peterson gained even more followers.

Coming off the wave of that interview, Peterson was interviewed by VICE News, where he discussed sexual harassment in the workplace. Many people have criticized VICE for only releasing a 20-minute video when the actual interview was two hours long. In addition, many viewers felt that the editing of the video was intentionally making Peterson sound sexist.

Peterson poses a question to the interviewer when they are talking about sexual harassment in the workplace. He agrees that sexual harassment must stop, but that it won’t, at least not anytime soon.

When pressed about his belief that sexual harassment won’t end in the near future, Peterson points out that no one knows what the rules are. He proposes that a change could start with one rule: How about no makeup in the workplace? Why do women wear makeup?

Lipstick turns your lips red, which is what happens during sexual arousal. He goes on to ask why women wear high heels. He points out that high heels force the pelvis to tilt forward and accentuate the hip movement.

Peterson states that women who wear makeup and high heels at work are not asking to be harassed, but he does point out that people display hypocrisy when they apply these sexual signals.

Peterson elaborates on his statement by saying that the rules aren’t clear since men and women have only been working together for about 40 years.

His statements have been met with outrage from his detractors and head-scratching from some of his most loyal devotees. Many people seem puzzled that a psychologist would pose questions about sexuality that might make many people uncomfortable.

In reality, Peterson was making a wider point when he used the makeup and high heels examples. He indicates that we act in accordance with our own nature, and amounts of tension between men and women will always exist. At the end of the day, society will only make the issue at hand worse if it attempts to criminalize trivial social mistakes and equate unwanted communication with criminal sexual harassment.

Jordan Peterson is actually engaging in a thought process here. Perhaps his examples are a bit clumsy, but he is forcing people to start thinking about how we view sexuality and how we view ourselves. By presenting these examples, he forces people to really engage in critical thinking before implementing policies that could be detrimental in the long run.

Jordan Peterson’s rhetoric asks people to view the issue of sexual harassment in a different light (Image via Sott)

Watching the outcomes of sexual assault allegations in various workplaces may prove Peterson’s point. For example, in the aftermath of the Matt Lauer sexual harassment accusations, NBC did indeed implement a hugging policy in which employees must quickly hug the person then step away to avoid bodily contact.

The policy also regulates coworker relationships outside of the workplace. For example, coworkers are not allowed to share cabs home or take a vegan coworker to a steakhouse.

Perhaps the most Orwellian policy rule is that NBC has ordered its employees to report any inappropriate relationships in the workplace. If they fail to report their coworkers, or if they participate in covering up for their colleagues, NBC could fire them.

Many smaller companies have dating coworkers sign relationship contracts, which states they will abide by the company’s written policy on sexual harassment.

Notably, workplace interactions are not always negative, despite having some problematic elements. For example, one study showed that more than half of Americans have been involved in a workplace romance. In fact, 16 percent of Americans met their current spouse at work.

That said, implementing relationship contracts can present many problems — not just for the employees, but for the human resources departments, as well. Unfortunately, many variables in coworker relationships could lead to complications for both the company and the people involved in the romances.

For instance, favoritism could arise if someone is dating their boss, and, of course, an office romance could sour, which would cause detrimental consequences. Dealing with a breakup is hard enough, but navigating the workplace with an ex could be very problematic.

Despite the risks, dating a coworker has its perks. In a recent article from the Daily Mail, a sexologist pointed out that discretion is the main factor in maintaining a successful office romance.

Consensual office relationships aside, Peterson also says that the ideas the #MeToo Movement puts forth do not have the kind of power that will transform behavior in a reasonable manner. After all, the movement is arguing that society should eliminate all sexual signals from the workplace. From evolutionary and social standpoints, such a feat is impossible to accomplish.

In his VICE interview, Peterson says, “Outraged mob activism generally doesn’t translate very well into intelligent policy.”

Peterson would likely tell us that we can start to figure out the answers to these questions by starting with this: be a grown up. Both men and women will receive unwanted attention in the workplace. That said, basic workplace guidelines that deem certain behaviors as inappropriate are absolutely necessary.

Employees should have every right to report unwanted advances from a coworker. But, it is important to remember that this is a crucial moment in our society, and people must think through further implementation of more strict policies very carefully.

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Miranda Maples

University of Tennessee Knoxville

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