Thomas v. Hill: Of Human Bondage

“Hill described a man who was crude, inept, driven. He asked for a date but couldn’t take no for an answer. He hammered away, wanting to know why he was being turned down. He used his authority to feel big at the expense of making a woman feel small”

by

Female Trouble

The Hill/Thomas hearings were a blast of clarity for the women’s movement — all those male Democrats cozying up to Clarence Thomas, seducing Anita Hill into testifying and then, repelled by any association with a women’s cause, abandoning her. Another sorry revelation: a major­ity of women told pollsters they doubted Hill. We need those women to elect feminists to public office, to storm Washington before Roe v. Wade is overturned. We’ve got to acknowledge what attracts them to the status quo.

Hill passed a lie detector test. She had nothing to gain and everything to lose by testifying. She spoke credibly, weaving a story about Thomas he then proceeded to act out. Hill described a man who was crude, inept, driven. He asked for a date but couldn’t take no for an answer. He hammered away, wanting to know why he was being turned down. He used his authority to feel big at the expense of making a woman feel small.

Even during the first round of hearings, he was a bull, refusing to discuss his legal positions, guilt-tripping the white Senate with depictions of the racial discrimination he’d made a career of dismissing but then evoked as the cross he had to bear. After Hill’s claims were made public, Thomas breathed fire and charged. The righteousness, the self-pity, the insistence that he was the target of a conspira­cy! This man toughed his way through by crying foul, readily strong-arming. He raised himself at the expense of women, imagining a pack of feminists sicking him, lump­ing the women’s movement with establishment racism.

And the majority of women said he was telling the truth. 

The majority of women also want the right to choose abortion. Women believe they’re supposed to control what happens inside their bodies — this much the women’s movement has achieved. But women still aren’t sure they have a right to the world. Hill said that sexual harassment happens, that it hurt her, and that Thomas derived plea­sure from humiliating her. She described ordinary sexism, the way society operates. To believe Hill requires taking sexism seriously, and a lot of women don’t.

There are homophobic gays. There are blacks who under­mine black civil rights. Thomas and Hill did that at the EEOC, discrediting affirmative action, eroding protection from bias. Nonetheless, the vast majority of gays and blacks admit they’re dealt injustice, and they resent it. But many women — let’s say, conservatively, a third of them — ­deny the existence of sexism. A large number of women are organized against the interests of women. No other disad­vantaged group contains a sizable segment militating to limit its own freedom and opportunities.

The women’s movement proffers dignity, selfhood, and independence. It encourages women to admit the truth of their experience. Not everyone, however, wants these op­portunities, and, even if they do, other longings may be more intense. Traditional roles offer women stability, safe­ty, a feeling of being needed and approved. The rub is the price: fewer rights than men and a willingness to be seen as less entitled to those advantages. But who has not at some time paid too much for a hunger?

If you have ever pleaded for love and acceptance — had to plead because you were being denied, overlooked — then you know what it feels like to trade off your dignity for a burning desire. You tell yourself a story: It’s really not so bad, this begging. It really doesn’t cost me that much, and anyway, who cares, I must have love and acceptance or I won’t be able to endure life. At the same time, a secret voice bleats: It’s no good, acceptance on terms that squeeze you into a shape that’s false. It’s better to do without acceptance, if that’s the only way you can get it. Then you tell that voice to shut up.

That’s what Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill have done throughout their careers. Thomas knew he could play cat and mouse with Hill, because her opportunism was so like his own. She would stick with him no matter what, just as he had cleaved to archconservatives, no matter how much he had to downplay the injuries of racism. When Hill was being harassed by Thomas, she told herself that sexism wasn’t all that hurtful. She was so used to making expedi­ent gestures that, only a few months before testifying against Thomas, she claimed she was pleased he’d been nominated to the Supreme Court. Unless Thomas and Hill soft-pedaled the seriousness of racism and sexism, they would have had to make war on the people they counted on to shelter and esteem them.

It’s not for nothing that Hill and Thomas, two emotional conservatives, are also political conservatives. Political conservatism enforces the social systems that quiet anxi­eties about change. It’s impossible to know that indepen­dence is more appetizing than security until you’ve tasted independence. People who have made radical changes in their lives — left an abusive spouse, broken a drug depen­dency, committed themselves to AIDS activism — invari­ably say that they acted when their condition became intolerable. They discovered that passivity didn’t guarantee security and that the changes that had once seemed so risky were less dangerous than staying put.

But security isn’t the only factor attracting women to the status quo. Sexism is fueled by a deep dislike of women that both women and men feel. Mothers — mostly the pri­mary parent — are all-powerful to both sexes during early life; in reaction, retaliation, women are devalued in the culture. The dislike of women isn’t just intense but eroti­cized. Women as well as men enjoy the degradation of women — sexism gives women a chance not only to be victims, but also fellow tormentors of other women, stand­ing shoulder-to-shoulder with males. People’s feelings about the degradation of men are more confused, a greater sense of transgression infusing enjoyment. The degraded position is equated with being female, females being the ones who lack social power. Thus when a male is beaten, overpowered, he’s seen as losing his man­hood, called a pussy, a cunt.

Most people were embarrassed when they thought Thomas was be­ing humiliated, because he was per­ceived as a symbol of manhood. At the same time people liked seeing Hill described as a liar, a fantasist, a fanatic. Talk about pornography! To many, the hearings were yummy s&m, including the cat fight of four women defending the boss and lashing Hill for being ambitious and willful.

Anyone who doubts that some women relish female pain need only recall the gloating of J. C. Alvarez as she evoked a lovelorn, jealous Hill. Part of the reason so few Dem­ocratic senators came to Hill’s de­fense was that they enjoyed watch­ing her get it. Hill was a perfect target because she wasn’t entirely powerless; people could victimize her without feeling guilty. She had tried to get up in the world and had succeeded, profiting from her rela­tionship to Thomas. She deserved to be smacked down for playing the game and then complaining — being a bad sport. More irritating to her detractors: she declared that hurting women was wrong.

Throughout the hearings, the divided nature of human response was simplified or denied. Lost were distinctions between sexual harassment and harmless flirting. Flirting disappeared from public discussion, as if all inviting lines might conceal nasty messages. But every woman knows the difference between sex play that’s welcome and being hit on while radiating don’t. That don’t is the crux of sexual harassment. Still, the workplace is undeniably erotic, an atmosphere charged by shared plans and projects, by daily contact. It’s not harassment if both people say yes.

The Bush gang kept insisting that Thomas was decent and therefore couldn’t like pornography or enjoy degrading women. But no one explained why indulging in a polymor­phous fantasy life would make someone indecent. No one mentioned that people can behave decently most of the time and still, on occasion, binge on aggression. That’s what much of the country did when watching senators and witnesses go after Hill.

In order for people to believe that Thomas abused Hill and that his actions were harmful, they have to admit that sexism is wrong and be willing to give it up. But people will be reluctant to do this as long as they think they have to forfeit some part of their erotic life. The idea runs deep that feminism is the end of sex. It’s one reason feminists are accused of hating sex. Another reason is that some feminists — Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin foremost among them — are puritanical, waging campaigns against pornography and eroticism. These people work against their own long-term interests, because the more sexual attitudes are openly exposed, the better chance there is to address them.

Taking control and surrendering it, cross-dressing as a vacation from identity — all the kinky pursuits Thomas allegedly enjoyed — are basic in the human beast. We’re creatures of drives, appetites, aggressions, desires to escape into fantasy. Ending sexism in society doesn’t mean people can’t play roles in bed, in their heads. That’s where the role playing belongs. If people felt less shame about indulging these impulses in sex, maybe they wouldn’t be as pressured to act them out everywhere else. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 26, 2020

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