Since 2015, Mallory Ortberg has been the advice columnist behind Slate’s “Dear Prudence.” She’s helped everyday people navigate infertility struggles, breakups and family dramas. But she’s also been on the front line of the fight to address endemic sexual harassment, whether it’s helping a woman whose boyfriend showed more contempt for victims of sexual harassment in the workplace than for disgraced Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, or guiding a woman who wants to help a sexually harassed friend.
I spoke with Mallory about being an advice columnist in the #MeToo era, and how men are finally starting to come to terms with their culpability in harassment. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Have you gotten letters or emails from people who have been dealing with harassment at work and need advice? How has thinking and discussing #MeToo changed or not changed the advice that you give to people who are dealing with these issues at work?
I think I’m starting to hear from people who are becoming aware of this conversation for the first time. I personally have not undergone any particular significant shift internally in terms of how I give advice about dealing with sexual harassment and full-on violence in the workplace, in part because I see that’s just been a conversation I’ve been calling for for a number of years now.
But I think I have started hearing from some people, especially men, who are just now thinking, “Oh, maybe I should actually give some thought to this. Maybe I should consider the interiority of my female co-workers and employees and think about how they may have felt historically.” And that’s been fascinating.
What has it been like to try to help people who, on the one hand, think the idea of a workplace romance seems like a good idea, but on the other hand they’re starting to actually think about the person they have this huge crush on and ask, “What are they thinking right now? I’m in a position of power over them. What does this actually mean to them?”
I think workplace romances are certainly probably some of the most obvious questions that I get, but the question at hand is often simply, “Is it a good idea to engage in this workplace romance or not; how do I conduct myself at work in a way that enables other people to do their jobs?”
I think for me, the thing that is trickiest as an advice columnist is that generally speaking, when I give a specific letter writer advice, I try to take into account what they have told me they want to get out of the situation.
So it’s not necessarily the same thing that I would say if I were, for example, writing an essay about where I thought this conversation should and ought to be taking us in our respective workplaces.
I think a lot of the most interesting questions that you get asked are about generational differences, whether that has to do with parenting, or whether that has to do with kind of the nature of human relations differing from older people to younger people. When it comes to harassment, you get the sense that women who entered the workplace in, say, the ’70s or ’80s see sexual harassment as something like, “Well, I got through it, why can’t you? Just toughen up and deal with it.”
Have you seen that in some of the questions you’ve been asked, and how do you respond to those generational divides, either from young people who say, “I don’t understand why my mom doesn’t get this,” or from older people who say, “I don’t understand why my daughter is saying this”?
I have seen a bit of that. But the thing I’ve been hearing the most is from women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who — in part as a result of this conversation — are thinking really seriously for the first time all about things that they have sort of had to set to the side in order to survive and make a living. [They] are now allowing themselves to think, “Oh, hey, these things that I experienced in the ’70s and ’80s I actually felt profoundly not okay with; I hated it. I had to kind of go along to get along because at the time there was just no room for me to speak up. Or I tried to speak up and I was punished.” [They are] feeling a really powerful sense of reckoning now, a sort of, “I’m glad this conversation is happening, and I’m also furious that this conversation was not available to me when this was happening.”
And I think, too, that there’s so many ways in which this can be gendered but not sexualized that I think is equally important. I’ve been getting a lot of letters from women who say, “It’s not so much that I’m being sexually harassed in the workplace as it is that I get sort of unofficially pushed onto the ‘mommy track.’ Or I don’t get picked for some of the bigger, more exciting projects. Or now that I’m no longer young and super attractive to these guys, I kind of feel invisible at work.”
There are so many different ways in which just being a woman in the workplace puts you in the way of having your time wasted, your talents overlooked. That often is connected with sexual harassment but sometimes isn’t. And I think those things are just as important. Part of why women are so angry right now is the sense of, like, “I would like to do my job. I would like to be recognized for my accomplishments and my talent, and I would like to be rewarded when I do well, and I would like to be given more responsibilities and taken seriously and not have things put against me because of my gender.”
I think something that you’re seeing is a real confusion about what sexual harassment looks like. I think you were getting to that a little bit when you mentioned that you’re getting messages or emails from men who are saying, “Okay, maybe what I was doing was harassment.” Has that been a particular challenge of trying to convince men that what they were doing was not appropriate?
Right, yeah. I think it’s funny because some of the recent conversation has been around are we infantilizing women by having this sort of conversation about whether or not they might be implicitly pressured not to speak up in the moment when their boundaries are being crossed? But I feel like historically there has been actually a lot of infantilization of men, suggesting, like, unless you shoot a semaphore directly into a man’s face, how could he possibly be expected to understand something like a power dynamic or [consent]. And I just don’t think men as a group are that stupid. I don’t think the reason that a lot of men haven’t had this conversation or this realization before is because they didn’t know. It’s because they didn’t care.
And a lot of people have used this metaphor, I don’t mean to suggest that I’m the first one to come up with it, but if you are having a conversation at work and you float an idea and your boss says, “Let’s put a pin in that for now,” you know what that means. You know what that means is, “If you continue to insist that we speak about this in this moment, you’re going to get shut down.” People get that.
So suggesting that that is difficult to recognize all of a sudden when it’s put in the context of a sexual advance is, I think, disingenuous. So I think part of what’s difficult about this is not that men are like, “Gosh, I had no idea. Who could have possibly guessed that this would have been unpleasant or difficult for someone else to say no to?”
It’s that women are speaking enough in significant enough numbers and with enough kind of collective weight behind them that men have to actually give it credence now. And once they do, it is very, very obvious when something is wrong. And they don’t like that, and it’s painful, and it’s uncomfortable, and it makes a lot of them think, “Holy shit, I might have done this myself, even though I’m not a monster like Harvey Weinstein,” or, “Wow, if this is harassment, then almost every man I know has committed harassment.” And then answer to that is, unfortunately, hell yeah. We live in a really sexist society, and it’s a reckoning that is long overdue.