Last week, Vox Media told staff there would be no open bar at this year’s company holiday party. The announcement came a month after the firing of Lockhart Steele, Vox’s editorial director and former CEO, for sexual harassment. At the time, Steele admitted to “engaging in conduct that is inconsistent with our core values and is not tolerated at Vox Media” — a move that prompted Vox to hire an outside law firm to investigate allegations of sexual abuse within the company. This new, seasonally appropriate iteration of the so-called Weinstein effect means employees will only get two drink tickets and will also be served more food. There will be no cash bar.
The less boozy party is presumably designed to protect staff, but surely the company also wants to protect itself. “We recognize that even though alcohol isn’t always the reason for unprofessional behavior,” reads a leaked staff memo, “creating an environment that encourages overconsumption certainly contributes to it.” Vox is apparently not alone in its thinking: about 11 per cent of American companies won’t hold a holiday party this year — a small number, sure, but a big jump from 4 per cent last year. What’s more, while 62 per cent of parties served alcohol last year, this year only 49 per cent will do so.
“There’s no economic reason right now that we see these holiday parties being scaled back,” Andrew Challenger, vice-president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the company that conducts the annual survey, told Marketwatch. He attributed the “anomaly” to the Weinstein effect. Meanwhile, in Canada, the CEO of one Toronto-based HR firm told the Toronto Star that while she hasn’t seen a reluctance to hold such parties, she has been asked for guidelines — mostly around drinking. She also said she’s done more “anti-harassment training in the last six months than ever.”
Many of us have been to that company party: the one where some co-workers drink too much and act as they might not otherwise. I was a guest at one such party recently. There was raucous, intoxicated dancing, and people were obviously having fun. Eventually, a few men pulled a few women into the centre of the dance floor for some one-on-one shimmying — even after some women protested. One in particular struck me: she briefly humoured one of the men, then slipped away to stand next to her friend, sharing (what I thought was) the universal look of: awkwarrrrd. The woman shook her head vigorously when he returned with his finger crooked in a come on gesture, but after some razzing, she went, as he gyrated in front of her.
It’s not unfair to assume that bad behaviour would be curbed if only the alcohol didn’t flow so freely at holiday parties. After all, several studies have found that nearly half of sexual assault cases involve alcohol. Studies have also shown that, for men, alcohol can act as an excuse for sexual aggression, or worse, assault. Even in cases where they’ve been given a placebo, men have reported increased arousal. Researchers call the notion that alcohol makes men more dominant and loosens women’s inhibitions an “expectancy belief” — and they warn that it can set the stage for rape.
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Considering all this, low- or no-alcohol policies can’t hurt. And yet, while alcohol may embolden potential assaulters, it does not excuse their behaviour. In case it needs to be said: plenty of people get drunk all the time and manage not to rape. Plenty of sober people do rape. It’s in this context that we should return to Vox’s statement: We recognize that … alcohol isn’t always the reason. The use of “always” here seems like an attempt to shift the blame from company culture to drinking culture.
It’s a way to say: We do not have a systemic problem. We have not created an environment in which it’s permissible to harass women at work. It’s just the alcohol, and we know that’s bad, so we’re fixing it — presto!
At best, sober parties are a very small first step; at worst, they pay misguided lip service to a serious problem while allowing cultures of harassment to continue to flourish at the office. Consider that, at Vox, the woman who accused Steele did also report his harassment. Later on, she discovered she wasn’t the only one who did so, but that his initial punishment was to no longer be able to drink at work functions — as if that solved everything.
That was, we must remember, the typical response to sexual harassment complaints before the #MeToo movement changed things: to sweep them under the rug, to blame bad behaviour on drinking or stress or misunderstanding. Or, really, on anything other than what it was: the deeply ingrained belief that having power means you can do anything you want to someone else’s body. #MeToo reminded us that workplace harassment happens everywhere, and can happen under any circumstance — not just at drunken office parties.
Many companies, including Vox, have taken other steps to address the issue (including limiting alcohol in general). But companies need to move beyond boozy holiday parties. They need to conduct internal investigations. They need to create new cultures, in which harassment and sexism do not belong. They need to cut clear pathways to HR departments in cases where behaviour does cross the line — and they need to make sure those cases are handled proactively and with respect. None of these things are easy, and they will involve real growing pains, but they are essential. Otherwise, companies are just reinforcing old myths under the guise of action.
Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.
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