Some years ago, when I still lived in Johannesburg and had a real job, I had an enlightening encounter. Our company had proposed a partnership with a UK organisation working in a similar field. The MD of that company flew to Johannesburg from London, and we held a series of meetings and presentations. I was the lead creative, and the person with whom he would be required to work most closely.
That evening, we all went out for a formal, working dinner. Our main courses were delivered, and as I made a point about our methods to the English MD, I passed him a platter of vegetables. Unseen by the others at the table, he put his hand beneath mine and stroked the back of my hand suggestively. Surprised, I looked up and caught his eye. He stared at me blankly, but kept touching my hand. I smiled brightly, gave the plate a little shove in his direction and turned away to talk to someone else. I didn’t ask him what he was doing, nor did I draw anyone else’s attention to what had happened. I just let him get away with it.
It’s nothing, of course. It’s a nothing, insignificant, inappropriate incident, one of hundreds I have endured in my working life, and very, very far from the most serious and intrusive. And of course, I was right to say nothing, wasn’t I? That’s not sexual harassment, is it? Is *this* the sort of thing those “shrill” women are accusing Lord Rennard of doing? Touching someone’s leg “over their trousers”? What about all those girls, allegedly groped and touched by Rolf Harris, Bill Roache and Dave Lee Travis? Is this what we’ve come to? Is this political correctness gone mad?
Except, if you’re the person being touched, grabbed, stroked or propositioned, the wrongness of it has nothing to do with what the person did with their hands. The man who stroked my hand over dinner didn’t violate my body, but he made something perfectly clear in that momentary, fleeting interaction. While I was thinking about our future working relationship, he was thinking about sex. While I was working hard to present my well-researched thoughts as articulately as I could, he was hearing some words coming out about eight inches north of a pair of tits.
And yes, before the what-abouters jump up and say “but women do it too,” I agree. Sometimes they do. It doesn’t make it right. So if anyone, female, male, gay or straight or any combination of the above, is brave enough to stick his or her head above the parapet and say “I was sexually harassed”, we should listen. As long as we refuse to take complaints seriously, as long as we judge the gravity of an offence on when and where it was committed, or where or how the perpetrator allegedly touched someone, we will fail to deal with the problem.
Sexual harassment in the workplace has nothing to do with where or how you were touched, or what was said. It has everything to do with dehumanising someone, reducing them to the sum of their body parts and transgressing the boundaries of the working relationship. And when the perpetrator is in a position of influence over the victim’s career, it is a betrayal of trust and an abuse of power. Conspiracies of silence and collusion that protect abusers just make it worse. It takes immense courage to stand up to someone and say, “What you said and did was not all right.”
And every time we idly chat about a case, or read a media report which makes light of a sexual offence, or judge the victim for his or her part in it (“You mean after he raped her she went to his house again and he raped her a second time? Well, it isn’t rape then.”), we perpetuate the culture.
Shout loud. Shout often. It’s not “just a bit of fun”, it’s not “banter”. It’s just not okay.
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.