Last night I was at a dinner and a lovely old gent in his 80s whom I respect dearly leaned over and asked me — what do I think of all this sexual harassment news — overhyped? real?
He was genuinely concerned and interested. In his day, as he puts it, putting his hand on a woman’s knee to say “that’s a really lovely flush you have on your face” was acceptable. Or was it? He felt it was teasing; harmless even. In today’s context, that would be abominable.
I don’t usually comment on gender issues, as I believe much more in systemic, unconscious bias that affects all, whether its gender, dyslexia or mental health. We all have our weaknesses and disabilities and when we find ourselves in the minority, the bias hurts.
However, in this instance, my training in the social sciences and the lessons I learnt from working as an academic in this space compelled me to speak out.
First, let me say that there is no such thing as an objective act of sexual harassment. What might look objective e.g. forcing a kiss on a woman, consciously touching her boobs, and fondling her may seem like it is definitely sexual harassment, but it is so only because the actions have been clearly labelled as such under the norm.
To the person who was subjected to such action, it may not be. I have had people “try their luck” with me all through my life. Is it sexual harassment? Perhaps it might be for others, but I did not feel like a victim. So no, I won’t say I was sexually harassed. Why? Because I did not see that action as lessening me in anyway. I did not feel vulnerable or violated. That doesn’t excuse the behaviour, of course, but it is important to note that I did not feel I was a victim.
Yet, I wasn’t always that strong, so I do have great empathy for women who are less confident, less secure and much more worried about their place in the world, the workplace, the job, the team, the community. We have all gone through that and I have seen many who have tried so hard and yet took every condescension as a nudge to try harder; every slight as a failure. The system is harsh on any insecurity and feelings of inadequacy, whether it’s gender-based on otherwise.
If someone hits on a woman at that moment, even in the slightest — a touch on the knee, a mention of her makeup, maybe something even harmless by normal circumstances, she may feel vulnerable, harassed and pained. More of such action will pile up and after awhile, she will be weighed down by it all. That would be sexual harassment for her, even if it wasn’t for others. And that is very very real.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not blaming the victim. Rather, I am defending the victim. We all have moment of weaknesses, and we should be allowed to have these moments of weaknesses. And no weakness should excuse the harasser’s behaviour.
However, my point is that sexual harassment is only sexual harassment when there is a victim and a harasser. If you don’t feel like a victim i.e. you are not aggrieved then it isn’t sexual harassment, even if others feel some righteous indignation on your part. If you do, you have been harassed. In a very similar vein, bullying is the same. It is bullying when there is a bullier and a victim. There isn’t an objective assessment of when an action is a bullying action or a sexual harassment action. The phenomenon is true when there is a victim, whatever the action. Remedial action is needed for both the harasser and the victim. For the harasser, the necessary penalties and counselling. For the victim, counsel and support is needed.
As to what is the definition of ‘a victim’? To me, a victim is one who is aggrieved by an action. Offending someone or making someone uncomfortable would definitely qualify. Cases when there isn’t a victim e.g. (1) a guy whom a woman likes holds her hand (or do something inappropriate) and she lets him. The boy is definitely doing something inappropriate (no excuse for that behaviour) and anytime there is inappropriate behaviour, there is a RISK of sexual harassment but to actually be sexual harassment, the girl has to be aggrieved. (2) a frail old man in his 90s tries to kiss a female nurse. The nurse laughingly swats him off and tell him to mind his manners. Again, inappropriate behaviour and should be told off and absolutely he should be accountable for his behaviour but is it sexual harassment? The answer to that comes from the woman. If she is aggrieved, yes. If she said “that old man has been trying his luck with me for 10 years. I’m not bothered” then the penalty for him is inappropriate behaviour, not sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is a serious thing. I’m trying to keep it serious.
The point I am trying to make in all of this is that calling everything sexual harassment dilutes it’s meaning and inures society’s perception of its seriousness. Sexual harassment has a victim and a harasser. If that is not established, calling every act sexual harassment denies real victims of their justice.