There are recent news reports of Jeremy Corbin saying that MPs who abuse women must be held to account and that the issue of sexual harassment was not confined to Hollywood. He also said that misogyny and sexism were widespread problems across society. Since these reports, there have been numerous resignations and suspensions, in a range of professions, because of reports of various forms of sexual harassment.
I’ve been on the receiving end of what I call ‘low-level sexual harassment’ and so have most of the women I know. In my first job, my boss used to come up behind me and put his hand under my arm, so that he was getting a sly feel of the very back part of my right boob. I knew it didn’t feel right, but I was too naïve and inexperienced to do anything about it. I was only 16 when I first started work. If I’d told my parents, one of them (whoever got to him first) would probably have ended up doing time as a result.
Years later, when I told the other, older, married, women about it, they laughed and said he did it to everyone. Did they feel their dignity had been violated? I didn’t get that impression. Do I feel traumatised as a consequence? Nope. Was it right? Certainly not. I do not tell this story to minimise what other women or men may feel, merely to illustrate that different people have different tolerances.
Sexual harassment is defined as a form of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. The law says it’s sexual harassment if the behaviour is either meant to, or has the effect of:
• violating your dignity, or
• creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment
When you think about it, that’s quite wide-ranging, it covers a lot. It’s meant to.
Equally disturbing though, in a different way, is harassment without the sexual aspect. Harassment is defined as unwanted behaviour which you find offensive or which makes you feel intimidated or humiliated. It can happen on its own or alongside other forms of discrimination. Again, that covers a wide range of behaviours. And again, this is the point.
What one person terms as harassment, sexual or otherwise, another thinks is just another minor irritation or something faintly amusing – think Julia Hartley-Brewer and Michael Fallon touching her knew, back in in 2002. And, for what it’s worth, I think her response was absolutely the right one, in that particular scenario. Ms Hartley-Brewer clearly didn’t think that situation either violated her dignity, nor did it create an intimidating, hostile, degrading or humiliating environment. I know, from some comments I’ve seen and read, that some women find her response distasteful, but let’s put this in perspective. Ms Hartley-Brewer was at a party conference dinner. There were other people around. Significantly different, I would suggest, to being in an office alone with someone.
And this is not confined just to women – we know from reports that have fallen out of the Harvey Weinstein case that male actors have been accused of various acts of harassment as well, as well as the accusations against Kevin Spacey. And, I dare say, there are some women who have coerced men into doing things they may not have been fully willing to do, for the sake of their careers. I haven’t witnessed this, but I’ve heard rumours.
Where do we go from here? Sexual harassment isn’t about one person asking another out on a date (although it could be, in some cases) and it’s not about managers managing properly. It’s about not respecting other people’s boundaries and taking into account their feelings. It’s about not bullying other people to get your own way.
Sometimes, and I genuinely believe this, it’s because the perpetrator doesn’t really understand what they are doing or they are particularly insensitive to other people’s feelings or they think they are being funny. If people are brought up in a particular way, and no-one has told them that is not the way to behave, how do they know? I also think there are other cases where people have the power to affect the life of another and abuse that power. I’m not sure what we can do about those people, but the others, the ones who don’t know any better, we can do something.
I think it’s about awareness – making people aware of the impact of their behaviour, and yes, this may come down to training. And yes, it may take a while for people understand. It’s about asking people how they feel when someone says or does something. It’s about finding out about other people – how different things affect them. I’ll be honest, as someone who thought I was pretty well rounded in the diversity stakes, it wasn’t until I started working closely with a black female and learned about her life that I realised how tough it had been for her, and the prejudice she had encountered, things that had never featured in my white world.
We can move on from all of this, we just need to talk to each other.
© Susan Shirley 2017