THE term “sexual harassment” is fairly recent in human history. Generally, cultures embraced the idea that the female body was an object to be consumed, like a meal. We know times have changed; but we are not so naive, or untouched, to believe the practices of the past have vanished.
Millennials have been characterised as a generation that lives with a sense of entitlement that takes precedence over the notion of hard work. That feeling of entitlement was more commonly called privilege, and if you strip away all the layers of society to which it could be applied, inevitably a male torso is bared. It still does; structurally, societies are still galumphing along wearing harnesses designed by the old boys’ network.
A sickening example of the legal protection for men is the recent case in Spain, where five men accused of gang-raping a 14-year-old girl were convicted for the lesser violation of sexual abuse because the victim was deemed to be in an “unconscious state” and therefore did not object.
According to the BBC report, the court found “the accused had not used violence or intimidation”. To declare there was no violence in this act is by itself an act of violence towards women. The case stirred references to another in Spain in 2016, where an 18-year-old was also gang-raped by five men who were convicted of sexual abuse (rather than the charge of sexual assault, which is the equivalent of rape). Only last year, because of the international outcry, the Spanish prime minister appointed a panel to review the rape laws. The Barcelona case is evidence the laws have not been changed.
Sexual harassment, in all its forms, is still pervasive around the world, and the shame is that it is tacitly encouraged by people in positions of power who continue to slip a slap on a wrist for public consumption, because they really don’t see anything wrong with it. I won’t bother to call Donald Trump’s name here as a reference to those who practise it. But I suggest it is so widespread that many are afraid to condemn it, for fear of being called out themselves.
But when leaders stand on public platforms and take refuge behind legalities, they should consider the subliminal messages they are sending to the populace, young and old.
If there is such a thing as political wisdom, I am sure it is not connected to the proximity of an election, but more closely aligned with the prospect of developing a society that truly honours a code of respect for all its members.
In January 2016, when cricketer Chris Gayle made inappropriate remarks to journalist Mel McLaughlin, I had written an essay on sexism which appeared that April on the ESPNCricinfo website. Here is a bit of it.
“One of the more insidious statements came from Prof Hilary Beckles, who declared himself to be ‘first and foremost an educator’. ‘I take his word for what [Gayle] said, that he meant no offence. I take his word for that,’ he said. He told the region that since he had accepted that Gayle meant no offence, we should all put it behind us and ‘big him up’, as he had an important role to play in West Indies cricket. Ironically, the day after Beckles declared that Gayle had been ‘humbled’, Gayle went on social media to say, ‘Y’all can kiss my ‘Black Rass.’”
The “educator’s” message was that Gayle was too important to West Indies cricket for us to dwell on his chauvinism. And the underlying point is that it is okay to be a creep if you are a success elsewhere. I draw from the cricket milieu because it is one I know very well.
Negotiating my way through the various levels of sexual harassment, I came to recognise how reflexive it often was. I am not sure if how I looked was as much a factor as the fact that I was a female. It just seemed that this was the thing men had been taught was the appropriate—yes, I use the word appropriate—way to interact with women. Some of it was downright sleazy.
I remember that as a young woman, it was traumatic to walk on the streets because of the kinds of comments men would make. I often felt physically threatened; I often felt humiliated by the descriptions of my anatomy. I thought that practice had died, until it occurred to me that I was no longer the recipient of it because I was no longer a young girl, and because I don’t walk about as much. It struck me when I heard some young women speaking of how deeply it upsets them to be solicited in such a crude manner when they are simply going about their business.
The harassment is not just in the workplace; though I imagine because of the nature of the space, it can reach extremes within the confines of offices and storerooms and repeated contact. A woman described being summoned to her senior’s office only to find him perched on a couch, naked.
We can holler for legislation because the lack of appropriate protection can result in cases like in Spain, but we have to remember how poorly we enforce our laws, and it would help if we focus on building respect.
—Author Vaneisa Baksh is also an editor and a cricket historian.