Mar 1, 2013

Mild sexual harassment and failures of empathy

Tom Chivers had this great piece in the Telegraph this week, where he repeated a suggestion from Caitlin Moran to men who think that workplace sexual harassment - or as it's sudden becoming known "inappropriate touching" - is no big deal:
"it’s a good mental exercise to imagine that you, a man, are on a planet far, far away, populated by aliens roughly a foot taller than you, who have pretty much all the money, and who keep touching you on the arse when you’re just trying to look in a cupboard for printer cartridges."
I think it's an interesting exercise to engage in, but not because once they've done the thought experiment men will suddenly have some kind of epiphany about how awful & demoralising harassment is, but because for the more self aware of them it ought to provide an insight into how hard our culture makes it for us to empathise fully with women.

I had this friend once who was always interrogating me about why I'm a feminist. He was one of those smart guys who think that there's something fundamentally wrong with your argument if they hadn't already intuited it, since, being so smart, if it was so important and correct, they'd have though about it themselves by now. He didn't leave me alone one time until I told him that when you improve the status of women in society, the whole society benefits from it; he actually said "oh, well in that case it's OK", because, having slotted women back into an instrumental subordinate role, he could more easily live with the idea that someone was dedicated to helping them.

Anyway, so this guy liked bringing "examples" for me to disprove of how bad men actually have it in society. One of these stories involved a group of older women in his workplace who had a habit of commenting about his attractiveness in a suggestive way. He wanted me to admit that it's sexual harassment, I think so as to make it easier for him to dismiss sexual harassment entirely, since if he can just put up with it then women ought to, as well.

I asked him who the women in question were; he said they were the admins & secretaries in his department. So I explained the power dynamics inherent in harassment & tried to show that, however personally unpleasant & professionally inappropriate their behaviour was, it didn't really exploit the dual power advantages of gender & seniority that harassers tend to have over their victims.

I also asked him what the remarks consisted of, & it was nothing very explicit, and there was no touching, cornering, physical proximity or any kind of contact otherwise. So I explained that, as a guy who is 6'6" (really) and not being cornered or approached, he's not really in a position to compare himself to a diminutive women being groped in the copying room.

In other words I tried to encourage him to do a sort of guided version off the exercise that Caitlin Moran came up with. But the problem was that he just couldn't do it - he couldn't put himself in the shoes of a woman in his situation, let alone extend his imagination to a more realistic harassment scenario.

And when I say realistic, here's part of what I mean:

  • A friend of mine came back from a conference with a senior client whom she'd been shepherding around town. He pushed his way into her hotel room (their rooms were on the same floor) and started kissing & groping her
  • A senior co-worker in a job I was doing as a temp once grabbed my arm in a "friendly" fashion and pulled me down to sit by him in the kitchen. Once I was at his eye level, he lunged at me & kissed me on the lips
  • A respected academic at a conference once sat down next to a friend of mine at breakfast & started stroking the inside of her bare arm (ETA: He was in his 60s, she was 20 years old)
  • I had a professor at university who, whenever I came to see him in his office, would lock the door behind me and proceed to try and kiss/touch me
This is what people like Lib Dem Lords chief whip Lord Newby mean when they talk about "mild sexual harassment". It's not persistent, it's not violent, you don't end up losing your job, they don't stalk you or expose themselves to you. It's not quite Anita Hill territory - it's just the everyday kind of one-off stuff that's "pretty common", as he says.

It's not that I think Lord Newby or my former friend actually know what the hell they're talking about; clearly neither of them are even remotely aware what this "mild" sexual harassment consists of. It's that I think even if they did, it wouldn't make any difference, because they simply wouldn't be able to put themselves in womens' place & imagine just how gut wrenchingly terrifying & awful these sorts of "pretty common" incidents are. The problem isn't really that men don't know what sexual harassment really is, it's more that the power relations between men and women in the workplace are so spectacularly skewed, that they probably can't even imagine what it's like, with a map, a flash-light & a ball of string to guide them.



  1. A friend of mine is a bellydancer and a dental hygienist. She was recently physically pushed into a small room by two of the dentists, who blocked the door and demanded she perform for them. I think "pretty common" is really "near universal experience" and it horrifies me.

    1. Jesus, that must have been so scary for her. And yes, it's universal and horrific.