Sexual Harassment – 5

Sexual Harassment – 5

by Grace Marshall who is a student of Women Studies, a published author, and attends Vancouver Island University

I wrote an essay in my first year at university, as many students do, to practise our mastery of the illusive formal essay layout. The subject was “anger,” and I choose to write about my experience as a customer service worker, and how the system worked to facilitate male entitlement to my time, attention, and sometimes my body. I’m including this essay below, which has since been edited (in the original, I made several concession to my own experiences and views, in order to make sure my male professor liked it enough to give me a good grade. This is ironic in hindsight). Here is “The Angry Sugarplum,” followed by a few more thoughts of mine:

Socially enforced female submission to the male gaze makes me angry. Here is a story from my daily work life to demonstrate this point of view.

I work in a coffee shop and coffee shops are curious places.

Part of being a service worker is being amenable to the attention of customers. This could be discussing the weather, giving directions, or other such small talk. Some people take advantage of this captive audience, however. One such culprit is a man who comes in every day, and orders the same thing. He says the same thing every time you hand his coffee over – “Thanks, sugarplum,” a leer crossing over his gap-toothed grin. His compliments are met with my nervous laughter, and coins change hands below his assessing gaze. Men like him come in everyday. Whether they know it or not, they like that they cannot be refuted by the women in this space. The workers know that they must remain smiling and placid regardless of the strain they are under – whether that be long lines or impertinent customers. This type of emotional labour is part of the job description. During the training for this job, many important instructions and rules are laid out – how to make a cappuccino, when to clean the machines, and how you are expected to interact with customers. “Nasty customers,” it’s explained, “are unavoidable, so it’s best to remain pleasant and brush it off.” This fact is reiterated in the motivational posters in the break room, and enforced under the careful eye of management. Among the workers, sympathetic looks are often exchanged.

If recrimination were possible these interactions would not be as prevalent. The fact that I have to bite back the acid that sits on my tongue when men like this come in infuriates me to no end. It doesn’t matter to them whether the girl they’re talking to is fourteen, or married, or otherwise unavailable to their attentions, because the person behind that pleasant minimum-wage smile doesn’t exist to them. Their ignorance is galling and frustrating. They have clearly never thought about what it is like to be looked at like a piece of meat, and they will never have to suffer that indignity. I just want to be treated like a regular human being. “I’m not attracted to your coffee-stained grin and uncomfortable pick-up lines, you creepy old man,” I think to myself while pouring yet another cup of coffee. When I arrive home, my vitriolic account of the day leaves both myself and my housemates fuming. “Ugh, I hate it when they ask me to smile!” I complain at the dinner table, “Why can’t they just buy their coffee and leave me in peace?” The uncomfortable minefield of being flirted with by a middle-aged man is not one I want to traverse so frequently.

Sometimes, it is a fundamental lack of introspection and empathy that causes this behaviour in customers. If I could make these men take the time to think about the impact of their actions, and why they act this way, I would. They just don’t think. That’s one of the things that makes this situation so frustrating. That said, even with self reflection some of these people would not change how they interact with female workers. Which men are which? It’s mostly impossible to tell, and I’m unconvinced there is much of a difference.

I’m lucky. I’m also not lucky. It’s hard to define which it is, exactly—was I lucky when I got my first job (barely fourteen), and the men at the gas station leered and asked for my number? Am I lucky that the counter was wide, so they couldn’t touch me, and that my ride was always on time? What about a few years later, different place, and my male coworkers would hug me and ask for a kiss on the cheek? Surely, women have suffered worse than that. Was it luck that made is so, when a younger girl would make frantic, familiar eye contact with me, I would shoo her into the back of the shop and take over?

Things for me could have, and have for many women, gone catastrophically worse. What right do I have to complain, to feel angry? While it could be said that my experiences in the workplace were lucky, I think it is a profound misfortune to have that be my consolation prize. It should be enough, however minor, to experience assault, harassment, and unwanted advances. The people who tout the “woman who had it worse” to silence others’ testimony don’t actually care about this nebulous woman. They just want you to shut up, and the woman after you, and the one after that. I have yet to meet someone who has been granted the security of believable, valid victim-hood.

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Sexual Harassment and the Workplace: Consent – 3


Today we will hear from a local lawyer on the topic:

Disclaimer: I’m a lawyer. But I’m not this kind of lawyer. I’ve never taken on a sexual harassment claim nor defended one. While I think it’s useful to refer to the law in issues like these, I’m no more a legal expert in this area than the average reader.

When I think about the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace (as so many of us are right now), I’m seeing it from the employer’s perspective and from the male perspective. I think the recent happenings in Hollywood, in American politics and in universities around the globe are forcing those of us with those perspectives to look at the issue of workplace harassment with a broader perspective than we may have previously.

The Community Legal Assistance Society of BC  (CLAS) has an excellent breakdown of the legal definition of sexual harassment in the workplace here. The key elements given to us by the case law are:

a.  Conduct of a sexual nature which is gender based,

b.  Conduct that is unwelcome, and

c.  Conduct that detrimentally affects the work environment or leads to adverse job- related consequences.

From an employer’s perspective, I have tended to see these things in pretty black and white terms for myself. I’m the boss. Marital status notwithstanding, it’s clearly inappropriate for me to engage with any of my staff in any of the conduct that has elements “a” and “b” above, because doing so carries far too high a risk of also becoming “c”. And I feel the same way about the responsibilities of employees down the chain. However, I’ve never had to consider whether sexual advances between peers in the workplace are acceptable and though it’s never become an issue for me, I’ve failed to recognize some important issues in defining workplace sexual harassment.

The CLAS page notes that “consensual conversations about sex are not prohibited in the workplace” but I’ve always been extremely uncomfortable when that sort of talk is engaged in in the office, even when it seems clearly  consensual. The law appears to support the idea that in such situations, if everyone is “participating” the onus is on the person who feels uncomfortable to raise an objection. I think for a very long time, this seemed fine to me. It’s all in good fun right?

Recent famous events have me thinking a little harder about this. As I said I’m often uncomfortable in these situations. I’m the boss. If anyone has comfort in the power to say “this is inappropriate and I don’t want to hear it here” it’s me – and I’m still reluctant to do so, simply out of a desire not to “spoil everyone’s fun”.  If I feel this way, what is the likelihood that the men and women working at the lowest positions feel completely unable to express their discomfort? Even if they are joining in the “banter” they may be doing so out of what they believe to be necessity. I feel now that it is ethically unfair to place the onus on them. No, I think the boss needs to be responsible. As an employer, I need to take responsibility for fostering a work environment that is free, as much as possible, of the sort of sexual talk or innuendo that may not only make feel people uncomfortable, but worse, obligated to participate.

The other thing I think I’ve never paid particular attention to is what exactly we mean by “workplace” when we talk about “sexual harassment in the workplace”. Obviously, things that occur at our physical place of work count. Meetings to conduct business, travelling in a vehicle with other staff for work, these are easy cases, few would act as if they are not “in the workplace” when they are actively engaging something “for work”. But the line begins to blur astonishingly quickly – the television and movie trope about the “office Christmas party” is a trope for a reason (there may be a chicken and egg debate to be had here, but nevertheless) and all sorts of behavior that would clearly be inappropriate at work seems to be treated, again, as all in good fun.  Drinks after work may seem like an innocent invitation but may be opening the door for more intimate advances. At what point can someone safely say “we are no longer in the workplace” so these standards don’t apply?

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Sexual Harassment – 2

As promised I have invited some friends and colleagues to write on the topic of sexual harassment, sexual harassment in the workplace, and the “MeToo” movement. Today two writers:

Jess is a VIU philosophy grad (technically) who just missed Bob. After several attempts at settling down in Canada, Jess has relocated to the Japanese countryside where she will stay for at as long as it takes to achieve inner peace/creative output.   She annually self- publishes a zine called The Free Wheel.  She is the author of  “Letter from Japan” published occasionally and often on the first of each month.  Visit The Free Wheel on Facebook here. 

Janet Vickers thinks and writes about the human condition in her poetry and blog posts. Her books include “Infinite Power” (Ekstasis 2016) “Impermanence” (Ekstasis, 2012), “You Were There” (Lipstick Press, 2006) and “Arcana” (Lipstick, 2008).

Jess writes from Japan:

It’s bittersweet, all this sexual harassment business coming to the fore. On one hand, how seriously it’s being taken is a good sign we’re ready to go forward as a society with new standards and awareness. But on the other, we’ve had to face the fact that it’s much more prevalent among those – and in those institutions – we wouldn’t expect. It got me thinking about how professional boundaries might not actually serve to protect after all – but actually put women in more of a predicament when they are working under a man who does not respect these boundaries. And how at this point, it’s the woman’s job.

There is no doubt that many men have a pathological, dangerous sexual entitlement to women’s bodies, and will take it as far as they can get away with. There is no excuse for it and they are entirely in the wrong. Let it be clear; I don’t deny this. What I do deny is the idea that women are never at fault every time a man follows through on an unwanted sexual advance. We have to acknowledge the grey area, and the women’s responsibility in that area.

Inappropriate sexual conduct exists on a spectrum, ranging from unsolicited comments to non-consensual action. On this spectrum exist situations that are nuanced, with men not forcing but testing, and women who are uncomfortable but are unwilling or unable to make it clear. These men, instead of being labeled and ostracized, need guidance, awareness, and even forgiveness – by women. And women need to give it in the form of firmer boundaries, sooner.

It’s just the way it is that men are more often on the power end of the deal – as the bosses, teachers, mentors of women. This results in situations where there is 1:1 private time with a woman they might be attracted to. If this desire supersedes their respect for professional standards, the man might test these boundaries with boldness that they have not only become accustomed to and rewarded for in other contexts, but have been told in various multimedia forms that women find attractive. Some of these men are correct, resulting in a mutually satisfying, ethically ambiguous affair. Some of them are delusional, resulting in either a humiliating rejection or a sexual harassment case.

The point is, they think they are allowed. In either situation they think there will be no repercussion no matter how it turns out, so they take the risk. And for a long time they’ve been right. So that’s what they’ve grown up in. Now that the tides have turned and women are becoming bolder in advocating for themselves – and believed – men are being confronted with the reality that it’s in fact not okay to initiate this behaviour in a position of power, because it might be simple for you, but in the woman’s mind – especially a young one – it’s much more complicated, and when it’s not clear what to do in the moment, or when there’s no precedent to draw on, one does nothing. And doing nothing in the case of a sexual advance means following the lead.

Women have more responsibility than we seem to be willing to admit here, especially in a professional setting. Not by “asking for it”, but by letting it happen. We think men should know better. The fact is, they sometimes don’t. For reasons both cultural and biological, they are much more inclined to misread signals, and this is not an excuse but a reason for their bold moves. It unfortunately becomes the woman’s responsibility to put them back in their place as our mentor, teacher, boss, whatever; to remind them of their responsibilities to us, and if they don’t get it then, to report it now and not later.

Besides the confusion/inaction a young subordinate woman might feel when an older man in authority comes on to her, there’s also the women with experience who know full well the inappropriateness and whose reasons for inaction amount to giving their power to the offender. For instance, when women think they will be sacrificing career advancement for not accepting an advance, that’s their fault. It’s not necessarily the case, and even if it is, fighting that battle is worth more than staying with that boss.  When the man tries, it’s the woman’s responsibility not to let – damn the consequences.

Consider Louis CK. The fact that he asked the women if he could masturbate in front of them doesn’t seem to factor at all into his public opinion of his misconduct which lumps him in with the rest of the recent – much more severe – Hollywood predators. But if true, it makes all the difference. It’s what separates a sick predator from a sad pervert. It’s what gives the women the choice, the power. And if a woman says yes to that because she feels she has to, she is not using her power responsibly.

Janet relates a story from her past:

When I went to Secondary school in the UK, there was an incident  that remains vivid in my mind.  A popular boy in our class rummaged through the bag of a girl and found a sanitary napkin. He hoisted it up as a prize and tossed to another boy who tossed it to another.  It went around the classroom like this for a minute or two.  The girl who owned it was red with embarrassment. It was as though she was to blame for this.  She desperately tried to reach it, to snatch it from the laughing boys making sport of her menstrual cycle.
This event symbolizes so much about the values of patriarchy – values that have taken fifty years for me to understand.

The first is to blame the victim.  At the time it was clear to me that the embarrassment was not hers to own – it was the boys who shamefully took something from her and threw it around.

In a society where males win medals for killing more children than women can give birth to, life is merely a resource. Giving birth, menstruating, rape, assault, domestic abuse are symbols of male dominance. Hunger, pain, reflection or feelings do not count in patriarchal society. It is the record of crusading warriors and their killing that counts, that defines history and the future.

The world of family, love, nurture, comfort and compassion belongs only to the reality of the conquered and the prey.

This sounds really extreme and men who love and care for others will not agree with this.

So what is it about the power that drives civilization, the laws and the institutions we rely on to survive that makes our lived experiences irrelevant?  What is it about this time where patriarchy stumbles into mindless brutality, that makes it so difficult to be honest about those feelings we suppress? What is it about victims of bullying and rape that they must be publicly shamed for what others do to them? How have we allowed justice and morality to be so diluted that arguments become contests between two sides fighting to win the argument without fixing the problem?

Zosia Bielski writes that we need “Concrete measures for enacting cultural and institutional change – conversations more complicated than hashtagged confessions. From the ground up, we need to start with schools imparting deeper knowledge to young minds about consent, empathy, entitlement, bodily autonomy and bystander behaviour.”  We Owe Sexual Abuse Survivors More Than Me Too. Globe and Mail Opinion, October 17, 2017.

Your comments are welcome here or on the companion Facebook page.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace


Big topic in the news right now: sexual harassment in the work place – and every place! Hollywood, Washington DC, Alabama malls, TED, many places, many victims, many perps.

What is sexual harassment? Trying to get a clear notion I went to philosophy sites to find an answer.

Sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or sexually directed remarks constitute sexual harassment when submission to such conduct is made a condition of academic or employment decisions, or when such conduct persists despite its rejection.

Sexual harassment is a serious violation of professional ethics, and should be regarded and treated as such by members of the profession. Colleges and universities should supply clear, fair institutional procedures under which charges of sexual harassment on campus can be brought, assessed, and acted on. – from the APA

Next I checked with the “DAILYNOUS” the profession’s information and news site.

There I found reports of cases, lawsuits, and an interview with Ruth Chang.

Now I am asking friends and colleagues to submit articles on the topic. I’ll keep you posted!

NB: I am collecting the series here.