Opinion

Heightened awareness no panacea for scourge of sexual harassment

  • Tip of the iceberg: Bill Cosby has been accused of sexual asault by more than 60 women and will be retried next spring on three charges of felony aggravated indecent assault, after a deadlocked June trial (File photograph by Matt Slocum/AP)

What began several years ago with the likes of the Bill Cosby scandal, which at best seemed an attempt to counter powerful men, including many celebrities who lived as though they had an untouchable entitlement as they used their clout to veil sexual abuses and exploitation of women, escalated during the 2016 presidential race with Donald Trump.

Now it is almost a weekly reality show of “Who’s Next?” as the numbers of high-profile persons and their accusers are paraded across the television news.

Understandably, among large corporations and celebrities, there has been a culture of abuse that needs to be addressed. I am sure the matters are real and no hoax; certainly, they are more real for those who are victims and have been suffering in silence with the scars for which there was no seeming redress against these intimidating figures. But it is in the grip of social media now, causing a demand for exposure. The call for naming has become almost viral.

In fairness, even to social media, too many women have suffered for too long and may be happy that there is now a spotlight on this unwarranted behaviour. But is it a spotlight on sexual harassment or evidence of some other form of social dysfunction?

We must remind ourselves that as far back as the 1990s, we produced human rights legislation designed specifically to protect against sexual harassment. The cardinal principle in the Act that defined sexual harassment was that the action of the perpetrator was sexual in content and unwanted.

An added aggravation of sexual harassment is when the abuser has a position of power and influence over the victim, who can be intimidated into submitting to unwanted sexual advances and behaviours for fear of losing their jobs or of impeding their upward mobility.

Huge questions loom over whether all the “butt groping” and lewd comments exchanged daily on the streets and in the workplace over the years were all unwanted or fit the description of sexual harassment. Certainly, we live in changing times and social norms have shifted. Persons of my generation would have observed a period long ago when what today would be deemed as unacceptable behaviour was a norm and seemingly expected. It may be easy to shove that attitude off as belonging to an old, chauvinistic era.

Here is the inconvenient truth: many men today are confused about the role they should play in securing or attracting a partner, or in eliciting a general friendship or conversation. As an example, for the peacock, it’s simple. All he needs to do is spread his tail feathers. The ape or bear just needs to beat up a few other males, but what are men to do?

One may say he should just be decent and respectful, but how many decent, respectful men who have done what they considered to be the right and appropriate thing have, for example, gone to meet the family, took things slow and lost the dream girl of their life to a ruthless, one-track character?

Back in the proverbial day, the rough street guy took the cream of the crop. Even today, how many young women prefer the “bad boy”, and while keeping true to the subject, how many cases of adultery are the result of two good persons’ genuine misadventure or just a regrettable moment of indiscretion compared with the number of those committed by — to use St David’s vernacular — the known “village hammer”?

All creatures, including humans, respond to reward and punishment in predictable ways and as long as bad behaviour is rewarded, it will be difficult to bring about lasting change.

Culture and expected norms must be woven into the debate also. As well as attending a few local scenes, I have been to several islands to our south and attended dancehall events. In former times, a dance was full of grace, with footsteps that became an art form. What I witnessed in these dancehalls in recent times cannot be called or in any way considered as an “art form”.

They more closely resemble something just short of a group orgy of sorts. There was no shame attached to this highly sexual, simulated dancing, which would make the “grinding” of the early Seventies look like it was meant for adolescents — in fact simultaneously displayed on music videos. No, not everyone participates in or enjoys that extreme form of dancing, but why laugh at it and call it going to a soca party and fun when some complete stranger is allowed to mount your back and gyrate, with no complaint filed?

This subject of sexual harassment is a serious matter, clearly a crime, and not a media sport or piece for social entertainment. Society will need to codify what it deems as acceptable behaviour between men and women, and not generalise the issue of sexual harassment.

No woman who is pursuing a career or simply trying to make a living should face the abuses of someone taking advantage of their vulnerability. Men also need to be free and understand what are the range of actions and comments that fit within women’s acceptability. We create our values and where there is a lack of them, we will reap what we sow as a consequence.