The awful rite of passage that is sexual harassment

Daily Brew

The Canadian Olympic Committee’s (COC) review of former president Marcel Aubut came out this month, telling us what already know: Aubut couldn’t keep his hands to himself. To say the least. 

The report from Rubin Thomlinson (the same Toronto employment law experts that autopsied the Jian Ghomeshi mess) made eight recommendations including an awareness campaign, employee engagement surveys, mandatory staff training sessions, and an ethics commissioner.

But it also noted that a majority of the 100+ COC staff interviewed saw sexual and personal harassment and even experienced it themselves. How exactly did Aubut get away with lecherous behaviour in a professional environment for 10 years with so many witnesses?

Maybe no one stopped him because he was a big fish. A lawyer by trade. A member of the Order of Canada. An officer of the National Order of Quebec. A member of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.

Or maybe it’s this: sexual harassment is a human rights issue but it is not considered a crime. Let’s be blunt, it can be regarded as inconsequential. I know from experience. And every woman I know does too.

It’s a rite of passage for females. You’re lucky if you avoid it but the odds are overwhelmingly not. You catch it at school. At home, at work. From strangers on the street. We’ve come to expect it.

At work

Bizarre as it seems, there’s a lack of clarity and understanding around what constitutes sexual harassment.

In the workplace, the Canadian Labour Code defines it as, “any conduct, comment, gesture, or contact of a sexual nature that is likely to cause offence or humiliation to any employee; or that might, on reasonable grounds, be perceived by that employee as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment or on any opportunity for training or promotion.

Here’s how I define it: a guy may think he’s being light-hearted and playful when he repeatedly asks a woman out and refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer or jokes about her body or his perceptions of her sex life. He may think he’s cool and that a woman should be flattered as he yells from a moving car that she’s hot and asks her to sleep with him. But he is, in fact, thoughtless, insensitive, and dehumanizing her to the point of maliciousness. Here’s a hint, if a woman seems humiliated or frightened, the comments are not well meaning or funny. He’s not flirting and it isn’t an acceptable pick-up line. And if it’s taking place at the office, well, duh.

In Canada, in a 2014 Angus Reid Institute national online survey, 43% of female respondents said they’d experienced sexual harassment at the office. That was three times higher than men, at 12%.

“This isn’t asking your coworker on a date,” Trae Vassallo told Forbes recently. The co-author of The Elephant in the Valley, a newly released survey on the experiences of female executives in technology added, “These are power play situations where you are turning someone down in a sexual way and there is some sort of meaningful impact on your ability to do your job.”

I’ve had horrible interactions at work; the worst occurred at my first job out of university. There were rumours I was dating someone in the office 25 years my senior. One afternoon as I walked past the sports editor he smushed his fingers around his lips, noisily wagged his tongue, and mimed cunnilingus. “Do you do that with him?” he hissed. Reporters around him chortled. I bolted. 

The taunting continued off and on. I spent a few lunch hours in a ladies room stall crying. I wish I could go back in time and say firmly, “Stop. You’re harassing me.” Use some choice expletives.

At school

According to Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, almost half of female high school students are subjected to sexual comments or gestures, and one-third are touched, grabbed or pinched in a sexual way.

My friend’s 17-year-old daughter experienced it firsthand after turning a boy down. “He went on social media calling her a whore and a slut. When I suggested we do something my daughter just wanted to sweep it under the rug,” my friend said. “What’s especially heartbreaking is how girls have come to expect this.”  

Meanwhile, a boy in her 12-year-old daughter’s class, frequently pointed out her skirts were too short and her tank tops had straps that were too narrow and, therefore, didn’t fit the dress code.

My friend’s husband felt the classmate was just “power hungry” and his comments didn’t amount to sexual harassment. This frustrated her.

“It’s like he has a mental block around admitting that some guys - not all guys - do horrible things. He’s feels somehow implicated and gets so defensive,” the mother of three said. “And yet…he has two girls. And he’s more enlightened than many. God help us.”

Given that her girls are still pretty young it makes her wonder just how much more they’re going to have to endure.

How do we fix it?

Here’s how it starts: a young boy says something nasty and gets away with it. He does it again. No one stops him. Not parents. Not teachers. Definitely not girls at the receiving end…who should never feel that guys are inherently entitled to comment on, touch, or eyeball their bodies in public. And yet permission starts small.

Bystander apathy is interpreted as implicit permission and boys grow up believing they can say and do whatever they please, when they want, to whomever they want.

That’s partly how we end up with people like Geoff Marcy, a renowned astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, who felt it was okay to slide his hand up a student’s skirt; kiss an undergraduate student on the forehead and her cheek; and buy an intoxicated undergrad drinks and take her to a hotel. Marcy resigned in December 2015; only after the leak of a confidential university investigation confirmed he’d repeatedly engaged in sexual harassment.

[Photo: Geoff Marcy]

We need to create spaces in school, at work, and public where young girls and women feel safe and are, in fact, truly safe from harassment. We need to teach our young kids the difference between compliments, flirting, and harassment. It’s a start.