Should we legislate to prevent sexual harassment at work?
The sad fact of the matter is that there are many men who are simply socially awkward, particularly around women.
To find a sexual partner we must court. First we must subtlety make our intentions clear in an alluring way without being too explicit so as not to cause alarm. Thinking of something interesting and relevant to say is difficult. We dread saying totally the wrong thing. We agonise about how we look. Have we chosen our clothes with care? We worry about rejection and humiliation. This game also requires a large amount of social and emotional intelligence to accurately interpret the response of the target of our passions. This is a very stressful and difficult game to get right and involves significant social and cognitive skills. In most cases we need alcohol just to cope with the emotional turmoil, which also unfortunately impairs our judgment. Some people are subtle and clever at this game, most are average of course, but a few are completely useless. If you are also physically unattractive the odds are stacked completely against you.
I can recall a casual lunch as a young manager with my female head of HR. She had just returned from a conference on sexual harassment in the workplace. Her take on the whole issue was that any explicit or implicit sexual demands made based on one person’s authority over another were clearly wrong. A dismissible offence. However most of the sexual harassment cases she came across in her professional life could be classified as one person having sexual advances from a person from whom they didn’t want sexual advances. As the majority of these cases were between peers, power and authority were not part of the equation. Consequently many men (and they were mostly men) had claims of sexual harassment against them and were oblivious to having done something wrong. They had seen other men behaving in the same way and having their advances welcomed and then witnessed the relationship that followed. Many of these sexual harassment claims came after sales conferences and training courses where alcohol had been drunk with colleagues in a social situation.
At the same company one of our male marketing managers was very tactile. He was very enthusiastic and passionate about his job and would get animated when talking about his marketing campaigns. To emphasise a key point in his discussion he would often grab my arm or shoulder. When walking he would often casually put an arm around my shoulder to signify camaraderie. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, but neither did I interpret his behaviour as a sexual advance. He was just tactile. I’ve also had explicit sexual advances from women from whom I did not want a sexual advance, in a work situation, but being male I did not interpret this as a threat to my person or career.
I also watch with amusements professional footballers being sent onto the field of play with a friendly slap on the bottom from their coach or manager. The hugs and kisses after scoring a goal is legendary. Nobody checks with the goal scorer to see if they mind being touched. Does this mean any professional footballer can now allege sexual harassment? This is their place of work after all. Imagine the potential litigation income for retired footballers in need of some extra cash. Or do we just make men touching women a special case? Would that be sexist? Will some unscrupulous colleagues exaggerate “touching” claims for professional gain or just pure vindictiveness?
Physical contact is an important part of being human and is a natural response to emotional situations. Who doesn’t want to console a distraught child? A tearful colleague? Hug a friend with good news? When does that contact become threatening or criminal? Surely some of this is in the interpretation of the person being touched?
To what extent do we want to vilify and criminalise men (or women) who are just socially awkward, particularly if they’ve had a glass of wine too many? When does social awkwardness become bad manners? When does bad manners become a crime?
For many people the vast majority of their social interaction is through work. Many people also meet their life-long sexual partners at work so it is clear that much consensual flirting and sexual activity occurs between colleagues. Inevitably some will overstep the mark. I’m very sensitive to the distress unwanted sexual attention causes women at work. It is clearly wrong and social pressure and education should be used to combat it. However using legislation to try to enforce a change is fraught with immense difficulty and countless shades of grey. As proof try to craft a carefully worded, watertight piece of legislation. One which protects women at work without either: criminalising much innocent behaviour; or having Taliban like policies enforced by employers and Governments which dictate with whom and under what circumstances consenting couples are allowed to flirt and have sexual relationships. This would be a gross violation of the human rights of everybody and impossible to enforce. Sometimes we must accept there are no perfect solutions. To assume that anything which combats something which is wrong is automatically right is faulty logic. Often the remedy makes the situation worse. Women would feel slightly better protected in certain situations but their overall basic human rights would be greatly diminished.