What is the best way to handle sexual harassment? What advice would you give your daughter or granddaughter?
I get on really well with my teenage daughter. She confides in me about everything – well almost everything. I put it down to discipline when she was three.
The other day we were having a chat about the recent spate of sexual harassment cases.
Mum. What should I do if I am sexually harassed?
Well it depends on what you mean by sexual harassment.
Do you mean whether it is my fault? Whether I encouraged it?
Not at all. I just think we need to be clear about what constitutes sexual harassment.
For instance, would you include an admiring glance, a wink, an off-colour joke?
Oh Mum! No-one could call those sexual harassment.
But they do. The Human Rights Commission study into Rape Culture in Universities
included all of those in its definition.
There is also the issue of persistence.
What you mean?
Well if a boy asks you out on a date and you decline, then that is hardly harassment.
Of course not.
But what if he persists? What if every day he repeats the invitation?
Well it would be irritating. It might be harassment. But I don’t think it is sexual harassment.
At this point my husband Frank, Kate’s father, joined in. We had thought he had been taking no notice, but he had been listening intently. Frank is a bit older than me and his views can be a bit dated. However, he sometimes makes a lot of sense. And Kate is very fond of him.
Women have become so precious. In my day, a girl was flattered to receive admiring looks, wolf
whistles as she strolled by a building site, even a friendly pat on the bum. And courtesies. I
remember when we used to open the car door for the young lady we were squiring.
Yes. I quite like an admiring glance. And I think I can cope with a wolf-whistle. Not so sure about
the pat on the bum. It might depend on who did it!
As for the courtesies, these days we girls like to assert our independence.
We forego having the door opened for us in return for being treated as an equal.
As long as the goody two-shoes don’t put a ban on flirting.
That could spell the end of the human race.
Frank went back to reading his paper. Or so we thought.
What I was concerned about was how I should react to serious sexual harassment.
I am thinking about instances like the girl in Canberra being driven home by colleagues after a
political rally when a stranger jumped in the back with her and groped her.
Or the case of the politician, having drinks with a group of people in a bar, who put his hands down the back of a young journalist’s dress and into her knickers and squeezed her bum.
Steer clear of politicians!
It does seem that if you make a fuss there are nasty consequences for you.
In fact, it may be worse for you than the bloke.
Yes. If it happens in an organisational setting and you report it, there is often a tendency
to defend the organisation rather than you.
And in the public setting, these cases highlight the inadequacies of our adversarial
system of law. Often there are no witnesses and the case depends on who is the more plausible. Defending your credibility can be very stressful for the victim.
And the accused.
Your past and your character will be subject to cross-examination.
Of course, these days there is not only the press but social media.
There are no constraints on what people are able to say there.
There is defamation law.
Yes. But that is often used tactically to deter the victim.
What is defamation law?
Well defamation is attacking someone’s good reputation, spreading evil about them.
What someone says or writes about you can diminish your reputation.
Or subject you to ridicule or hatred.
So there are laws to protect you.
But only if what has been alleged is untrue.
Yes. Truth is a defence.
How could defamation law be used tactically?
If the journalist in the case you described were to bring an action for sexual harassment,
then the politician could threaten to sue for defamation for the damage such an accusation
does to his reputation and his political career.
The journalist might then be dissuaded from bringing the charge because of the time and cost
of the case, and the financial risk of losing.
Even if it were true.
Even if it were true. She would have to prove that in a court of law.
Moreover, the proceedings would be emotionally draining.
It seems as though making a formal complaint is not practical. So what should I do?
When you were a little girl …
She is still my little girl.
When you were a little girl, we wanted to teach you how to behave in ways that were acceptable to others. We wanted you to be liked and included in social activities, not ostracised for being a little monster. This meant that we had to discipline you when you did something wrong or offensive or were insensitive to others.
Our rules for this were: that the discipline had to be immediate so that it related to the offence…
It was no use being angry with you the next day or carrying a grudge for a week.
… and that it had to be proportionate.
You did not get spanked for spitting out your food.
As you cannot depend on the law or your organisation to resolve the problem,
you are going to have to take responsibility yourself.
I suggest that you should apply the same rules we did:
Retribution should be swift and commensurate.
Here are some suggestions:
For the pest who continues to ask you for a date even though you are clearly not interested, get a mutual friend to tell him to desist. And if that does not work, you and your friends should ostracise him.
For the molester, slap his face and say loudly for all around you to hear “Get your hand out of my knickers you creep.”
Never report it. Never respond to requests to describe what happened.
You have taken responsibility. You have put the matter to rest.
You can get on with your life with confidence.
But Mum I have never hit anyone. Nice girls don’t.
You are suggesting that I do something that is contrary to everything you ever taught me.
Yes, that is true.
But you must remember that you cannot play by the Marquis of Queensbury’s rules
if the other guy is kicking you in the balls.
Perhaps I could have phrased that better. But you get my point.
You must not let some bloke take advantage of the expectation that you will be nice
and submissive, that you will not react.
If he is being violent then you have the right to respond in kind.
Your dignity, your self-worth demand it.
By saying “Get your hand out of my knickers you creep”
you embarrass him and make his offense public.
The traditional face slap is fine, visual and audible. But I think you may need to be willing to use your knees and elbows too when the occasion calls for it.
This is part of the series, The Lockesmith Dialogues, social commentary by Loretta Lockesmith talking with her husband Frank, her daughter Kate, and her friends Ann and Marcia.
Loretta Lockesmith is a Melbourne Writer.