Sexual Harassment: “Don’t Pay Any Attention to Him, He’s Harmless”

1930s maids' uniforms

1930s maids’ uniforms

She was probably 18 years old, had moved to Sydney from Antigonish, and with a Grade 10 education, applied for what were called “domestic” jobs — maids or housekeepers — that offered not only work, but often a place to live. Luckily for her, she landed such a job with a kind and caring employer, actually a family who treated her as one of their own. They liked entertaining, and she was introduced to many of their guests, so it seemed quite natural when one of those male guests asked her out to a movie. She checked with her “boss” as to whether she should accept the invitation and was told “Yes, he’s a good fellow.” So off they went. After the movie, he drove her home but was obviously expecting more than a “thank you,”as she began to leave the car. He began touching her inappropriately and as she resisted, tore the front of her dress. She ran from the car into the house where her employers were entertaining guests in the living room. She marched into the room in tears and said to them

Look what your good fellow did to me.

That young girl was my mother, and she only once told me that story. She was fortunate because her employer was sympathetic and held himself responsible for suggesting she accept the date with someone he had deemed a “gentleman.”

Actually, knowing my mother, the “good fellow” was lucky she didn’t land a haymaker on him. Her story, however, is mild compared to what some women have had to tolerate in our society and tolerate in silence, knowing that, in most cases, their stories would evoke little sympathy, even from many women. It goes without saying that said “good fellow,” gave no further thought to his behavior. Then, as now apparently, it was considered an okay way to treat a woman, especially one who ranked far below him in social stature, making him confident that should she tell her story, she would never be believed.

 

Harassment, especially the workplace variety, has been dominating the news lately, with powerful men finally being exposed for preying on young women seeking to make names for themselves in the movie business and discovering the path to fame most likely led to hotel rooms, offices, backstage areas or other equally sordid places where they were expected to provide sexual favors in return for advancement. Even in today’s society, your initial reaction might be to suggest these women should have walked away and tried another line of work — that they could openly accuse their tormentors wasn’t even a possibility, given that many, including other women, would have blamed them.

So where does harassment of any nature have its roots and why, especially in cases that involve women (and that would be most of them) are accusers so often treated as liars, called troublemakers, told they probably brought it on themselves or dismissed as “tramps?” Does it begin at home, where young boys see fathers who treat their wives or partners as lesser human beings, subjecting them to trash talk and/or assault? For some young girls, sexual harassment, including incest, begins in the family, perpetrated by the one person who should have been their protector.

Or perhaps it starts when they begin to babysit. A young girl, perhaps 14 or so, is approached by a friend of the family to babysit for them, and the girl, pleased that she’s finally considered old enough to look after one or two children for a few hours, sets off in high spirits to take on a new challenge. The first few times are fine, the mother is very nice, the children are quite manageable and the father is kind enough to drive her home even though it’s not any real distance. After a month or so, she is being driven home, but he stops the car fairly close to her home and begins to tell her how pretty and smart she is and then begins to touch her where he should never touch her or anyone other than his wife.

She’s shocked by this behavior and pushes open the car door and runs home, distraught and out of breath. She attempts to pull herself together before she opens the door, goes up to her room and cries her eyes out. Does she tell her parents what their “friend” has done? And when the wife calls the next time for a babysitter, does she go? What excuse does she give to her parents for refusing the job?

Let’s face it, there have always been what we refer to as “gropers,” men who can’t seem to control their mauling hands in the presence of a female. It matters not that the woman is part of the family, a neighbor who happens to be home alone when he arrives, usually on a legitimate errand, or a young unsuspecting girl who happens, unfortunately for her, to come into groping range. I have heard women, aware of such a – well, such a “pig” — laugh off someone’s story of having had that kind of experience. “Oh, don’t pay him any attention. He’s really harmless.” And so he continues, probably to his dying day, molesting his way through life, never hampered by the fact that he’s a married man with a family that includes daughters. How could they not be aware of such a man’s proclivity for “hitting on” women? Did they too consider it “harmless?”

 

These are just some of the thoughts that come to mind as a result of the above mentioned spate of harassment and sexual assault charges being brought forward in a very public manner against men in positions of power. The “gropers” don’t always enjoy that power differential but are almost always upstanding citizens, church-going family men, etc, etc, who happen to have this dark side to their personalities.

Constance Backhouse

Constance Backhouse

According to Constance Backhouse, a professor in the faculty of law at the University of Ottawa, and the University Research Chair on Sexual Legislation in Canada, “[W]herever you have such a power differential, you have a high risk of sexual coercion.” Interviewed on the November 5th edition of CBC’s Sunday Edition by Michael Enright, Backhouse, a lawyer herself, says she’s seen little change in the number of sexual assault complaints or the manner in which they are handled by the justice system, since she and co-author Leah Cohen wrote their 1979 book, The Secret Oppression – Sexual Harassment of Working Women.

Backhouse isn’t convinced that the public outcry against Harvey Weinstein’s conduct will change the way a large percentage of the population views such behavior. The fact that women have finally begun to express a highly public response to such behavior is something she sees as long overdue, as well as a movement that should receive wide public support, especially from women, but also from men who she hopes see this problem as something that reflects badly on all men who are aware of it but remain silent.

As is the norm in our present-day society, it will take powerful women, as many movie stars happen to be, to speak out since those on the lower scale of society are truly reluctant to do so. As Backhouse points out, it’s very possible, especially in Weinstein’s case, that his behavior is not considered by many to be beyond the pale. Perhaps he feels he’s “paying the woman a compliment” by indicating his desire to have sex with her. Perhaps, for many males, especially, Backhouse says, on college campuses, “no does not mean no” it means “try harder.”

 

Taking a man to court on sex charges must be one of the hardest things for a woman to do, given that she has to tell and retell her story to her lawyer, to a judge, to a jury, over and over under cross examination, while the man doesn’t have to say a word. It’s not even a “he said/she said” scenario. That perhaps explains why only one in five sexual assaults actually ends up in court. Backhouse says that women would be better served if they charged the guy with “common assault” since sexual assault seems to trigger all the worst “cultural” views of such assaults that still exist in our society. Chief Justice Beverley McLauhlin has said that “no one has the right to a particular verdict but only to a fair trial on the evidence,” but Hilla Kerner, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Rape Relief and Crisis Centre, disputed the Chief Justice’s assertion that “complainants’ expectations are unrealistic,”saying instead that “complainants expect nothing but a fair trial, and too often they do not get it.”

Tamysn Riddle (Keith Burgess/CBC News)

Tamysn Riddle (Keith Burgess/CBC News)

Backhouse understands why some women choose to go the route of a civil suit to get justice or, like University of Toronto student Tamysn Riddle, to a Human Rights Tribunal. Riddle filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal at UofT, alleging the school failed to adequately investigate and handle her sexual assault complaint, after discouraging her from going to the police.

Backhouse told Enright that “cultural myths” about sexual abuse cases persist within some police departments, as well as among some judges and lawyers and among the general public that “women lie” about these types of assault. Women are considered “responsible for sexuality when it goes wrong” she says causing them to automatically think “What did I do wrong?”

What’s required is a “massive cultural shift,” Backhouse contends. “Why haven’t we built a culture in which nobody wants to have sex except with someone who wants to have sex with them?” She insists that there must be changes to existing sexual abuse and assault laws but that we must also find a way to sensitize those in the justice system to the problems that surround these cases. Treating victims and witnesses as liars while allowing the accused to remain silent is commonplace. According to Backhouse, we all have to be educated to the fact that victims have suffered both physically and mentally, and that includes those of us, men and women alike, who have been enablers, those who are aware that harassment is happening but have remained silent.

Watching the CTV news crawl on Monday evening, I noticed that a Quebec judge had withdrawn from a sexual assault case after suggesting that a 17-year old alleged sexual assault victim “was a little overweight, had a pretty face and was maybe a bit flattered by the interest shown in her.”

Constance Backhouse would weep!

 

 

 

Dolores Campbell

 

Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.

 

 

 

 

 

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