A journey through the history of sexual harassment and gender politics.
A popular comedian in Tamil films once mused that his ultimate goal was to lead the life of a male lion in the African savannah. Of all things men like to be nostalgic about, that lifestyle is the least likely to ever come back.
This week, there has been so much speculation about the Tarun Tejpal case that theoretical physics predicts that it could collapse into a black hole whose event horizon distorts our sense of perspective to the point that we really have no clue about what is true, what is politically motivated and what came out of the nether orifices of random people on social media. So as enticing as it is for this armchair theorist to send his own views into this swirling morass of misinformation, I will desist from doing so and instead take you on a short anecdotal journey through some interesting legal history of sexual harassment and gender politics.
The term “sexual harassment” did not exist prior to the 1970s because before that, it was simply called “being born a woman”. In 1852, the HMS Birkenhead, a British troop ship, was wrecked at the most aptly named Danger Point, about 140 km from Cape Town, South Africa. Predictably enough, there were not enough lifeboats and soldiers aboard the ship famously enforced the first publicly recorded instance of the “Women and children first” protocol that came to be subsequently called the Birkenhead Drill. Fast forward to the early part of the 20 century, we find the Suffragist movement fighting for women’s voting rights and not surprisingly, opponents to the Women’s vote would often cite the Birkenhead Drill as proof of men’s inherent tendency to “take care” of women and, therefore surely, they didn’t need the vote.
In fact, when the “Women and children first” protocol was applied again during the even more famous sinking of the RMS Titanic, the Suffragist movement responded with the memorable slogan “Votes for women, Boats for men”, implying that women with political power and equal rights not only do not want to be given priority during shipwrecks, they would further ensure that the kind of male-dominated corporate profiteering that resulted in the Titanic disaster in the first place would also be prevented.
If there’s anything this little historical anecdote teaches us, it’s that the “we need to protect women” line of thinking is largely dubious and, more often than not, leads us down a slippery slope to the quicksand of “You need to make it less hard for us to protect you” thinking, which then results in theories about how suggestive clothing invites harassment etc. Ultimately we miss the more fundamental “let’s generally be nicer to other human beings, a group to which women certainly belong” idea which, for some reason, is not talked about enough.
In fact, it wasn’t till 1964 that the United States made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender and for the first time, recognised sexual harassment as a specific problem. It would take another 34 years and a lawsuit against a company that ran an oil-rig before they realised that sexual harassment of gay men was not covered by the law. It also recognised that a sexually hostile workplace, with sexist taunts and displays of pornography is as much a problem as individual acts of harassment.
On that note, the most bizarre harassment lawsuit till date is the Maxine Henderson “Gwen” case. An artist from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, she drew a painting of a partially nude woman (“Gwen”) that she exhibited in the city hall rotunda, a public place she was legally entitled to use to exhibit her art. Now for those of you who are familiar with Tennessee, it’s one of those beautiful States with people who are so incredibly nice that they will do biblically silly things to preserve their very strict definition of niceness. A female employee of the city saw this painting and got offended and, since this was 1995, she went ahead and lodged a sexual harassment complaint against the city of Murfreesboro. Her argument? The presence of pornography (albeit painted by a local artist) in the workplace created a sexually hostile environment.
The City attorney promptly removed “Gwen” only to be met with a counterargument from the other side. The removal of the painting constituted a violation of the artist’s First Amendment right to free speech and, therefore, the blindfolded lady weighing this legal dilemma ruled that the painting could stay in public places. Here’s the interesting twist. It’s still not OK to exercise free speech in private spaces, like a workplace. Although it would seem like the First Amendment might apply in the case of sending a link to a risqué website to a co-worker, companies can (and will) likely fire you for creating a sexually hostile environment.
Some men will say that it’s become a needlessly complicated world where harmless gestures can be unfairly twisted into draconian harassment lawsuits but for a gender that has largely lived the life of a male lion since the dawn of agriculture, the shift to a more equal world will seem like a tectonic shift but it turns out that women, for some strange reason, prefer not to live in harems, do all the work and provide sexual favours at whim.