Twenty- and thirty some­things, it turns out, don’t share my views on what con­sti­tutes sex­ual ha­rass­ment

★★★ ☆☆

The Guardian - G2 - - TV And Radio - Lucy Man­gan

Agroup of men and a group of women are shown a playlet about the in­ter­ac­tions at work be­tween Ryan, a male man­ager of a bar, and his new, fe­male co-man­ager, Cat. When and where, they are asked, does he sex­u­ally ha­rass her – if at all? The setup of Is This Sex­ual Ha­rass­ment? was a bril­liantly sim­ple way to stim­u­late dis­cus­sion and in­ter­ro­ga­tion of this en­demic work­place prob­lem.

The sex­ual ha­rass­ment clearly be­gan straight away, when he leaned too closely over her at the com­puter and com­pli­mented her per­fume. “Brains and beauty,” he called their team­work. Bleurgh. Her re­mov­ing his hand from her back at the of­fice party was a bla­tant sig­nal she wasn’t in­ter­ested. Yet he got them a shared taxi home and got out at her place in­stead of go­ing on to his as he had said he would, and kissed her. She said no and laughed it off. He called head of­fice to re­port her stock con­trol mis­takes, she re­alised he was out to make her place un­ten­able and they ended up at an em­ploy­ment tri­bunal.

So ob­vi­ous what was go­ing on! So clear! Such a pig! What fol­lowed was an ob­ject les­son in sub­jec­tiv­ity.

I, it turns out, have been out of the world too long. The male and fe­male groups of twenty- and early thir­tysome­things saw things quite dif­fer­ently, from me and from each other.

The men all agreed the lean­ing in and per­fume smelling was fine. Pur­suit af­ter the hand was re­moved – per­haps not. “He’s us­ing the work en­vi­ron­ment for pulling tac­tics when she can’t get away from him. He should have said: ‘Shall we do a drink af­ter work,’ away from it,” said one (no names were given, at least in the pre­view ver­sion). No, reck­oned an­other. He was OK all the way: “He’s tak­ing the risk, he’s mak­ing him­self vul­ner­a­ble … she wasn’t ex­plicit in her de­nial un­til the kiss.”

When the women turned up, things only got more com­pli­cated. One felt sorry for Ryan af­ter his over­ture was re­jected. “[Cat] never said.” Oth­ers thought Cat should have been clearer ear­lier. “If we say we want to be equal to men we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate clearly,” said one. “I’m shocked … she didn’t call him out – but that’s a prod­uct of so­ci­ety,” an­other sighed.

On it went, a fas­ci­nat­ing wel­ter of dif­fer­ent takes on the same sit­u­a­tion and a range of in­ter­pre­ta­tions of ev­ery ques­tion­able ac­tion, large and small, that surely had any­one with any ex­pe­ri­ence as a vic­tim of sex­ual ha­rass­ment (such as He­len, whose real-life story swayed the par­tic­i­pants one way) or as a wrong­fully ac­cused per­pe­tra­tor (such as Keith, who swayed them an­other) weep­ing into their so­fas. Per­pe­tra­tors, I as­sume, were crack­ing open cham­pagne by the case.

Pre­sen­ter Ben Zand did an ad­mirable job of pro­vok­ing the par­tic­i­pants and keep­ing them fo­cused. That opin­ions didn’t split wholly along ex­pected gen­der lines sent you hurtling off an­other cliff. Some men were adamant that Cat’s lack of in­ter­est had been ex­plicit and ob­vi­ous, while some women main­tained un­til al­most the last twist that Ryan had been “well within his rights” and that Cat had been “petty” to take him to court (sic).

What a mess. What a mess. What an end­lessly in­trigu­ing, de­press­ing, thrilling, mat­ted mess. Once the un­knowa­bil­ity of the hu­man heart (though not, I would still con­tend, the hu­man pe­nis) and the im­pos­si­bil­ity of ar­riv­ing at an ul­ti­mate truth in a god­for­saken world were es­tab­lished, a bar­ris­ter was brought in. You know things are bad when turn­ing to the lawyers be­comes your best op­tion. Sex­ual ha­rass­ment, ex­plained Kerry, is legally de­fined as “con­duct re­lated to sex that has the pur­pose or ef­fect of vi­o­lat­ing some­one’s dig­nity”. Ryan, she said, was guilty from the get-go – or rather the lean-in.

I was right, but only by chance be­cause I’m too old and too long self-em­ployed to en­vis­age putting up with any­thing that makes me un­com­fort­able. But it came as an un­ex­pect­edly huge relief to have tech­ni­cal clar­ity. At least the women seemed re­lieved; it pro­vided many with jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for past un­hap­pi­ness and some with a re­cal­i­bra­tion of the be­hav­iour they had learned to dis­miss as nor­mal. The men seemed, over­all, more grate­ful for the warn­ing.

It was a les­son in sub­jec­tiv­ity. I’ve been out of the world too long

Is This Sex­ual Ha­rass­ment?’s young judges; pre­sen­ter Ben Zand (be­low)

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