A group 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? (BBC Three) was a brilliantly simple way to stimulate discussion and interrogation of this endemic workplace problem. Rather too simple, on the other hand, was the mini-film, over which they were supposed to argue. It was split into three sections so minds could change with the unfolding story and the massing evidence, or lack thereof.
The sexual harassment clearly began straight away, when he leaned too closely over her at the computer to show how to use the office stock control software and complimented her perfume. “Brains and beauty,” he called their teamwork. Bleurgh. Her removing his hand from the small of 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, and often from themselves as each new section was played.
They 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 and a little bit disappointed that 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 on the points at hand. If this – as it could – becomes a series that examines other hot-button issues I hope he stays on, if his blood pressure can take it.
That opinions didn’t split wholly along expected gender lines sent you hurtling off another vertiginous 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 was 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.
Work to be done still, then. Work to be done.
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