Of victims and perpetrators

Harassment is common, most women have learned to take it in their stride within the workplace

Anita Turab November 07, 2017
The writer is a bureaucrat on a sabbatical

Harassment is common. Most women have learned to take it in their stride within the workplace. Some succumb to pressure when stakes are high and yet others are confronting the harasser and raising alarm. In rare cases, a less empowered victim requests a more empowered sister to deal with the matter. This is not recommended as it can cause a spectacular divide for and against the harassed individual, the gladiator sibling and the alleged harasser (who is now also a victim).

Despite sufficient attention in media, the poking and prodding, lewd jokes and intimidation continue unabated for a majority of women who do not have a choice (voice). Media trial of the rich and famous mute the reality where women face gross harassment every single day. There are unending debates on definitions, masculine norms, powerful men versus timorous girls, ambitious exploitative women and generally what is termed “the way of the world”.

Harassment allegations have flooded Hollywood. Lecherous and non-lecherous men have been named and shamed in the media. Penalties are swiftly imposed after instant social media trials without much room for defence. Victims are scarred for life and celebrities are facing certain death in their careers. Some allegations date back several decades, however, they sound credible enough for public outrage. The American people are shocked at these revelations; the shock is surprising since sexual indiscretion and exploitation are common elements in Hollywood. Politics is also not too far behind in this respect.

It is the year 1998 and President Bill Clinton is in deep trouble. The 49-year-old US president indulged in “improper physical relationship” within office premises with a 22-year-old intern at the White House who was barely 20 at the time of their association. The president expresses considerable remorse and squarely blames his lies on grave misunderstanding of what comprises “sexual activity”. According to Clinton, “acts performed on him” are within given boundaries and distinct from “acts performed by him”. The first lady looks visibly upset, at least when in the public eye. Both victims (wife and intern) write books about the affair and the latter makes considerable monetary gains from televised talk shows.

Abuse of power, harassment and exploitation are clearly lost in semantics as the association between the two is seen to be based on consent. Clinton finishes his second term with the highest approval ratings and the Lewinsky scandal is nothing more than a trifling episode in US history. Public perceptions tolerate the president’s indiscretions despite the enormous gap in age and power dynamics between Lewinsky and Clinton. Moral boundaries of the American people are firmly intact.

The year is 2016 and numerous allegations have surfaced against presidential candidate Donald Trump. In his own words (later described as locker room talk), he boasts of groping married women without hesitation. The campaign is smeared with accusations by harassed women ranging from recent to distant past. Ironically, he is facing Hillary as his opponent. Trump is elected with a majority that appears comfortable with his bad behaviour. Women who claim to have been harassed by Trump are forgotten.

What are the boundaries between harassment and inappropriate behaviour? Can current limitations regarding harassment be applied retrospectively when suchlike conduct was common? And it appears to be common from the large number of victims coming forward now. Do apprentices often sexually entice powerful men to get ahead in their careers? Can grownup adult men be enticed at all? Do victims often fall victim because this is the only way forward in a vicious cycle of ambition and exploitation? Why is Trump so popular despite being a confirmed perpetrator?

Harassment today is as grey as smog-filled air in a world clearly divided between men and women. Victims and perpetrators exist on both sides and occasionally within the same individual. And harassed women will continue to suffer while the debate rages on.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 7th, 2017.

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