Sexual harassment: The other side of the coin

Our collective denial has left us where we don’t know how to deal with violent women and girls. This denial can no longer be tolerated

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By Nadrat Mazrui
Sexual harassment refers to bullying or coercion of a sexual nature, or the unwelcome or inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favours. It can include unwelcome sexual advances. In most legal contexts, sexual harassment is illegal. It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) based on that person’s sex.

In the workplace, harassment can be considered illegal when it is so severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment. The legal and social understanding of sexual harassment, however, varies by culture. In case of employment, the harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a co-worker, a client or customer. Sexual harassment can happen to any sex or gender.

It may also occur in a variety of circumstances – in workplaces and schools. Often but not always, the perpetrator is in a position of power or authority over the victim. With the advent of the Internet, social interactions including sexual harassment, increasingly occur online. One difficulty in understanding sexual harassment is that it involves a range of behaviours. In most cases, the victim is often at a loss to describe what they experienced.

Harassers can be either public or private. Public harassers are flagrant in their seduction and do not care about witnesses to their advances. Private harassers act careful and are restrained around the public; when alone with their prey, their demeanour changes. These are the so called “team mafisi” – having cloaked another demeanour when around others and showing their true nature when alone.

The legal standard constituting sexual harassment is in a flux.  Before I go on, I would like to believe that by far the majority of sexual harassment is done by men towards women (that is now out of the way). As such, laws and guidelines are often written and languaged as if sexual harassment is only a male-to-female thing. The legal system and services just aren’t available for victims who are male.

Under the Sexual Offences Act the word penetration means the partial or complete insertion of the genital organs of a person into the organs of another person. Genital organ here is interpreted as to include the whole or part of male or female genital organs. In my view, the definition given is wrong as it assumes that female genitalia can penetrate that of a male, which is impossible.

Was this definition made so as to appease those who claim that men can also be raped?
In is my contention that is mockery of the highest order. There are three main areas where male victims are not treated equally: statutory rape, sexual harassment and spousal abuse. It is the collective psyche that only men abuse.

Our collective denial says that women aren’t violent (apparently even after the Nyeri saga) and even when they are violent, then there “must” be a reasonable excuse. For men, when they are violent there’s no excuse… they are just being the “dogs” that they are.

The word needs to be redefined to encompass what is possible and plausible. If a woman is charged with an offence of rape, surely she will get off on a technicality for it will be impossible to prove her penetration of the alleged victim.

The line between what is and what isn’t sexual harassment can be quite fuzzy. Is the attention given a sign of appreciation or inappropriateness?  Whenever one talks about sexual harassment it is the woman who comes to mind. There is now a growing problem of sexual harassment against men.  Few seem to take this seriously and most laugh away the complainant expecting men to brush away the issue.

Although women form the overwhelming majority of those that sexual harassment suits, men are also beginning to want a piece of the pie and going further to also file sexual harassment suits as they also receive damaging experiences. Many still refuse to speak up for fear of being mocked by co-workers. The million-dollar question is, if they were in their colleague’s shoes would they still find the matter funny and continue to make light of the issue? Because women can and do sexually harass men.

There are more female bosses in the workplace than there used to be a decade ago and, unfortunately for men, the bosses too want some quid pro quo. Hopefully, this far into the article you’ve stopped snickering and are about to take my words seriously. The biggest challenge for men is realising what to do when this happens.

Before taking the matter to court, one should first confront the harasser. If this is followed up by the manager, it will force the company or firm to investigate. Any organisation in Kenya with 20 or more employees is required to have a sexual harassment policy. The formant and wording of the policy is provided in the Employment Act. The policy statement must also describe the procedure through which a worker may bring complaints of sexual harassment to the attention of the employer.

The Employer must keep confidential all the information related to the complaint except where disclosure is necessary for the purpose of investigation or taking disciplinary measures.

Not everything is considered sexual harassment, however. When the victim shares some attraction with the perpetrator no claim of harassment is reported; however, the tables seem to turn when the woman is no longer interested in the “offender”. We need to remember that women can be predatory and that men can be victimised. Just as we acknowledge that boys can be raped, the law should also recognise that men can be harassed. Being a man doesn’t serve as a prophylaxis to the pain and humiliation that can result out of a harassment episode.

Even as women have broken through the glass ceiling to reach the highest levels of power, it would be a gross misrepresentation to claim that harassment is still largely a gendered behaviour. Its remains something that can be done by anyone to anyone. One takeaway ought to be the reminder that anyone can commit sexual misconduct.

As we acknowledge that harassment might not always be a one-way street, it’s important to remember that the bulk of traffic flows in a single direction. My case shouldn’t however obscure the fact that majority of the offenders are men towards women, with the slight minority of women offenders that no one wishes to talk about.

Sexual harassment at the office is extremely expensive, time consuming, a major cause of work place tension and job dissatisfaction. It’s bad for business, bad for public service and bad for people who just want to get their jobs done. Our collective denial has left us where we don’t know how to deal with violent women and girls. This denial can no longer be tolerated.

What can we do to change this? Think about it.

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