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Opinions of Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Columnist: Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng

Sexual harassment - Swinging the pendulum

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From time immemorial, men of great social standing, power and influence have suffered opprobrium and in some instances, total ruin because they allowed their groins to override their brains in pursuit of fleeting thrills.

The Bible offers us the example of David who coveted Uriah, the Hittite’s wife Bathsheba to the point of placing him in harm’s way on the battlefield so he would be killed and he could have her.

In contemporary times, former US President Bill Clinton and golfer Tiger Woods readily come to mind as men of great stature who almost destructed themselves because they could not keep their zippers up.

BBC report

In the past week or so, a BBC exposé featuring university lecturers in Ghana and Nigeria ignited the topic of sexual harassment in its varying forms.

It is sad that it had to take a foreign broadcaster to get us talking about this issue.

For a long time, there have been rumours in this country of bosses demanding sexual favours in return for giving contracts, employment or for promotion, of teachers taking advantage of students in return for better grades, of movie directors making similar demands on budding actresses desperate to land a role among others.

Of course, these sizzling assertions are not country-specific. But while some countries have very strict, almost suffocating rules about such conduct with swift, severe sanctions for breach, others are rather blasé about them.

It is wrong

It can never be right that a person in a position of influence and power is able to exploit a subordinate or potential subordinate in any way. And on the specific issue of trading sexual favours for whatever returns, it definitely is wrong. Full stop.

The suggestion by some that in many cases, it is the female student or aspiring employee or actress who throws herself at the man in authority in order to secure a job, a role or grades does not justify the man caving in — the playing field is still unequal, and it is wholly unprofessional even if it is fully consensual.

It almost comes with a suggestion that the said man could not help himself, which in itself suggests that men are such weak helpless beings who crumble at the mere sight of smooth, beautiful flesh.

After all, Joseph fled from Potiphur’s wife’s advances.

I am sure she was a very beautiful and desirable woman.

I cannot think of any man who would react very casually if his wife, sister, daughter or niece informed him that her boss or other superior was making sexual advances at her and threatening to make life hell for her if she did not cave in.

We must take sexual harassment very seriously and do more to protect potential victims.

Employees, students and others in similar positions must be able to feel comfortable in school or in the workplace and be assessed solely on their output without feeling like objects for the gratification of others’ sexual desires.

Beyond that, policies on sexual harassment should be clear and rigidly enforced with severe sanctions, and there must be mechanisms for victims to access a support system without being victimised or fearing victimisation.

Danger of the pendulum

That said, I believe we must be careful about importing wholesale a body of rules on sexual harassment from other jurisdictions and cultural settings, lest we create a sterile, robotic work environment where everyone is walking on eggshells in a silo, terrified of uttering a wrong word.

I have seen rules in other countries that consider merely complimenting a female colleague on her new hairdo a form of sexual harassment.

I find that risible.

Culturally, Ghanaians have little appreciation of the western concept of personal space or boundaries, which is why private weddings or burials, for instance, are strange to us. We need to find culturally sensitive ways to handle this so that people can understand and appreciate the situation.

Of course, there are outright unprofessional, inappropriate things such as touching certain parts of a colleague’s body, lewd comments or innuendoes that would rightly constitute sexual harassment.

I think in all of this, one should be guided by whether the colleague is uncomfortable with comments that one may consider innocuous, in which case they should cease immediately.

In seeking to make the workplace safe and pleasant for all, let us not swing the pendulum so far out to the other side and make it a prison camp.

Common sense is a useful guide in this matter.