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March, 2013

Where does sexual innuendo between men and women at work cross the line?

Just felt the need today to blog about the whole discussion over sexual harassment in the light of the latest debate surrounding a particular politician.

I’ve faced up to sexual harassment – but did I do it the right way or not?

I listened to a discussion on a weekly political show, on a weekend discussion programme where the issue was discussed in some detail. It’s a mixture of women, men, power, control and sexual desire. A variation on the whole theme of the ‘casting couch’, ‘men in power’ etc etc.

It made me reflect on more than 20 years working in various areas of the media and the times I’d encountered such practices. Which have been few, I should hasten to add. There is  no part of the media where I’ve thought ‘can’t work there too many men with wandering hands’.

However there have been a small number of occasions where the behaviour of some men, and women, have surprised me. I won’t say shocked as it takes a lot to shock me.

Please bear in mind, I’m not talking about inappropriate flings or relationships here – I’m talking about moments or revelations which happen and which completely blindside you.

I should set a context – I’m a naturally tactile person, many journalists are, I’ve noticed. I will often touch someone while talking to them, it’s part of my natural body language I suppose. I can be flirtatious but I have a line which cannot be crossed. That is where healthy contact and banter becomes something overtly sexual, makes me feel uncomfortable or seedy. But I’m good at making it clear when that line has been crossed.

I can think of several occasions both professionally and personally where my outgoing personality has led others to think I’m romantically interested in them. I have had to have several difficult conversations about the feelings not being returned, reminders about the fact that I’m married and I take that seriously, and, in some cases, friendships and connections have remained intact. I had these conversations when I was single and when married.

Occasionally however, none of the above apply and here are three incidents I’d like to share.

One: 

 

What do you do when, as a very young green journalist, an older journalist who is always friendly suddenly thinks it’s okay to touch you inappropriately? In this case, it was a man in his 50s, probably, who thought it was okay to stroke the back of my neck. Not abusive but creepy to me.

When it happened the first time, I let it go. The next time, I told him not to touch me again. I have no memory of his response. I think he beat a hasty retreat.

I did tell my boss at the time but I was postively encouraged to take it no further. After all, nothing had really happened. I was told that the person would be ‘told’ about it. Must’ve worked, it didn’t happen again. I just hope it didn’t happen to anyone else.

 

Two:

 

Another time was personal. A man known to me, retired and someone I saw relatively often, pinned me against a doorframe in his house and tried to snog me. A whole tongue down the throat affair while his wife was in another room. I was a teenager.

It was completely vile and even now, I can recall the feeling of disgust.

Again I told the man, who was in a senior position within his community, to ‘never touch me again or I’ll tell your wife’. Seemed to work.

But I’ve always wondered if he ever did it to anyone else….I also spoke up about it at home but I think it took a long time for my parents to believe it had happened. I know for sure, that my natural revulsion and pushing him away, may have stopped things being much worse.

 

Three:

 

The other incident I recall was far more recent – within the last five years. I was working alongside someone I’d known for a long time but had not worked directly with and we were in a small room together, we had to be for the job we were doing at the time.

A discussion was taking place which had got around to families and relationships. Nothing unusual in that. Then he asked me a question which really threw me – he asked ‘if I liked three-in-a-bed relationships?’

I looked at him and I think my reply was something bland like ‘I’m a one-man woman me’ and tried to forget it.

The context didn’t set up a question like that and I immediately knew this could all go horribly wrong. I also felt I didn’t want to work with him again straightaway. I did, however, finish that task and nothing happened. I never worked with him again.

I didn’t ever complain about this inappropriate moment. But I find myself asking the same question yet again  – did it happen to anyone else and was it even worse?

 

My conclusion is that most women will have experiences like these both privately and personally. I feel I dealt with them to the best of my ability at the time. I have no idea if I was right or wrong. I can only say that I trusted my judgment of how it made me feel and acted accordingly.

 

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