By Dr. Devika Brendon
I think the phrase ‘how the other half lives’ is particularly appropriate for the era of awakening we are currently experiencing. It’s usually used in a socio-economic context, to describe the sharp contrasts between the wealthy and privileged, and those who lack the protections afforded by assets and income flow.
It’s a phrase which articulates inequality of power and status. But I think it is very usefully applied to the gender divide, and especially in relation to sexual harassment.
If a country has a Crimes Act, under which various acts of assault, abuse, violence and mistreatment committed by its citizens are categorised, and penalties accorded to perpetrators, there is supposedly some degree of clarity on this matter. Theoretically, If members of the general populace are aware of the existence of such legislation, and of how what they experience would be viewed and charged under such legislation.
What constitutes harassment?
But in the rush and whirl of our everyday life, how many people are actually knowledgeable about what constitutes harassment? Logic suggests that the people who commit it are less likely to be aware of their behaviour as wrongdoing than those who are impacted by it. It is the victim who suffers the impact of violent and unsettling behaviour, and according to Anti-Discrimination Law, the definition of the behaviour is therefore defined by the victim: It is a subjective test.
Thus, most defenders of perpetrators of sexual violence, abuse and harassment will try to discredit the character and reputation of the victim, in multiple ways. Crimes which show visible signs of having been perpetrated, and where visible damage has been done to the body of a victim by aggravated assault, rape, battery and other physical actions, are generally considered by the general public to be ‘more serious.’
Crimes which are considered ‘less serious’ are those which do not involve physical violence being done to a person’s body, and involve money (for example, fraud and embezzlement), property (illegal actions to acquire title deeds to land), and people’s emotions.
The last category, which is an emotional and psychological domain, is very difficult for the legal system to identify, define, and measure. And that is exactly the space occupied by harassment: That low level, verbal, cumulative barrage of interference with a person’s privacy, body, dignity and personal space, which is experienced almost every day, by one half (52 per cent) of the population far more than the other.
Persecution of Women
I see a lot of statistics being cited which claim that 90 per cent of women in this country have been and are being molested or harassed on public transport. High levels of street harassment, of verbal abuse, and lewd and suggestive, degrading behaviour are also experienced apparently far more by women and girls than men and boys.
Three years ago, I saw a comments thread on Facebook which followed a post made by a young female law student, who was standing waiting to cross the road in a large regional city. A bus full of male prisoners was blocking her path, waiting for the traffic lights to change colour. Several of the men in the bus leaned out of the windows and yelled gross comments to this young woman about her appearance and what they would like to do to her.
The Police Officers on the bus, she said in her post, not only did not reprimand or rebuke these men, but actually laughed with them, and treated her embarrassment and anger as a joke. In her post on Facebook, she said how profoundly disgusted she felt, not only by the behaviour of the men, who were being transported from one place of institutional correction to another, but by the lack of moral responsibility shown by the officers involved, who were in charge of overseeing them.
She went on to ask how could anyone doubt her when she said that the public standards of conduct of men towards women were degradation to the reputation of the whole country. The comments thread on her post was eye-opening to me.
Some people said she was being over-sensitive, that the comments of the men could have been taken as complimentary, as recognition of her physical attractiveness. Some others said what could she expect from convicts, who are already people who have no moral compass, and wasn’t she holding them to an unrealistic standard.
Still others said that this kind of behaviour is normalised and par for the course, and why is she making such a fuss about it? It’s nothing new. Others calling themselves nationalists who were proud of their country accused her of tarnishing the name of the motherland with her social justice warrior screeching. Look at other countries in the world, they said. They’re just as bad. Don’t single out our country as if we’re worse than the others. It happens everywhere.
This, you see, is what those who present as male often fail to understand. Women and girls who they know and see every day, who live in the same country and neighbourhood as they do, who are working alongside them in an office or work environment, actually live in a completely different world of experience from the one which they themselves inhabit.
Men do push and shove each other from time to time, but it’s usually due to territorial aggression, not sexually motivated, and on public transport it’s quite often by accident. In contrast, the reports from women on Facebook and other social media, and the encounters they film on their mobile phones as evidence of what they have experienced, show very targeted and specifically sexual behaviour, aimed at using a situation of unavoidable physical proximity, such as a crowded bus or train, as an opportunity to grab hold of the body and person of a woman as she waits for the bus or train to reach her stop.
Incident after incident records that the other passengers who observe what is happening do not support the woman being harassed. They stay silent, look away or act as if it’s not happening. Their silence adds to the sense that this is normalised, and in some sense acceptable behaviour, nothing to make a fuss about. The person shamed is the victim, for being the target of the behaviour, and for drawing attention to herself by speaking out about it.
Imagine if your stressful and challenging 8 or 9 hour work day is regularly prefaced and appended by a 1.5 hour commute which is an ordeal of harassment, verbal and physical, that you know is going to happen to you going to and from work every day of your working life. This is what is called ‘apprehended violence’. You know from direct, lived experience that this is likely to happen because it often does happen, and nothing and no one stops it, every time it does.
That apprehension of violence, experienced over time, causes anxiety in even the most naturally optimistic and resilient individual, and frames the perspective you have of the society and of yourself. It directly damages your quality of life. It’s exhausting to undergo such anxiety, feeling like you are personally under a form of siege, during a time when the country is technically at peace.
Spitting as a form of assault
Spitting is listed in the Crimes Act legislation of some countries, as a form of assault. Not only is it an indication of contempt and hostility, when directed at a human target, but it also is a bodily product which is dangerous as it potentially carries infection from the perpetrator to the target.
Verbal insults, expletives, innuendo and threats also constitute harassment. They do not leave physical evidence but are designed to unsettle and upset the target, and make them feel singled out, interfered with and intimidated.
Many men seem to be unaware and unconcerned that their words and actions make women uncomfortable. Some men even seem to actively enjoy causing distress and anxiety: having an impact on women and girls in such a visible way, without being held accountable in a way physical assault would cause them to be.
Harassment is serious
A great deal of harassment is regarded as non serious, as comic or juvenile, as acting out, as signs that ‘boys will be boys’, and the indulgence extended to that behaviour by our society reinforces and rewards it.
What it is vitally important to recognise is that this ‘unserious’ harassment is on a spectrum of violent behaviour. From ‘least serious’ to ‘most serious’, all of it can be classified as violent in intention, in the desire to shame, to cause harm to the dignity or sense of safety or decency of the woman who is targeted.
Staring hard at someone you don’t know, obstructing their path, making obscene gestures with your hands, implying that they are a mere object of mockery or attraction to you, making suggestive implications and insinuations about their effect on you, or what they could do for you, or what you want to do to them - all of that inappropriate conduct comes from not only ignorance but willful unawareness and lack of empathy and accountability regarding the harm such actions cause.
Harassment is on a spectrum of human violence. Even actions at the milder end of that range cause harm.