I am driving listening to the radio.
Three women are being interviewed on CBC about the problem of men sexually harassing women in Canadian politics. These women are obviously smart, strong, and well-informed. They have all been actively involved in Canadian politics and all describe their experience as victims of unwanted male sexual attention, inappropriate advances, and demeaning comments from men in positions of power. They are I imagine, in their thirties, although they are only identified as “young.”
The issues these women raise are serious. The physical exploitation and abusive comments that they have been forced to suffer are grievous, deeply inappropriate, and harmful. I am grateful the topic is being spoken of in public. I admire women who have come forward and forced this issue onto the public agenda.
I stop to buy groceries. At the cash register, a young woman rings in my purchases. She is probably in her early twenties. A young male employee is standing beside her. He appears to be in training, but I see no indication of why he should be there behind the counter. Perhaps sensing my unspoken question, the young woman smiles, points to her colleague and says to me, “He’s just here to be a pretty face.”
At first the impact of her words does not really hit me. I smile and go along with the “joke”, replying, “Well he’s doing a good job of that.”
I expect if I had not just come from listening to CBC, I would not have felt so unsettled by this apparently “innocent” comment. But, the incongruity of the young woman’s statement in the context of the interview to which I had just been listening, left me uneasy.
If the cashier had been a man, commenting on the presence of a young woman standing beside him, would he have been guilty of sexual harassment? Would it have been my responsibility to have admonished a male cashier for such a comment about a woman? Would I have been an accessory to male harassment if I simply let the comment go by?
There is no question that women have for many years been treated abysmally by men. Men have been guilty of egregious behaviour towards women. We need to change. We need to stop treating women as objects. We need to stop using women as a means of gratifying our desires and stop being disrespectful towards them. We need to stop inflicting on women any words, looks, gestures, or actions that fail to take them into consideration as human beings who are absolutely equal to us and who deserve all the rights of respect, safety, and autonomy that we men have for so long assumed as our right.
While acknowledging that the small incident I witnessed in the grocery store does not equate to what many women have had to suffer, it does indicate to me that at some point, we are going to need to expand our conversation. We are one day going to need to move our discussion to include the larger question of how human beings interact in general.
In what ways may any of us be guilty of objectifying another person?
How do we develop ways of interacting with everyone that are deeply respectful?
What can we do to try to insure as much as possible that no one in a position of power is able to abuse the power entrusted to them?
How do we empower people to protect themselves when they are in vulnerable positions in which there are few structural supports to protect them from abuse?
Are we willing to explore how we understand terms like “abuse” and “harassment”?
What are the criteria by which we assess behaviour or comments to which we are third party witnesses?
How do we judge the extent of our responsibility to speak out against behaviour that appears inappropriate?
Is it always totally clear when a line has been crossed?
These are challenging questions. But, if we are going to move this conversation forward in a truly life-giving direction for everyone, they are among the questions we are going to need to be willing ask.
Christopher Page is the rector of St. Philip Anglican Church in Oak Bay in the Anglican Diocese of B.C. He writes regularly on his blog www.inaspaciousplace.wordpress.com
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