There are many reasons why people don’t understand what sexual harassment looks like. First is widespread confusion about the difference between seduction and coercion, the old ‘she’s saying no but she really likes it’ interpretation.
Second is that we live in a world where women’s consent to men’s sexual advances is less important than men’s freedom to make those advances when, where and how they choose. Women all over the world, en masse, can attest to repeated, unwanted sexual advances they have experienced, from strangers on the street to those they know. In the end, shame and responsibility isn’t shouldered by those who roughshod over the boundary of respect, but by many women who then check themselves in an attempt to prevent it from happening again.
Third, the workplace, like most of the public sphere remains a masculine one where women may be talked to and about in sexualized ways even when their work has nothing to do with their vagina. It’s dehumanizing, meaning it reduces humans, in this case women, to their sexual value. It’s unprofessional, meaning it trivializes their status and identity as workers while they are on the job. This happens across the Caribbean, from Jamaica to St. Vincent to Trinidad to Guyana, and it is especially true in traditionally masculine fields such as politics, sports and the military.
Once, I was leading a research team collecting data on election campaigning. One minister, who barely knew me, walked up from behind and slid his hand into mine as I stood on the street with party activists who were canvassing the constituency. ‘I missed you, where have you been?’ he declared loudly, rubbing my hand in both of his own. In that second, I had many decisions to make, in front of everyone watching to see how I’d react. I pulled my hand back and said, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about’ and discreetly stepped away, but I was blue vex that I was put in that position of having to refuse and be polite. I didn’t care that this Minister was a powerful player and I didn’t need to cater to his ego to get ahead, having already earned three more degrees than he had. I was there as an experienced professional to do a job, not as some sexy female groupie.
Chris Gayle’s attacking shot to sports journalist Mel McLaughlin provides a similar example of sexual harassment. Both Gayle and McLaughlin were at work, on the cricket field. She clearly didn’t expect or appreciate being publicly hit on, then told, ‘Don’t blush, baby’, in front of the entire cricketing world. ‘I’m not blushing’, she clarified; a professional had to remind another professional that she was actually a professional, and that they were having a professional – not after work jokes – encounter in full view of millions.
Indeed, one commentator described the moment as Chris Gayle taking ‘shots on and off the field’, like McLaughlin was inviting a hit mid-wicket. Another described him as ‘amorous’ while she ‘scurries off with bright red cheeks’, embarrassed. And the comments ended with the view that “Mel is a strong and independent woman and might have enjoyed it’, but that this wasn’t what was needed on the cricket field. Only she didn’t look as if she enjoyed it. Though McLaughlin was reported to have told her boss she was uncomfortable, Gayle felt it was his right to decide that ‘no harm was done’. All this signals sexual harassment unrecognized.
Gayle was unapologetically apologetic, missing an opening to score as a regional icon by acknowledging his step out of crease. He lost an opportunity to send a message to Caribbean boys following his stardom that big men have a role in stopping sexual harassment, even as they come to understand it better, sometimes in difficult ways. He dropped the ball when he could have shown an example of ideal manhood as more than hyper-sexuality, as also self-reflection and responsibility. No surprise, this is a sportsman who posts, “If u don’t have a strip club at home, U ain’t a cricket ‘Player’”.
West Indians need to recognize sexual harassment when it exists. And, Gayle needs to know that predation and professionalism don’t mix.
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