It’s a man’s world: Sexual harassment

Colossal hi-tech companies such as Apple and Google have been accused from time to time of propagating a sexist working environment that favours sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Research conducted amongst 200 women working in technology companies found that 60% had experienced unwanted sexual advances, whereas one in three didn’t feel safe.

By Maria Louka

This article was published in cooperation with European Press Prize.

The majority of straight white men are almost unfamiliar with a category of sounds. It is the sound of irregular breathing on a dark road at night; breathlessness from running all the way home in order to get in safely, the unutterable cursing on the underground or at the traffic lights of a busy junction, the gritting of teeth at work or in a lecture room, the echoing of an extended “no” disappearing after an act of imposing male dominance. I am talking about fear; not of the existential type that is associated with death, the passage of time, or illness, nor of neurotic fear conveyed through objects or situations. I am talking of the fear that women experience. It is integral to our collective memory, an unspoken and painful common experience. It accompanies us solidly from adolescence, initially in an amorphous and hazy manner but later we recognize this to be the shape of a man. He may be a relative, a co-student, or a colleague, a complete stranger on the road, or in a bar, he is every man who sexually harasses a woman.  It is all at once the archetypal threat and the epitome of macho culture that so many of us have unfortunately fearfully come face-to-face with at some point.

Dragged centre stage by recent depressing incidents, the topic of sexual harassment is once again at the forefront of international affairs, its most prominent exponent Donald Trump who has been accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment, or publicly manifest through the silent absolution of Casey Affleck accused by two women of sexual harassment, then rewarded by Hollywood with an Oscar for best actor in a male leading role, presented to him by an unimpressed Brie Larsson. Let us not stop here without mentioning Uber. Susan Fowler, formerly a site reliability engineer publicly reported how she became the victim of sexual harassment at the company at the hands of her manager. Before going public with her story, Susan reported the incident to the company’s HR department, but she soon discovered that he wasn’t going to be challenged by HR because he was a high performer and this was his “first offence”. After Fowler went public and the #DeleteUber campaign was reactivated, the company announced that it was hiring the former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the accusation and contribute to creating a better working environment for women.

It’s enough to surf the internet or follow in the media to discover that traditional perceptions are deeply rooted, often under the guise of “humour”

This is by no means the first time that Silicone Valley has been shaken by a sexual harassment scandal. Colossal hi-tech companies such as Apple and Google have been accused from time to time of propagating a sexist working environment that favours sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Research conducted amongst 200 women working in technology companies found that 60% had experienced unwanted sexual advances, whereas one in three didn’t feel safe. The Guardian newspaper research sheds light on the epidemic of sexual harassment and gender based violence in British universities. In accordance with published information, 300 incidents of staff sexually harassing students has been reported over six years; these incidents were generally not reported by the students for fear of what the impact on their studies or careers might be, or an unofficial “solution” was sought within academia.

Clearly sexual harassment is not a problem specific to the anglo-saxon world. It is a normalised form of gender based violence and it is prevalent everywhere, in every country, both in the public and private sector. Nonetheless it remains notoriously undocumented, clearly the victims choose not to officially persevere with their complaints, maybe because their complaints are clearly not perceived as such, a fact which reflects the established social perceptions of “masculinity” and “femminity”.  In 2014, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights registered reported sexual harassment in Greece at 15% and in Denmark at 37%. Obviously this doesn’t prove that Denmark has a higher incidence of sexual harassment than Greece, rather it speaks of a diffuse sexist culture in our country, where aggressive male behaviour is so deeply-ingrained that it is accepted as a given.

“The recognition of sexual harassment – as well as other forms of violence – from the victims of sexual harassment themselves as harassing or offensive behaviour, is directly linked to subjective and other social factors. Often victims of sexual harassment do not make a formal complaint either because they are afraid or because they consider harassment as a normal component of gender role play. Gender stereotypes in Greece remain powerful, despite the significant progress which has been made in raising awareness and providing support services to deal with violence against women. It’s enough to surf the internet or follow in the media (advertisements, programs, television series) to discover that traditional perceptions are deeply rooted, often under the guise of “humour”, nevertheless such perceptions strengthen or “sanction” violent behaviour.

Plethora of examples

Unfortunately there is a plethora of examples. It’s worth mentioning at this point that after our strong reaction to an advertisement that incited gender based violence, we were attacked as lacking a sense of humour and accused of censorship. Our experience derives from operating the Advice Centres, the cases handled by our advisors on a daily basis leave no margin for mirth when it comes to dealing with the phenomenon of violence against women”, VIMagazino is told by Irini Agathopoulou,  the President of the Research Centre for Gender Equality.

Recently she had lodged a complaint against her superior whilst working in the public sector in Zakynthos for sexual verbal abuse which had lasted for two and half years. When she finally reacted, she was punished with a revenge change of post. This is the second charge that has been brought against the person in question. The Directorate for Secondary Education in Ileia is handling a parallel case, whereby students reported being sexually harassed by their teacher, whereas reports from female officers at the Venezuelan Embassy of aggressive and abusive behaviour of the former ambassador were very revealing. The common thread which ties all these cases together and many others that remain invisible is that they involve a male authority figurehead seeking to breach the boundaries of his authority by passing into the female body and psychology.

Pothiti Chantzaroula, a historian at the University of the Aegean with a considerable body of research, sheds light on an obscure facet of sexual harassment and abuse which is experienced in domestic work: “Paid domestic work has always been an area where power relationships are played out and this type of employment seems to be sexually charged in the European fantasy. The role of the domestic worker – the “maid” – in Greek cinema expresses and positions gender and class divisions which pervaded Greek society within the context of urban households. On the basis of these class divisions the female employers were cast in the positive role both in respect of social class and femminity (mother-Madonna), whereas the employees were cast as negative roles (by traditionally becoming sexual objects).

We are destined to carry the stigma of original sin, we need to learn to duck and dive through an assault course of insults, and to suffer in silence

This fantasy is an ideological construct and it is so powerful that it is posited as completely normal in the verbal expressions and representations of the dominant class. Power relationships withdraw from public sight, where they become the “norm”. The shame felt by the victims of sexual violence, i.e. female domestics, and their silence stems from the knowledge of what is said about them, and how they are portrayed, as well as from the patriarchal organization of honour, on the basis of which women must prove their innocence in rape incidents. This patriarchal honour culture embraces purity as a control mechanism; it follows therefore that the loss of purity results in the loss of honour and therefore the only destination for women is lost too, i.e. that of the sanctity of marriage and motherhood.

Sexual harassment is a facet of sexual violence, arising from inequality and patriarchal structures in modern society, it is propped up by the culture of rape. A term reminiscent of the feminist drive of the 70s, whereby rape was recognized as an act of violence accompanied by patriarchal dominance and structural inequality and not by what is conveniently termed as male “sex drive”, a term which promotes the logic of absolution and tolerance of sexual violence. Rape, despite being the most marginal version of objectifying and humiliating the human body is the only crime where the victim is paraded around rather than the perpetrator. If we take into account that not a single public prosecutor, has ever enquired as to how the perpetrator was dressed, and is only interested in what the victim was wearing when the crime was committed, if she was inebriated, if she was flirting with the perpetrator, if she was promiscuous, then it doesn’t come as a surprise that this is the crime with the lowest conviction rate (just 2-3%). Judges don’t seem to require evidence of guilt on the part of the perpetrator but evidence substantiating the reliability of the victim. A woman who has been raped is only credible if she is surrounded by evidence of an untarnished life and if she bears serious wounds which prove that she engaged in mortal combat with her rapist.

In Greece in 2015, in accordance with official police data, 122 rapes were recorded and 54 attempted rapes, whereas 134 rapes and 64 attempted rapes were recorded in 2016. The International Organization Equality Now classifies Greece amongst the countries where rape victims are unprotected by the legislative process. However, what is even more shocking is what is recorded in the social conscience, given that a recent European Union study found that 27% of Europeans and 32% of Greeks accept rape “under certain conditions” (if the victim was scantily dressed or was under the influence of alcohol), these perceptions invoke the most anachronistic gender stereotypes.  Perhaps the most shameful and sinister expression of misogyny in Greek society occurred in 2006 in Amarynthos, when a fifteen year old Bulgarian schoolgirl reported that she was gang raped by four of her classmates who were also filming themselves committing the crime and that in court forty witnesses came forward in support of the defendants whereas only the mother of the victim came forward for the prosecution.

It is within this framework that the group “sexharassmap” was formed, to record incidences of sexual harassment and gender based violence in Greece: “The aim of the map is to gather all incidences brought to our attention that have taken place all over Greece. We feel that by actually placing them geographically, renders them more visible. We don’t like talking about this type of violence, and if we do, we treat it like something that happens elsewhere. By putting these crimes on a map we highlight how prevalent this type of violence is. The frequency with which these crimes occur prove that gender based crime isn’t committed by men with mental health issues but it’s perhaps closer to home than you think, maybe even next door. Even though we are by no means a professional reporting organization, we have already placed 141 rapes on the map. Information is sought in the media and police reports and often we are contacted anonymously. Talking to friends, relatives, and acquaintances we become increasingly aware of how common this type of crime is. This is a particular type of violence that many of us simply cannot stave off. That is why even unofficial reporting is so important. “Reporting is reacting” this is the mantra of VIMagazino.

This is the story of our lives, it is the bread and butter of our upbringing, whether this was in a conservative or more liberal family environment, we need to be careful, even if this means stifling our desires and our freedom, otherwise we may fall victims of gender based crime. We are destined to carry the stigma of original sin, we need to learn to duck and dive through an assault course of insults, and to suffer in silence. In fact prevention strategies are all about teaching women to avert harassment, abuse and rape.  And if the threat actually manifests itself, as it inevitably does, we are taught to go through the trials and tribulations of re-establishing our lives alone, and to reconcile ourselves with fear, so as not to rock the happy families boat, the education system, the world of work, religion and politics.

A sincere approach to equality would reverse the status quo; it would train men not to harass, abuse or rape. And if they chose to do so, it would punish them.

Photo: © MaxPixel

Also read:

Everyday sexism, sexual harassment and the need for a new feminism

The new feminism is an inclusive one


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