Is sexual harassment a private, personal perception or a heinous, public crime? As the only male in a family of three daughters, my father amused dinnertime with anecdotes about sex; jokes, comments and all manner of innuendoes that my mother denounced as “dirty”.
It was the early 1960s, and my thirteen-year-old hormones were happily humoured by his sexual references, blissfully ignorant of the dangerous implications that have created such consternation between men and women over recent years; at work, at home and at play. Perhaps I just eagerly embraced the permissive new era, and without social media or even a book to read about young females and sex, laughed at my father’s lustful liberalism while lamenting my mother’s shrouded sanctity sullying sex.
Fast forward five years and as an 18-year-old cadet journalist in the then male-dominated Melbourne media, my male colleagues laced their language with the same sexual jocularity as my father, appreciating my appearance as sexy with my breasts attracting much amorous appeal; a generous genetic inheritance that was occasionally embarrassing as I tried to conceal it. Nonetheless, I considered the comments complimentary, accepting their attitudes as frivolous flattery and fanciful flirting.
In those days, sexual harassment was an unimagined idea. Flirting was not only a male rite of passage as I loved it too, writing my own script as a delightful distraction that dissipated deadline pressures and depressing news. It was fun. There was no fear, feeling completely comfortable and safe in the workplace. There seemed no subliminal ill-intent, no criminal undercurrent, except to enjoy the power of poetic pleasure. These same men were simultaneously supportive of my work, perhaps surprisingly for many.
In 1972, I travelled to the UK to broaden my horizons and disappointingly, it was a very different scenario. Sex was a social, superficial, even secret symbol for success, particularly for females, with appearance seemingly synonymous with achievement. While reality proscribed my posing for a beauty pageant, after the Sex Discrimination Act was passed in the country in1975, there was almost no sex talk over a coffee or drink and the silence was deafening. No smart, sexy quips made for a sterile solitude that was more stressful than the work itself, a solitary confinement stripped of joy. Men and women became serious competitors scrapping against each other up the greasy pole for promotion. Sex plummeted out of popular parlance. Harassment was not then a focus; that supposed “crime” didn’t really register until the Hawke government passed Australia’s Sex Discrimination Act in 1984 when I was back in Melbourne.
Over the next 30-odd years working in various media roles, sex has been increasingly strangled into submission, a taboo provoking a resurgent puritanism that’s manifested men mute about sex and women risk averse to any suggestion vaguely sexual. It is not that the “pendulum is swinging too far” towards the accuser as Rachel Baird asserted in the (Herald Sun, Opinion, 14/12), but that we’ve come full circle in cancelling sex as “smutty”; a prohibition that makes even speaking about sex, let alone telling sexy jokes, a potential crime for the courts.
What makes a sexy joke intrinsically “smutty”? What are non-smutty sex jokes? Do they even exist and be acceptable? Furthermore, how can anyone obtain what they want, or are interested in, without asking? Has an upfront proposition become a criminal offence?
The mantra should not just be about “women…(being) believed”, but that men are similarly heard and believed, without fearing justice will be channelled down a cul-de-sac beyond their control. A need to reassess exactly what’s “criminal” about some of their sexual behaviours and attitudes seems paramount. “Due process and the presumption of innocence” as Baird states, must remain sacrosanct in our justice system, but I can only ponder whether some of these cases should even reach our courts? Are they really crimes warranting the expense, time and energy of our legal eagles, or just perceived personal grievances without premeditated malice? It may be politically incorrect, if not grossly offensive, to suggest some women and men seemingly have problems with sex, unable or unwilling to jettison the repressive, sexual shackles of centuries past. Obviously, the catch-cry of liberation by second wave feminists 50 years ago has been dismissed as delusional.
The “casualty of the story” is not just truth, but the glib denial about the human condition with all its complexities, confusions and conflicts, especially in matters sexual. Moreover, the perspective about truth can, and often does, change over time by acknowledging one’s own complicity and responsibility, even bias, however unconscious. Perhaps some women’s fathers had no opportunity to tell “dirty” jokes; their mothers silencing their efforts before they even started.
Clearly, there are tragic and traumatic sex crimes, of the young and old of both genders, but there’s a huge difference between harassment, propositioning for sex and rape. A social discourse about how sex itself has become so abused seems imperative to save it from a silence buried ironically “in the clamour for…(women) to be heard and their need to condemn”. Any comment about a woman’s appearance, or heaven help our new world order, a sensitive touch on a shoulder or a smiling glance at a glamorous short skirt, are vulnerable to a gravitas of “grievous bodily harm”. A demarcation zone has been declared, invisible but no less real, with sex once more a “dirty” word in our vernacular; a sad shame of our 21st century society.
My private sexual experiences have included the good, the bad and the ugly, realising how thoughtless, even stupid, most of us can be about sex during our lives, including yours truly. Sometimes that stupidity has an expensive price tag, losing one’s reputation, career and loved ones along the way. Who can honestly lay claim to “perfect”, perhaps even sensible, sexual practice throughout their life? Indeed, what does sensible connote amid the rolling plains of our sexual landscape?
At 71-years-old, my advice to Rachel Baird about her 18-year-old daughter is to nurture a sense of humour about sex at work, and more importantly, to know the difference between a sex crime and the sexual norms of human behaviour, gender irrelevant. (Having had no children, this advice has undoubtedly no credibility). So cancel my commentary, as I am probably a lone wolf in the wilderness that no one wants to listen to or read, making no allegations of sexual misconduct against any of the men I have worked with, dated and even had sex with. They have no case to answer and fortunately, I don’t either.
Now happily out of the workplace, I can engage in sex talk and touch with occasional strangers in my local café or with friends at home; gays, trans and even heteronormative men and women with a narrative celebrating sex and diversity. In 1936, Havelock Ellis wrote in “Studies in the Psychology of Sex”: “Sex lies at the root of life, and we can never learn to reverence life until we know how to understand sex”. That’s the mantra to believe in for all our wellbeing!