Jamaica Gleaner / It’s the big 2017 story: The Women’s Empowerment Revolution: The Anti-Sexual Harassment Edition, or addition.
Some of the most powerful men in America have tumbled or suffered irreparable reputational damage one after another: Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, John Conyers, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Charlie Rose, and this past week, Matt Lauer and Russell Simmonds.
It’s a cascade. The women are coming forward, not just one by one, but almost in droves, bringing up allegations of incidents decades ago. And, they are being believed, with action taken immediately without even a whiff of court action. People are losing their jobs and contracts without a day’s notice. It’s a revolution, and it can’t be stopped. It took all of those reverberations for copycat Jamaica to start discussing this issue, though we have had a sexual harassment bill languishing for a long time in Parliament.
In Jamaica, we don’t take sexual abuse seriously. Men, and even some women, take charges of sexual harassment as a joke, wondering what the hell people in America are going on about when it’s ‘just a little sex’, or ‘just a little feel-up’. The things that big-name people in Hollywood, the music industry, media, and politics are losing their jobs and reputations over are seen as ludicrous by many Jamaicans. “After is not man dem a trouble! Weh dem a gwaan so bout?” is a common refrain.
Someone told me last week when we were discussing the latest bombshell firing of Matt Lauer: “I bet if a man him did trouble, dem Americans wouldn’t a mek so much noise about it!”
Our women have suffered much more sexual harassment and downright sexual exploitation in Jamaica because we have fewer economic opportunities and because of our deeply misogynistic and machismo-chauvinistic culture. It is not uncommon in corporate offices and even public institutions for women to be pressed for sexual favours in return for promotions, and often, simply to keep their jobs.
Just last week, I was talkinging with a woman who just turned 50 who told me that when she was 18, it was very common in her workplace, a “respectable” government institution, for men in their 60s to be urging her and other young girls to go with them to eat fish at Port Royal or to go for a ‘drive-out’ with them. She had male colleagues in her office who would tell her with relish that the boss “check fi you” and that she was a fool not to exploit that to get ahead.
In Jamaica, not only is sexual harassment not frowned on at the workplace, it is often the norm, and if you as a woman are not playing the game, you are seen as silly – or simply left behind. Some women actively leverage vagina power to climb the corporate ladder.
The fact that Jamaicans are naturally acquisitive, materially ambitious, and love bling makes us a culture ripe for sexual exploitation. It’s interesting that while the human-rights lobby in Jamaica has been very vocal on a number of issues, it has never taken up this matter. It might soon, now that it has gained legitimacy and currency in the United States, from where we get our cues for moral outrage. In that case, thank God for America!
Not only are our household helpers routinely sexually molested, but so are many young girls just seeking to pay their bills. It’s not just bosses with power who are harassing, but work colleagues who say the most sexually explicit things as a joke to women. After all, man a nuh ‘fish’ (homosexual), so a nuh nutten. The upside of globalisation which means American domination – actually is that values intrude on traditions and cultures like Jamaica’s, which are inimical to women’s rights and empowerment.
OBSESSION WITH AMERICA
Social media and the influence of American culture make America’s obsessions and concerns ours, so we will now start talking about sexual issues and matters of power in a way we have not. The revolution is being social media-ised.
The issue of sexual harassment is not simply about sexual ethics. It is about power and its abuse. And that makes the issue complicated. For, once you are dealing with people in positions of power, the issue of consent becomes problematic.
For example, an 18-year-old who is a consenting adult could well ‘consent’ to go to eat fish at Morgan’s Harbour with her boss or take a Sunday ride out in the country with him. “Freely,” in that she says yes. He did not force her into any car. Afterwards, at his suggestion, she might go to a hotel with him and have sex. He never raped her. But she is going to evening class and her mother has seven of them and is unemployed.
She knows Mr Upstanding Married Man would never threaten to fire her or force sex on her. But she also knows that he would not be pleased and that he has the power to push her out of her little temporary post. So she ‘consents’, willingly, one could say.
But what does that consent mean in the context of the man’s economic power and her economic and social powerlessness? But then how do we really know when a person truly, and without coercion, has really exercised her free will? It’s problematic.
For what if a boss has a genuine, non-exploitative interest in his assistant and makes an approach? Does the approach itself constitute sexual harassment or only if he presses after she obviously shows no interest? Can we outlaw all office relationships and affaires? Bosses have married their secretaries, assistants, and work colleagues. They have to start by showing sexual interest whether inviting them out for fish or to Dream Weekend in Negril. Because the man has power and the employee has none, is that relationship necessarily exploitative? You see that’s not always clear-cut.
But let’s not cloud things. There are many openly exploitative things taking place in the Jamaican workplace for us to focus on without talking about grey areas. The grey areas are there. There are dilemmas. But when people in entertainment music, the fashion business, theatre use sex as a lever of power to extract sexual favours from young, bright, and ambitious people, women and men, that is unambiguously wrong.
If media bosses, producers, or editors use their positions to get sex or deny media workers’ opportunities, that is corruption and exploitation. We can always write editorials and opinion pieces condemning politicians for corruption and abuse of power, but if we ourselves do the same thing, we are as corrupt.
Our standards of sexual accountability are too low in Jamaica because of our culture of sexual looseness and sexual promiscuity. Womanising is glamourised in our music and general culture. Big corporate companies spend a lot of money promoting dancehall artistes who glorify the commodification of women. University of the West Indies dancehall apologists see no problem with that. Our advertisers commodify and objectify women. This finds its way into our workplace culture.
And the hypocrisy of it all is that these same corporate bigwigs will give speeches decrying our lack of proper values and attitudes when they put their sponsorship dollars to support the most lewd artistes who valorise and celebrate exploiting women for sex and who sing about them as purely objects of sexual pleasure.
Big media houses like Fox, CBS, NBC, The New York Times , etc, will drop their mega stars because they know in that culture, it hurts their business to keep them. You think those companies are really interested in morality or women’s empowerment? They are interested in their bottom line, and they know that keeping sexual harassers is bad for business. It’s not so in Jamaica. To be known as a womaniser who can boast about how many women you ‘pass through’ in your office is a badge of honour.
People in media, entertainment, law, and politics who are sexual harassers (‘gyallis’) get a lot of ratings. Our culture is the most fertile soil feeding sexual harassment. It normalises what should be deviance.