Peter Espeut | Endemic sexual harassment
Every year, the Time magazine chooses a Person of the Year - a person, a group, an idea, or an object that, according to its editors, "for better or for worse ... has done the most to influence the events of the year". This week, Time magazine announced that its Person of the Year for 2017 would be the "women and men who spoke out against sexual abuse and harassment" (otherwise known as "the silence breakers"), beating US President Donald Trump into second place.
Editor-in-Chief Edward Felsenthal said, "This is the fastest-moving social change we've seen in decades." The magazine illustrates the ubiquitous nature of sexual harassment by showcasing women from markedly different backgrounds on its upcoming cover.
Ever since American family icon Bill Cosby was publicly accused of sexual misconduct (including rape and drug-facilitated sexual assault), you could tell that things that had been happening in the dark were finally coming to light. Recently, there has been a string of sexual harassment accusations against well-known public figures in the US media, the movies, and politics, including NBC News anchor Matt Lauer, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and even President Donald Trump himself.
TURNING A CORNER
Time magazine senses that a corner has been turned, and that there is no turning back.
Here in Jamaica, that corner is still some distance away, although it may be in sight.
"Name them and shame them!" cried the Tambourine Army when Moravian ministers of religion were allegedly caught in flagrante delicto with underage girls. Tambourine Army founder Latoya Nugent courted controversy by encouraging women to post on social media the names of men who they claim abused them. Nugent apparently herself did so, for on March 14 this year, she was arrested and charged with three counts of using a computer for malicious communication, under the Cybercrimes Act.
The charges were made after complaints to the police that posts on social-media websites, including Facebook, were said to be defamatory against people she claimed to be sex abusers. On May 17, 2017, she walked out of the Kingston and St Andrew Parish Court a free woman after the director of public prosecutions, Paula Llewellyn, offered no evidence against her.
Since then, the Tambourine Army has gone silent.
In the USA, the sensational cases of sexual harassment involve prominent powerful men abusing their underlings, or persons over whose careers they have influence. No doubt the number of similar cases in Jamaica are 'Legion', just waiting for opportunities for the bright Jamaican sunshine to expose them.
But sexual harassment in Jamaica is part of our popular culture and is glorified in our popular music. I cannot imagine that there are many rural and urban women in this country who have not - several times each week of life - experienced unwanted catcalls and remarks about particular parts of their anatomy, including what the caller would like to do with them.
When many Jamaican men encounter women, they often see only disconnected breasts and backsides, which cause blood to flow below their belts; many men have difficulty developing interpersonal relationships with women that do not involve sex, because they often do not see women as persons.
I have seen men on bicycles and motorcycles - and cars, too - slow down alongside a woman walking on the road, boasting of his sexual prowess and offering a free demonstration. Young girls grow up pretty quickly in this predatory environment that is Jamaica.
Many men seem to believe that they are entitled to call to women this way, and then treat their women as their personal property, to which they have title.
When Jamaica's Sexual Harassment Act is passed and becomes law, even if we accept the British offer of a new prison, I don't think we will have enough jail space to accommodate the deluge of new lawbreakers it will create.
No law against sexual harassment, by itself, will bring about change; since this is a cultural issue, it calls for behaviour-change strategies, starting with self-discipline.
Army discipline teaches that just because you have an itch, you don't have to scratch. Watch soldiers on parade, or on guard duty. The problem of public littering, of bad driving, of obesity, of drug abuse, and of sexual harassment in Jamaica (along with other social ills) will be solved when we decide to develop and implement a national values and attitudes programme promoting self-discipline and self-sacrifice. The contemporary values of hedonism and libertarianism encourage the opposite - giving in to every urge and feeling that comes along.
It will not be enough for the Tambourine Army to come out of hiding and to expose Jamaica's high-profile sex abusers. Really curbing sexual harassment in Jamaica will require a much broader approach, leading to kinder, gentler and deeper interpersonal relationships.
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.