Thu | Jul 9, 2020

Michael Abrahams | The trouble with Chuck’s chuckle

Published:Monday | June 29, 2020 | 12:15 AM
Michael Abrahams
Michael Abrahams

Sexual harassment is no laughing matter. Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and verbal and physical harassment of a sexual nature in the workplace or places of learning traumatise countless persons every year.

Jamaica currently has no laws that specifically address the issue, but apparently, that is about to change as a bill is now being constructed. Unfortunately, during a recent gathering convened to discuss the proposed legislation, male privilege and insensitivity reared its ugly and all too familiar head. While the Sexual Harassment Bill was being examined at a joint select committee meeting at Gordon House last week, a recommendation was made that there should be a one-year cap on the period for reporting sexual harassment incidents. Justice Minister Delroy Chuck agreed with the one-year time frame, saying, “We don’t want the situation that now happens in the ‘Me Too’ movement in the US where 30 years later you talk about ‘I was harassed in the elevator’. No, if you don’t complain within 12 months, please, cut it out.” Chuck chuckled while making the comment, as he obviously found it funny.

But Chuck’s response is disturbing on several levels. First, the desire to have a limit on which complaints should be submitted is understandable, but one year is a bit short. Sexual harassment varies from intimidating looks to being physically assaulted, and the trauma can be severe. It is well documented that many victims take a long time to muster the courage to talk about traumatic sexual experiences.

The one-year limit is one thing, but Chuck’s tone, telling potential complainants to “cut it out”, combined with the chuckling smacks of insensitivity. Chuck later apologised for his comments. In one of his tweets he said, “If persons interpret my joviality as a lack of empathy, it was not meant and never intended to undermine the severity of the matter at hand. I do appreciate that sexual harassment is a serious and traumatic subject.”

SOBERING REMINDER

However, the damage had already been done. His comments served as a sobering reminder that many men simply do not get it, and lack empathy for women and their issues. Not that men cannot be victims of sexual harassment too. Some are, but in most cases the victims are women and the perpetrators men.

Thankfully, Government Senator Dr Saphire Longmore, who is also a psychiatrist, was present and vocal at the meeting. She indicated that she was uncomfortable with the one-year cap, noting that a time frame cannot be placed on trauma and when a victim’s symptoms may evolve. She said, “Some persons are so traumatised that they repress or suppress. You have to recognise, too, that they may be in a work environment where they know that their financial future may be dependent on what they do now, and they have all sorts of responsibilities tied to this financial future.”

And this issue ought not to be politicised, as this attitude has been demonstrated on both sides of the aisle. In 2014, while discussing the Flexible Working Arrangements Bill in the Upper House, then Opposition Senator Marlene Malahoo Forte commented that she understood the need for the legislation making it lawful for women to work at nights to ensure equality, saying “but, you know we also have high incidence of rape at nights; we have abduction of children and women ... ”. Then Government Senator A.J. Nicholson responded by asking the question, “What you want, flexi-rape?” His comment drew sharp criticism and he, like Chuck, later offered an apology.

MALE PRIVILEGE

The comments from these men are symptomatic of the gaps in the socialisation of our boys. I do not think these are bad or evil men. They just live in a society, a world, in which women’s concerns are consistently trivialised by men. Their remarks are symptoms of male privilege. These issues are simply not on our radar. When a man goes to work, he simply gets dressed and goes. On the other hand, some women have to choose their wardrobe very carefully, or ‘dress down’, to avoid the advances of predatory male superiors. Similarly, if a man needs to go out at night to a deserted area, being raped is the last thing on his mind.

I have family, friends and patients who are survivors of various types of sexual trauma, and the pain and disruption of life are real. A female friend of mine has been unable to find a steady job for over a year after leaving her last one when her boss informed her that the only way she could keep working at his establishment was to have sex with him. Another friend, studying overseas, had to repeat a university course after a professor failed her when she refused his sexual advances. Yet another friend is walking around with a bullet in her back after being gang-raped decades ago.

Our boys need to be socialised to be aware of and sensitive towards the issues girls and women face. We do live in a man’s world where women are often treated as second-class citizens. This needs to change. Empathy can be taught. It would greatly benefit our planet if those of us who know better teach those who are less enlightened, and lead by example.

Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, social commentator and human rights advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.