Netflix-style sexual harassment training? No thanks. Abuse of power is the real problem exposed by #MeToo movement
Luisa Tam says Hongkongers are smart enough to figure out on their own what constitutes inappropriate behaviour. Rather, it is the unchecked abuse of authority that has allowed harassment to flourish – something obscure rules will do little to address
Since October last year the #MeToo movement has achieved what the law could not. It has swept across the globe like a sickle, cutting away at the undergrowth behind which sex abusers were hiding. It has prompted numerous Hollywood celebrities to share their personal stories of sexual violence, but has brought change extending well beyond Tinseltown.
Streaming giant Netflix saw its production of House of Cards seriously disrupted and lost millions of dollars after leading star Kevin Spacey became involved in a sexual assault scandal. The A-list star was accused of sexually assaulting actor Anthony Rapp when the latter was just 14 years old. After Rapp came forward, a slew of other allegations against Spacey emerged from more than 30 other individuals, including stories of sexual harassment and attempted rape.
Thrown into damage control mode, Netflix not only cut short House of Cards but also introduced anti-harassment training for its employees.
New rules imposed on film sets included a ban on lingering hugs, flirting, asking for a colleague’s phone number, and, believe it or not, staring at anyone for more than five seconds, which was considered odd and creepy.
These rules boil down to weeding out two types of behaviours – those persistent and unwanted.
But, unless you are a sociopath, it really shouldn’t take much to figure out what is unwelcome when dealing with another human being. Why the need for such regimented training?
Does it mean that from now on we will all have to avoid eye contact with colleagues? Wouldn’t that also be odd and creepy? It would be even more strange looking at someone in an office meeting knowing that he or she, like you, is counting five seconds before diverting their eyes.
Of course, it’s admirable that employers aim to provide a safe and respectful workplace. #MeToo has highlighted how some people in a position of power have abused their authority. The movement has empowered women and men the world over to speak up and not tolerate sexual abuse or violence.
With that enlightened attitude, as well as increased awareness and an environment that doesn’t allow such behaviour to fester, women can now take back control and feel confident enough to live life the way they should.
But we don’t need written rules to tell us what’s appropriate. We all know when someone is rubbing our back in a comforting manner and when it’s done with sexual connotations. We know if someone kisses us on the mouth without consent, no matter who he is, it is inappropriate.
One may argue the lines are blurred when it comes to sexual harassment, and that therefore we need rules to clarify. But there are so many ways to interact with one another. If we need to regulate every single encounter, we might as well cut off all person-to-person physical contact, just to be safe.
Sexual harassment has become endemic because we allowed it to happen. Many of us have absorbed it as though it were normal and acceptable. Abusers then continued with their appalling behaviour because many victims felt powerless to prevent it, afraid to speak up for fear they would be fighting a losing battle or risking too much.
But now, increased awareness about what constitutes sexual assault has become our first line of defence. The #MeToo movement is burning like wildfire and has razed to the ground every possible hiding place for abusers.
While Netflix’s approach may seem rigorous, we do need to address power imbalances within corporations and other organisations, where many at the bottom of the hierarchy are vulnerable and disadvantaged.
Companies need to have a system in place to protect their employees and provide them with a reporting channel and voice to speak up, without fear of the consequences. The first step to cracking down on perpetrators is to even out the scales by imposing checks on the very power they take advantage of.
Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post