From cosy back rubs to lingering shoulder squeezes, just call it what it is: sexual harassment
When women are friendly, it is not an open invitation to get physically close, and no amount of claims of well intentions or cultural differences should excuse the stomach-churning actions of an abuser
When anyone in a position of power tries to disguise sexual harassment as a friendly gesture in a professional or social setting, we shouldn’t just brush it off and shy away from it. We need to call these harassers out. We must put them in their place so they can be punished for their crimes and understand the gravity of their actions.
Very often, these abusers will disguise their actions as something friendly and innocuous, so a seemingly innocent hug or kiss on the cheek may be followed by an unwelcome pat or grope. Other physical interactions, like a lingering rub on the back, or a squeeze on the shoulder or arm, are sometimes harmless exchanges, but abusers can also use these everyday social gestures to veil more sinister intentions.
One such public display of blatantly despicable behaviour was recently witnessed by millions around the world at the funeral service of American soul legend Aretha Franklin last month. The offender was none other than the officiating pastor, Charles H. Ellis III.
It couldn’t have happened in a more public setting. After pop star Ariana Grande’s performance to honour the “Queen of Soul”, she was at a pulpit alongside Ellis, who was seen on live television locking the singer’s tiny body in a side hug and curling his fingers on the side of her breast. It was so flagrantly open and deliberate, you couldn’t possibly miss it.
Ellis later apologised but excused himself and hinted it was unintentional by saying maybe he “crossed the border”.
Just like Ellis, abusers know how to dismiss their actions as accidental but well-intentioned, because they tend to be repeat offenders and therefore, they know how to get away with it by carrying out their dirty deeds in a casual and subtle manner.
Unfortunately, many women like Grande have had similar experiences, and her brush with men like Ellis certainly won’t be the last one.
It sometimes happens in a familiar and friendly environment when we let our guard down and least expect it. The offender is not always a stranger – they can be anyone, even people we know, like a colleague, a friend, or even a trusted relative.
It usually happens so fast and in such an affable manner, many often don’t know how to respond or how to address the issue. Some women may even convince themselves that they were being overly sensitive or mistaken. As for those who realise they have been touched in an inappropriate way, sometimes there is nothing much they can do because there is little proof.
Some abusers will excuse themselves by saying they might have been overly friendly, or it was just a bad misunderstanding, cultural differences, or even a joke. Then, they make light of the situation and convince their victim – and others around them – that their friendly gesture has been unfairly taken out of context. The abused is then left feeling confused, upset, and alone, because they know something unseemly has taken place. Unfortunately, no one believes them, and eventually, the victim begins to doubt what happened and question herself.
Whatever the excuses are, when a woman is being friendly, it is not an open invitation for anyone to press their body against hers, or, do anything that violates her physical and mental well-being, and diminishes her dignity.
No matter the circumstances, it is particularly disturbing to see women being blamed for inviting sexual harassment or sexual assault, just by dressing in a certain way that some may deem inappropriate. Like in Grande’s case, some shifted the focus on her by accusing her of dressing inappropriately because of her short dress.
Let those critics be reminded that the wrongdoing is on the part of the pastor for carrying out the abusive conduct; it is certainly not the victim’s fault for looking attractive. Women are allowed to dress how they want, apply make-up how they want, and interact with others how they want without having to worry about being “felt up”, touched inappropriately, or worse, raped.
Case in point, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte jokingly said, in true stomach-churning manner: “As long as there are beautiful women, there will be rape.”
No one should make light of sexual violence or any form of violence against women, as these perspectives and behaviour will only reinforce negative female stereotypes and fuel sexist and misogynistic views.
In light of Harvey Weinstein, and the subsequent #metoo movement and “Weinstein effect” that swept through Hollywood and the globe, the world has finally decided to sit up and take sexual harassment more seriously. Now, men and women feel more empowered to speak up against sexual harassment.
Although it is unfortunate that it took something as dramatic as Weinstein’s long-standing acts of abuse coming to the public’s attention to trigger the #metoo movement, at least now that it has been woven into our social consciousness, we can work together to stamp out such acts and stop them in their tracks.
Every single one of us, including our government, should speak up and take a stand to say enough is enough.
If we allow abuse to continue, then each one of us is either a victim or abuser, because those who stand idly by and let bad things happen are almost no better than the ones who inflict such distress on others.
There is never any excuse for abuse, so let’s work together to put an end to it.
Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post