This makes me a sad panda

Posted by – February 9, 2008

The Finnish parliament has been rocked by allegations that male members of parliament sexually harass women who work there, especially young female assistants of other MP’s. The allegations have been so vague that it’s impossible to comment on the situation, but the brouhaha has prompted some broader discussion that I find interesting.

I listened to a programme about the whole thing on the radio yesterday in the bus I was taking home (bus drivers almost always listen to Finnish iskelmä music, but this was a more academically inclined driver). The narrator said something like:

Sexual harassment is a controversial topic, but there are at least two things everyone can agree on. Sexual harassment exists in our society, and it must be removed from our society.

Not to sound like a sex offender, but that depends on what you mean by sexual harassment. No, really! For example, one of the cases of harassment referenced in the case of the Finnish Parliament, a middle-aged man was said to have placed his hand on the shoulder of a younger woman and said “Let’s take a look at these documents together.” Thus described, that situation could be anything: completely mundane or highly creepy. Obviously, some kind of metric is needed to assess when sexual harassment has happened.

And there’s the rub: people have wildly differing ideas on what constitutes unacceptable behaviour. I’ve understood that the minimum requirement from the legal standpoint is that it’s only harassment if it happens repeatedly, the harasser is asked to stop and it keeps going on after that. That seems reasonable, but I’ve heard considerably more fleeting situations being described as “harassment”. So what kind of behaviour counts? There are essentially two schools here: one is “it’s harassment if the harassee says it is” and the other is “it’s harassment if society at large says it is”.

The radio programme seemed to subscribe to the former view. It was a lot like the Wikipedia definition: “Sexual harassment is harassment or unwelcome attention of a sexual nature.” To rephrase what the radio said, our society should be such that unwelcome attention of a sexual nature doesn’t exist. Now, I don’t know about you, but every way I try to imagine such a society seems worse than the one we’re living in. It’s a bit like wanting to remove meanness, nastiness or gossiping – sounds kind of positive, but is actually completely impossible and even undesirable to achieve. If everyone has the right to be offended by anything and to have the authorities intervene on their behalf, life becomes impossible.

Of course, the situation in the Finnish Parliament is especially prone to the real problems of sexual harassment: power-mad older men, living away from their families, interacting with younger women who work in positions of far lower status and power. It’s really all about power: try to imagine a woman with a high-status job seeking protection from sexual harassment coming from men in low-status jobs. What we really want to stop is people abusing their power in social situations in the workplace. That includes low-status men being terrorized by their high-status male supervisors, something I’d bet happens more than sexual harassment. It’s also extremely difficult to define or punish; the culture accepts what the culture accepts. The real challenge is to change the culture. Which, by the way, is never going to happen – people are always going to be horrible to each other. All we can hope for is slow & slight improvement, and to be decent people ourselves.

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