Our First #MeToo?

Congratulations to Minister of Labour, Senator Jennifer Baptiste-Primus on being the first “Trinbagonian” woman to say #MeToo in the Sexual Harassment epidemic!
The  admirable Minister announced in a Sunday Express article that she too, was a victim of sexual harassment. It took courage and I applaud you, but why have you and your cabinet colleagues allowed a governmentappointed chairman to preside over sexual harassment accusations against himself, and then use $3.5m dollars of taxpayer money to defend himself against these charges?  Screen Shot 2018-05-14 at 07.56.34

Have I missed the newspaper interview where you objected to the duplicity of his subsequently presiding over the disciplining of a supervisor who lunged at the CEO?  Have I missed the report that your government has initiated an independent, transparent investigation over the three incomplete investigations into sexual harassment charges?  Did I miss your presence at the International Women’s Day March?

Madam Minister, have you ever asked yourself why there has been a muted response to the Sexual Harassment campaign? In the recent Sunday Express article, you are quoted as saying: “I have attended over the years to many such complaints of women suffering from harassment on the job. It affects the performance of that worker. If you are working in such an environment you cannot produce at the level you are accustomed because you are on edge … Women have to assert themselves by being very firm. So you know the extent of the problem and understand its traumatic impact and hence the urgency for it to be dealt with. The last time I checked the legislative agenda, I did not see Legislation about Sexual Harassment. Maybe I should be thankful that you chose your Mother’s Day interview as the opportunity to bring light to this murky issue.

You and your government are going through a round of stakeholder consultations and the bureaucratic mulberry bush, but this time around, for all Ministries, State Corporations and the Protective Services under your government’s control, I would like to see the implementation of sexual harassment policy.

In the interview you stated that: “Women have to assert themselves by being very firm” and that statement tells me about your lack of understanding of the issue. The predators seldom approach strong women, who are likely to give them a kick in the testicles or else direct some public shaming at them for their conduct.  Many strong women have been cowed into silence because of the consequences which include being fired and/or public shaming that it is somehow their fault.  In the absence of legislation and policy, the predators will reign.

At the heart of this issue is a need for T&T to engage in meaningful discussion about sex and sexuality so our children develop an enlightened view.  Instead we continue to speak sotto voce about sex and still cannot even bring ourselves to use the appropriate names for penis and vagina. This is an issue which needs to be openly discussed. It is not a female issue but a people issue. It will not go away without an open conversation and the government is in the position to lead such a conversation. We owe it to ourselves to have that conversation.

Wanted – Male Voices Against Sexual Harassment

Men! You have a mother, wife, woman, daughter, sister, aunt… there’s a woman in your life who is being sexually harassed. What are you doing to protect her? She is relying on you to at least speak up for her. The majority of sexual harassment accusations are made against men so it will not lessen without the help of men. Here are some things men can do to confront this scourge.Sexual Harassment - 5th May 2018 - 1

Ask any of the women in your life to share with you any experiences she has had with sexual harassment and share with you how she felt. Before asking the question, assure her that you will not become emotional and want to lash out because of her honest response. Sex and sexual harassment is still a taboo topic in our country.

Call out your “pardner” the next time he talks about women as things and not as human beings capable of being hurt. For example, stop him when he calls a woman; “it”, “de ting”, “reds”, “gyal”, “bitch”, “whore”, or “slut”. These descriptors add a layer of separation between men and the person they are degrading, which blinds them to the fact if they are allowed to do this to a woman, the same dehumanization can happen to their mother, daughter, wife etc. The more we dehumanize anyone, the easier it is to abuse them.

Don’t share vulgar jokes or anecdotes with your co-workers. Let’s get something straight; the office is no place for the sharing of vulgar jokes or anecdotes, unless you are in a seminar on sexual harassment, and giving examples of what is not acceptable. Regardless of whether it is spoken aloud, whispered, or shared on social media or email, explicit references or comments about sex should be confined to your friends or intimate partner.

Don’t block a person from passing. Blocking a corridor so that a person must brush up against you is aggressive and intimidating. Allow your co-workers the freedom to pass without invading their personal space. This includes behaviour like sitting on someone’s desk or just getting too close.

A definition of sexual harassment taken from the Australian  Human Rights Commission is: “an unwelcome sexual advance, unwelcome request for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated, where a reasonable person would anticipate that reaction in the circumstances”.   Sexual Harassment is not constrained by sexual orientation and can happen to women, men, transgender, and non-gender-conforming people.

In my own lifetime, I have seen women move from accommodating sexual harassment to finding their voice to say, “Stop!” In a patriarchal society like ours there are men who have explained to me that don’t understand what is the problem? They ask innocently, “Can I not even make a joke?” Of course you can, but you must first establish boundaries with people; have a conversation about what you think is allowable to say and how you think it can be said. We need to talk about what sexual harassment is and is not. We need to have grown-up, explicit conversations about sex and sexuality that do not try to hide or mystify it. We need to pass legislation about Sexual Harassment and implement sexual harassment policies in Ministries, State Enterprises and the Military. Come on guys, #Let’s do this!