Six women have alleged charges of sexual misconduct, assault, harassment and career reprisals against Leslie Moonves, the chairman and CEO of CBS. This spanned over three decades beginning in the 1980s. Moonves has apologized for making unwanted advances but denied engaging in assault, harassment or reprisal.
Stories such as the one of Harvey Weinstein’s or Leslie Moonves’ provoke a question: Where is the line between an assault, harassment or an unwanted advance?
According to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, sexual harassment occurs when someone makes unwelcome remarks or jokes about your sex or makes unwelcome physical contact with you, such as touching, patting, or pinching. The dictionary definition of sexual assault refers to an unwanted sexual activity and may include touching. Unwanted advances are all unwelcome gestures made towards another person in a way which is not accepted by the other party.
So who, on what basis, and on what criteria is able to decide whether a certain touch is an assault, harassment, or ‘only’ an unwanted advance?
No one is! Drawing a clear dividing line can’t be done! That is because every human being has his or her own individual proximity line. Each one of us has a unique, intimate zone which, when violated, raises a feeling of discomfort, embarrassment, or shame. Some of us will laugh at dirty jokes, others will be embarrassed by a photo on somebody’s else computer screen.
For that reason, an objectively similar gesture, or the same touch, may be interpreted as an assault for one person, as an unwanted advance for another, and as a friendly acceptable gesture for others. For some of us, putting a hand on the arm after completion of a difficult task would be seen as a gesture of appreciation, while for others the same gesture may cause discomfort. What’s more, the same touch or gesture may be adequate, even welcomed, when it comes from one colleague (a person whom we consider as a good friend), and very unacceptable when it comes from somebody else.
I do not support the current trend to put these subtle notions into legislation or corporate regulations. I believe neither corporate policies nor legal provisions should decide on such sensitive issues.
It’s us, women, who should set up our own boundaries of intimacy, but first, we need to learn how to recognize them.
In my opinion, today’s situation at the workplace, with another sex scandal almost every week, proves a failure of the schooling system and parental role in teaching girls how to stand up for themselves. The stories we hear every day are not only the stories about the bad guys and their sexists’ habits – but it’s also the story about grown women (often young, but still adult), who don’t know how to set up their own limitations and how to resist male power.
Contemporary women may have plenty of empowerment theories and gender equality clichés in their minds… but when it comes to practice, she may have no inner power to express her disapproval and say ‘No” to any unaccepted behavior – whatever we want to name it.