Sexual harassment is hard to talk about because it is a socially, emotionally, and gender-charged topic. My earliest exposure to the issue was during our high school study of Rizal’s El Filibusterismo. Padre Camorra was a friar with a particular predilection for young women. Juli, Basilio’s fiancee and an object of Padre Camorra’s advances, preferred to jump to her death out of a convent window than to give in to the friar’s intentions.
Rizal was blowing the whistle on a horrible practice in fictional terms, but he still used painstakingly indirect language. The friars were, after all, among the most powerful of the day. Fiction or not, we all know how that turned out for Rizal. Tellingly, my high school teacher on Rizal did not discuss the matter.
It was a breath of fresh air from the Church when Pope Francis created the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors three years ago after a series of sex scandals involving priests rocked the Church. In typical direct language, Pope Francis has called sexual abuse “an absolute monstrosity, a terrible sin that contradicts everything that the Church teaches.”
Still, the issue remains touchy because it often involves talking about the powerful in society in general and in organizations in particular. More than a century after Rizal’s death, we are still a semi-feudal country where the reputation of the powerful is prioritized over the plight of the weak. Add to this our sexually repressed public discourse, and sexual abuse becomes a topic best avoided.
But as usually happens nowadays, a sensitive topic has been thrust into the public conversation by news resulting in viral commentary in social media. I welcome this because if sexual harassment victimization is to be lessened, if not eliminated, the anatomy of sexual harassment must be understood through open discussion.
Early in October, the New York Times broke a story alleging that Harvey Weinstein, well-known Hollywood movie producer and executive, was a serial sexual harasser. The list of women who have reported being victimized by Weinstein is long, comprising low-level company employees and A-list actresses.
Weinstein immediately apologized, saying, “I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. … I appreciate the way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologize for it.” This wasn’t enough to stop the Twitter #metoo campaign from triggering women’s reports globally about similar experiences of victimization under other men in power.
While the allegations may not be true, they have caused major consequences for some prominent men.
First is Weinstein himself, who was fired as co-chairman of The Weinstein Company. Gilbert Rozon has resigned from the Montreal Metropolitan Board of Trade. UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon has also stepped down. Netflix has fired actor Kevin Spacey from the highly successful TV series House of Cards and has halted production of the series’ sixth season.
This issue is hardly discussed locally even though a 2016 survey by Social Weather Stations shows that 88% of women from 18 to 24 years old have experienced sexual harassment at least once. The survey included cases of wolf whistling, lascivious language, stalking, voyeurism, groping, rubbing or touching, cat-calling, indecent gestures, exhibitionism, and public masturbation, sending of pornographic pictures or videos, and cyber-violence.
Why does sexual harassment persist to this day? Why don’t enough victims come forward? Why do those in the know look the other way? What can be done about this shameful practice?
Some believe that the problem is simply poor impulse control of men, i.e., men behaving like pigs.
In France, where more than 200,000 cases of sexual assault are reported every year, the recent anti-sexual harassment name-and-shame Twitter campaign is called #BalanceTonPorc, or “expose your pig.” Weinstein’s apology is an admission that poor impulse control is a major factor. Men with this problem should definitely get professional help and be closely supervised and restrained by superiors.
But this is not the whole story.
Men would not find it so easy to act out their impulses without first, the lopsided structure of power relations between men and women in many organizations, and second, the cultural values and beliefs that tolerate predatory behavior among men.
The dominance of men in organizations needs to be counter-balanced by tougher laws and enforcement against sexual harassment and assaults. Senators Poe and Hontiveros have filed separate expanded anti-sexual harassment bills. The laws should strengthen company education and counseling programs that emphasize that harassing behavior is unprofessional, demoralizing and unproductive, and not to be tolerated.
The problem of cultural tolerance is more difficult to solve. The idea that harassment is just a personal matter getting out of hand needs to go. Also, we need to stop thinking that protecting the reputation of high-status men outweighs protecting the vulnerable. No less than a public education campaign must dispel this outdated idea.
A cultural shift calls for everyone’s involvement. A #metoo organizer captured what is required very well when she chanted: “If you see something, say something!”
Dr. Benito L. Teehankee is full professor of management and organization at De La Salle University.