Some see it, some won't: Is understanding sexual harassment really complicated?

An International Labour Organisation study says young women are twice likely to have faced sexual harassment or violence at work than young men.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

What you need to know:

  • Inappropriate comments about a person's body or physical appearance is crossing the line.
  • If a man and a woman have the understanding that they can kiss each other in the office or wherever, that is not the sexual harassment I am talking about here.

While having a conversation with two of my colleagues last Friday (a guy and a girl), the subject of what sexual harassment came up.

For my female colleague and me, it was quite obvious.

But remembering a classmate once saying that girls only label advances as sexual harassment if they come from men they do not like, I felt the need to play my role in the world and actually offer a definition of what sexual harassment is, for this male colleague.

“Inappropriate comments about my body, my physical appearance… basically just crossing the line,” I said.

In my mind, that was quite a wholesome explanation, and we were ready to move to the next part of the conversation. But the guy stopped us.

“Daisy, what does ‘inappropriate’ mean?”

I was taken aback because inappropriate means just that. But I decided to give him two examples of incidents that happened to me recently to demonstrate what I meant.

“About a month ago, a man made comments about my breasts. I found that very uncomfortable and rude, and totally inappropriate. I struggled to understand why a grown man would even do that. It was shocking to me…” I explained.

However, this colleague still had reservations because it turns out not all women get offended when men make comments about their bodies.

He said that is why some men struggle to understand when, for example, research by the Association of Media Women in Kenya comes out and it has lines that say things like: “Sexual harassment in the newsroom increased by 39 per cent.”

“Daisy, does it mean that a guy cannot ask you out?” he asked.

That was a wild question! When did the conversation cross from sexual harassment to the good old respectful dating? I mean, what did one have to do with the other?

“A guy can ask me out, respectfully, I have no problem. It is the caveman antics such as kissing my cheek without permission, making sexually suggestive comments about my body or touching or caressing my arm that I do not appreciate.

“But if you walk up to me and say you like me and would like to go on a coffee date, that is not disrespectful. I might say yes or no but will not accuse you of sexual harassment,” I explained, almost running out of breath because I couldn’t believe something as simple as that could be confusing.

As the conversation continued, and as my colleague cited instances where women were okay with being caressed, kissed on the cheek, and sent messages that could be deemed inappropriate, if looked at from other quarters, it dawned on me where the disconnect was: consent.

If a man and a woman have the understanding that they can kiss each other in the office or wherever, please that is not the sexual harassment I am talking about here.

However, just because there is a woman who is okay with you staring at her breasts every morning and telling her they make you lose sleep at night does not mean you walk around town telling every woman you meet on the road that you like their boobs.

If you are looking for a woman to cosily hug from behind, make sure it is your wife, girlfriend or ‘work wife’ because if you do this with any other woman, it is called sexual harassment, capisce?

Well, maybe the following story will help put things into perspective:

A male colleague was once nearly chips-funguad by a gay man.

This man, who is very tall and muscular and swears that he is as straight as a pole, was having a good time at one of the social places in Westlands.

He was meeting a couple of acquaintances to discuss possible work collaboration.

Suddenly, some drinks were sent over to their table. Since he was with people he was meeting for the first time, he didn’t think much about it.

At some point, and as if on cue, the three guys left him alone at the table; one to pick up a call, another to go to the bathroom and the third to pick up something from his car. 

A certain man came and sat next to this colleague. This man told him he had spotted him when he walked in, and he liked him.

He was lightly touching his arm at this point. This colleague shot up and left, his heart beating fast like the tom-tom drums of West Africa.

His acquaintances later apologised for not alerting him. In their defence, they said they thought my colleague knew the guy and was in on his advances.

Since that incident, this colleague, who is still traumatised by the sexual harassment, says he understands what women mean when they talk about harassment.

Maybe he is best placed to explain to men what sexual harassment is.

The writer is the Research & Impact Editor, NMG ([email protected]).