Sexual harassment - a perspective

This is going to get me into trouble, but I’m trying to find perspective.

It’s obvious that bullying – sexual, emotional, mental, physical or other – is wrong. Violent bullying, abuse or rape is criminal and punishable by law – rightly so. But the problem is not just about non-consensual sex; that’s the way feelings and urges are expressed. We have to look deeper at why.

To be clear, I’m not including comradely pats on the back, helping somebody on with a coat, hugs between friends or any other permitted or consensual touches.

A scenario…

Everybody’s been at a student party, a works’/staff Christmas party or a jolly of some sort when usual standards of behaviour slip and hands and lips go to places they shouldn’t. Between experienced colleagues of equal status, the answer is a pushing away, a biting comment or if necessary a slap across the face or a knee in the groin. But if the perpetrator has any level of  authority or power over the victim, then the whole situation changes, whatever the actual actions. The victim is shocked, not just by the physical touch, but by the instant rupture of trust, and confused about what to do, especially if they are young and this is the first time. Nobody wants a bad annual assessment or becoming known as unreliable or unpromotable or not being able ‘to take a joke’.

This puts the victim in a double quandary and a not inconsiderable place of fear. They worry if their behaviour or dress has encouraged the perpetrator; in this way they absorb the blame for the incident. Afterwards, they feel partly responsible which adds another layer of reluctance to report it. This is wrong in so many ways, of course, but telling people to be courageous in such circumstances is easily said, but incredibly hard to do when in those circumstances. The victim attempts to wipe it from their memory and dismiss it as high jinks or a one-off aberration by the perpetrator. Big mistake. Understandable, but big mistake.

The perpetrator has made first base of gaining power over the victim. And however the tiny scale, that power relationship will colour everything in the future. We only need to look at the Roman example of patron and client. The client is at the patron’s beck and call whether it’s waiting for hours on his feet to gain a small favour, voting in an election or carrying out some dirty work for his patron. The client wishes for advancement, the patron exerts authority, control, even dominance. The patron has the client’s fate in his hands. Clients sometimes flourished under the benign and disinterested protection of a patron who advanced the client’s interests, sidelining others with more ability but less influence. Today, although we consider ourselves liberal and enlightened in comparison, none of this is all that different.

Why does one individual do this to another?

I’m not a psychologist, just an opinionated observer of people, but here are my few pennyworths…

  • Sexual harassment, and worse, is about power, authority and lack of responsibility. We’ve seen power and authority above, but responsibility? Superiors of any sort have the responsibility of the care of their juniors. They have no right to go over the line of the limited authority they hold over them. Superiors, while expecting juniors to carry out their work or duties, do not ‘own’ those juniors (not these days).
  • It’s about entitlement. Nobody is entitled to subject anybody else to speech or actions that person does not wish, whether it’s an off-colour remark, quick grope or a violent rape.
  • Nobody is an object to be used and thrown away.
  • Rape or physical attack is not the way to express your personal insecurity in a difficult world, nor is it a way to show others that you are ‘hard’.


Let’s keep some balance

People are very easily offended these days

I come from a more robust generation which has seen so much progression from the restricted 1950s of my early childhood through the various social, sexual and legal revolutions too numerous to count. Believe me, it’s paradise compared to then. Balance and equilibrium are often forgotten today in the search for extremes and the extraordinary.

Invading personal space is a big no-no

Different cultures have different customs and unwritten rules. The French give kisses in greeting to almost everybody, including same sex, the Brits shake hands (when they remember), Americans often stand there and wave hands nervously in the air and just say ‘hi’. I exaggerate and generalise, but these are tendencies. Within cultures, some people need a fifty-centimetre personal exclusion zone, others see closeness and touch as normal social behaviour. Somebody’s harassment is another person’s bonding. This is where law will have a problem, but this is where teaching social norms to the young is so important.

The key to interpreting these sort of gestures is the intent behind them

Many of us have experienced the lingering hand on the shoulder or arm, the ‘accidental’ bumping of hip or breast. Here the intent is obvious. The ‘hand on knee’, which is in the news at present, is a gesture I’ve often seen male-to-male, especially in middle-aged men and older. I think it’s a bonding thing. As long as the male hand doesn’t go under the other person’s clothing and the touch is brief, I see it as only mildly creepy. I wouldn’t sit too near them again, but I certainly wouldn’t ostracise them. Women tend to touch each others’ and men’s forearms for similar purposes. However, if the hand lingers on the knee and there is a glint in the other person’s eye watching for reaction, then the alarm bells should sound very loudly.

Social media

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram all play a role today in exposing, fairly and unfairly, people’s weaker moments as well as joyous ones. If you elect to go into public life, it seems you will need to behave like a chaste, sober and perfect person at all times. You may go bonkers inside, but that’s the reality today in a smartphone environment. Even an unguarded quip flares round the digiverse like a fire in a drought.


Trust takes a long time to build but a second to be destroyed. And the fallout is permanent. Is it really worth the personal, economic and social losses that follows such a rupture? The victim is crushed and humiliated inside, even though they don’t show it. They blame themselves and lose self-confidence. And the business, department or association may lose a competent and clever employee when they walk out of the door.

So, what to do?
It’s quite easy, really. Complete mutual respect of everybody you deal with; physically, emotionally, mentally. No exceptions. Ever.

I’m sorry to target you, chaps, but men are in most in need of this mental and emotional shift. Women are not second rate, there for your convenience, or to be taken advantage of. Just because a woman employee is efficient and caring, reminds you of meetings, brings you coffee, smiles at your visitors, does not means she is your dogsbody to go and buy your sex toys. Women find their friendships and links with other women easier because (generally) there isn’t the automatic pressure of looking out for sexual come-ons or harassment.

Women should be heard in meetings not just in a tokenist way but actively listened to. And don’t pinch their ideas and promote them as yours; it’s rude and bloody irritating.

Children should be taught manners and respect for others. The playground is a robust, often hard place. Children can be cruel to each other as they seek to establish their own place in the hierarchy. A little less hierarchy and a little more flexibility and acceptance at this age would go a long way.

So, it looks like mutual respect and common decency might crack it for the future. But can we do it?


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIOAURELIA and INSURRECTIO. The sixth, RETALIO, came out in April  2017. Audiobooks now available for the first four of the series

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, for FREE when you sign up to Alison’s free monthly email newsletter

4 comments to Sexual harassment – a perspective

  • A tricky subject Alison, and one very much in the public eye in an instant, with social media. I don’t think I would like to be a celebrity, where these days you can’t say or do anything without it being reported.
    But I agree that it’s not right to try to use your power over someone else in these ways. I particularly like your point about insecurity and physical attacks – just recently in my town, a boy on a bus laughed at something some boys on the street did, they saw him, didn’t like it, got on the bus and beat him up. Four against one, all because he laughed.

    • Alison Morton

      Somehow, the idea has got through that a physical attack as you describe, Rosie, is an acceptable was to express your frustration or insecurity. Of course, it’s always been ‘normal’ in some circles, but not usually so public nor so frequent.

  • Thank you for being brave and writing this article, Alison. You found the perfect words to put sexual harassment into perspective. Yes, men need a mental and emotional shift in attitude to women, but I too believe that a brief hand on the knee or arm can be a bonding touch. I also believe that manners and appropriate touching should be learnt in childhood. Excellent post – I found myself saying ‘yes,’ ‘yes,’ many times.

    • Alison Morton

      Thank you for commenting, Angela. It’s very topical and I wonder if we’re on the brink of a new social revolution. It’s well time.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>




This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.