Thursday, December 02, 2010

Sexual Harassment and Some Older Guys

My father, a very macho man, but one who considered himself enlightened, still liked the differences between men and women.

Age 89, we're in the car on the way to dialysis, he has difficulty breathing, walking.  Just living, really, is difficult.  Not much daily desire to flirt with anyone.

As a Navy guy he likes nothing better than a good joke, any type of joke, has no idea that the 'blue' jokes can be a form of sexual harassment in the wrong company.  In years past he and his friends swapped these on the Internet, printed them out to read while playing cards. You can't trust your memory at some point.

I tell him a joke about being old and losing your memory.  These, to my dad, are hysterical, even if you're in a ridiculous amount of pain.  Then I share with him about a new business, working with a lawyer and a few other professionals to teach sexual harassment prevention, relationship safety, make the world a safer place, safer for women and men. It's an empathy thing, relationship safety.

He gets it right away that men, too, can be sexually harassed. As a businessman, a guy with his own store, he never liked it when anyone harassed a minority, any kind of minority. People are people. No one gets that better than storekeepers. You meet all kinds of people minding the store.

He's excited about the new venture (not so new), and very curious.

"I used to tell the women how pretty they were-- at work, anywhere-- I complimented women all the time." He stops and takes a breath. "Was that sexual harassment?"

Maybe. Knowing you, Dad, probably. Even if you didn't mean it, if they didn't like it, you might not have been able to tell, so you would continue doing it.

"But it made them feel good! I was just making people feel good! There never was any doubt about me wanting anything other than that. And your mother worked in the store.  I told her she looked good.  I told you that you looked good."

You flirted with other women right in front of her.

"So is that bad? She knew I wasn't doing anything."

Words are everything, poor guy has to hear from his daughter, at his age.  They matter, especially from the boss. If a woman tells you to stop flirting and you don't, then you're harassing her.  You can be breaking the law.  It's harassment before she tells you to stop, but all the more so after she tells you to stop. It's not about you, not about what you think, it's about her, how she takes it, how she feels.

"I just thought . . . She smiles.  It's a compliment.  She knows me, there's nothing wrong with that."

We're telling guys, and women, too, I tell him, not to comment on new clothes, not to say anything about how an article of clothing fits someone, or how their make-up looks. Stay away from anything that might make a person think you're coming onto them, or you find them sexy.

"I'm glad I retired in time," he tells me. "I couldn't have changed."

He's on his way to dialysis, and there are women who are going to be prodding and poking, helping him in and out of the chair.   They like my father.  We both know that they've probably heard worse.



porcini66 said...

Thank you for writing about your dad. I enjoy hearing the love in your voice and appreciate you sharing him with us.

My dad, also a Navy man, also in his late 80's, was just recently "written up" at the nursing home he's now living in. Apparently, in an effort to put "the girls" at ease as they performed the necessary business in the mornings, he would jokingly reference the "family jewels."

My poor Dad! He was so embarrassed when it was brought up at the monthly meeting as inappropriate. The aides didn't talk to him or ask him to stop, they just reported him. And he is among the finest, most honorable men you could ever hope to meet. He simply did not understand. He absolutely never meant to offend.

Sadly, from that day to this, he hasn't spoken 10 words to any of the aides. He refuses to speak out of fear of upsetting them.

I understand how sensitive this topic can be. Still and all, sometimes I think we take political correctness altogether too far...

Jack Steiner said...

I think that it is much harder for men than for women. A woman can compliment another woman on her with little to no concern.

A man has to be careful. I once worked with a woman who took her grandmother's wedding ring and turned it into the centerpiece of a necklace.

When it was finished she showed it off to everyone in the office. I made a point of looking at it from a distance.

I did so because I didn't want any trouble. I had never been written up or talked to about sexual harassment, but felt it was better to be prudent.

There was no way to look at the necklace without looking at her chest too. I didn't expect that there would be any sort of fuss, but didn't want to open up the door.

To be clear, I am not saying that this isn't an important issue or that it should be ignored.

But I do think that it can be used as a cudgel to bash others.

Leigh said...

Oh no porcini66!

I used to work in an nursing home while I was in high school. I can't tell you how many times I've heard the "acute angina" joke. - most of the staff took it in stride as many of the residents would have dementia episodes and much more worrisome and difficult to manage outburts.

Plus, who doesn't nervously joke with someone messing around their privates bits -- -- that's pretty tense and awkward.

Actually, I feel like there is an in group and an out group in humor. You should hear how nurses and doctors talk around each other -- likewise nursing mothers and other paragons of virtue have an shared code of raunchy/joke language related to their group.

I think the difficulty is in the power relationships -- the doc has a post on here about power dynamics that is very interesting. If you have the power bust some assistants chops and imply that you can make her life miserable then that is harrassment. If you cross a personal line then it's the aides job a person to set a boundary and set "cut it out now Mr. -- I know you mean well but that kind of joking makes me uncomfortable." Using legalese to avoid setting your own boundaries is not cool.

And in the a nursing home -- the power rests with the nurses and other staff. As staff we were counseled on these issues and reminded daily to take it easy and be as understanding and compassionate as possible. We need to build rapport and have cooperation. It's a very big adjustment for a person to go from running their own show to having another person wipe their butt. Where's the compassion?

Tell your pops I would've laughed.

Leigh said...

sigh** REALLY wish there was a way to edit posts... until then I must learn to slow down and proofread.

the garbled section should read:

"If a person crosses a personal line then it's the aides job to set their boundary and say, "Cut it out now Mr. So & So -- I know you mean well but that kind of joking makes me uncomfortable."

Using a public meeting to avoid setting your own boundaries is not cool."

Anonymous said...

My dad was the same way. Even in the nursing home, he believed he was complimenting the nurses by a pat on the arm or stupid crazy sexist joke. He was a wonderful man, even if he was clueless at times. He never meant to harm anyone.

Yana/Moonmaid said...

This proves to be such a cultural thing. In Eastern Europe, where I'm from, being complimented on your clothes, or hairstyle, or jewelery, it's just that, a compliment. There is a line, of course, touching, talking about body parts, whole other issue.
But women derive some of their confidence from being complimented. I have a colleague in particular (we're physicians), who likes to slip in a compliment now and then. He's ten years older, and a friend, and it makes me feel good, so what's the harm? I know, we could argue about patriarchy and foundations of self-esteem and stuff, but in the end we need connection just as much as boundaries... No?

therapydoc said...

Oh, we're going to miss it, aren't we? But I think that if we teach empathy well enough that people will read one another's feelings better through the eyes, the softness in the face. We surely see the luridness there. Yesterday I saw the cocaine in someone's eyes, but that's another story.

Anonymous said...

I already miss it. My husband says he sometimes gets glared at for holding a door open for a woman here in Washington, D.C. I hold doors open for men too. So am I harrassing them? What an uncivil bunch we've become.

Leigh said...

Yeah - I guess it's tough to teach intonation.

Still, every time I've been bothered it's been some jerk who has bored holes in me while I worked, talked about their "B*#CH of an ex-wife," and hit on me with back-handed complements and zero social skills.

Anonymous said...

I find it very sad that the giving of and graciously accepting a sincere compliment is rapidly disappearing from our normal way of relating to others. Somehow, the lack of proper manners and general crassness of the few has negatively affected the many who still have manners and decency. Definitely, what is now termed political correctness has gone too far!

Wondering Soul said...

Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading this post... More than that TD, I enjoyed reading the affection in your post...
I think I'd like your dad. he sounds a little like mine.
I think we've gone FAR FAR FAR too far with all this ridiculous sexual political correctness.... I mean, if I guy compliments, then he does... that's menfor you.... They DO tend to be fairly visual creatures...
If we're talking about unwanted touch, that's different, but a compliment? We've gone too far if that is now a classed as harassment...
I should say, I have no idea whether or not my comments are 'right' or even valid... but I just wanted to register my thoughts.

Hope that's ok...

Take care TD.

Ella said...

I don't get the nursing home scenario, just words, not actions - a bit of patience is called for, a kind explanation is called for.

To me, at my job, there is a difference between the male colleague who asks "New suit?"
I say "Yes, I got it this weekend", and he says "It looks good".
he says "Wow, it really looks wonderful on you, it fits so well, and that is such a becoming color - it really brings out your eyes!"

2nd response will set of my alarm - why is he looking at my figure? why is he looking at my eyes? This does not make me feel good. I wasn't encouraging him! I'm not interested in this type of attention at work! I'm not soliciting feedback on my attire.

1st response, I'll just say Thank You.
2nd response, I'm likely to say "Gee, you have a well-developed fashion sense" but I shouldn't joke, I should give a very flat "thanks", hope he reads my body language?

Anonymous said...
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therapydoc said...
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therapydoc said...

Fairly recently I had an email from a reader who told me he "lost" a girl he liked because he commented her figure. Not at work, even, at an event, let's say a wine tasting. She was deeply offended and slapped him.

We don't usually interview people before we compliment them. We don't ask, "Uh, hate to ask this, but have you ever been sexually abused? Assaulted? Do compliments about that wonderful body of yours make you uncomfortable?"

And yet, that's really at the core of this. A woman who has been objectified or crossed is going to be sensitive to words of colleagues and new acquaintances, more sensitive to innocent remarks than a woman who has never been "sexually stressed".

And some of us are just raised to think that sexual talk is for intimate partners. That's it.

My father saw himself as a real man, meaning someone who protected his family, his wife, from harm. His radar was out if anyone complimented my mother, but he didn't get it that people could take offense at an innocent joke, or that women might be put on guard by things he said, not flattered. He got the message a little late, if he got it at all. But his job was never on the line.

What we do with conversations like these is raise awareness. When I told my father that one of three women have been or will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, he totally believed me. (I didn't get to go to the sleep overs of friends as a little kid).

But it wasn't something that he had been thinking about when he complimented his employees and customers, that they might not like his "postive" attention.

That's why most employee handbooks suggest first a complaint to a supervisor or human resources, first educate the guilty party-- warn him (her).

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who don't like being told what to do and what not to do, who to compliment, who not to compliment, who see this as control. But we can talk about the personality disordered defense for sexual harassment another time. I like the nursing home discussion a lot. Thanks to all of you for educating me.

Syd said...

Even hugs are not "allowed" in many work places. My mother had to push an elderly man out of her apartment at the assisted living facility. He was about 88 years old and wanted to kiss her. She was having none of it. She didn't report him but told him to get out and then pushed him out her door. The euphemism "dirty old man" lives on in a lot of places. One is never too old I suppose.

Leigh said...

When I saw this on sociological images I thought of our discussion here.