Sexual harassment no laughing matter | OPINION

Picture: Andrey_Popov/
Picture: Andrey_Popov/

Ping! goes my phone. “Have you seen this statistic that 53 per cent of people at university have been sexually harassed? That can’t be right, can it?” my male friend says.

My first reaction was – no, it can’t be right. It’s far more than half.

In fact, I wonder if I know a woman who hasn’t been sexually harassed at some stage in her life.

One of the most common occurrences is the cat call.

Far from the post-war lads wolf-whistling a woman as she walks down the street, the modern catcall generally includes “show us your tits” or “slut” yelled at me from a rusting Subaru Forester.

Women really don’t know what these carloads of horny bored men gain from the experience. 

I suppose there is a thrill associated with partaking in obscenity, like watching degrading pornography or swearing at women online, things which might be in fact inextricably linked.

Women never forget we are women. We are reminded at work, when we commute to work, when we socialise, when we study, when we get milk from the shop. 

I was sexually harassed far more when I was a young woman than I am now.

Perhaps years of dealing with it has created a steely exterior that emulates a “don’t mess with me” facade. A necessary yet depressing armour, when I think on it. 

In my early 20s, I took a junior position at an agency. One of my colleagues was a fast-talking suit, an aspiring fat cat who could talk you into giving him your small business loan.

He was also married, and came from a strong Christian background. 

One work event, in front of a group of people, he slapped me on the ass as hard as he could. I suppose it was for some sort of hilarious comedic effect.

It made my eyes water with pain and humiliation, but I laughed along weakly.

What else can we do when we’re backed into a corner than laugh along like we’re part of the joke, even though we know the joke is on us?

I pulled my boss aside on Monday morning to try and communicate that it shouldn’t have happened. 

You don’t want your reaction to be too strong – women, can’t they even take a joke? – so I said it through a half-smile, with the same air of apology for being alive that women employ when they use the word “just” half a dozen times in a work email that required precisely none. 

He nodded with a half-smile that seemed to say “it was funny, but I can see how this could be blown into an issue for my business, so I’ll concede”. 

Men don’t think that they sexually harass women. They think women exaggerate sexual harassment. 

It’s what prompted my incredulous male friend to reach out with that statistic.

I recall one evening a young guy grabbing my ass at the pub, one of countless times this has happened in a busy bar.

It was early, and I knew it was him, so I tailed him to his group of friends, asking him over and over why he had done it.

He ignored me. He didn’t even look at me. His friend did, exchanging uncertain glances between me and him. Was she lying? 

The fast-talking colleague dropped me home from work some time later that week.

As I exited the passenger side, he lent over and hit the palm of his hand across my ass again. I shut the door on his booming laughter. 

Emma Elsworthy is a Fairfax journalist. 

This story Sexual harassment no laughing matter first appeared on Newcastle Herald.