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When does creepy turn into criminal?

Differentiating sexual harassment from sexual abuse is a contentious issue when it comes to he-said-she-said cases

In the late 1960s when I was in high school, I took a summer job working for the CEO of a company, who before leaving office for the day, had a habit of slapping his female secretary's backside.

I vividly recall that everyone at the office, including the secretary herself, would respond with a big laugh. Everyone seemed to think that that was really funny.

Sexual harassment? I don't think anyone in the office was using that term then.

So, yes, we've come a long way since the days when the line between flirting with women and harassing them didn't exist, when being exposed to the unwanted sexual advances of the boss was part of the job requirements of a female secretary, known today as "administrative assistant".

The cultural mores in western societies have gone through a major transformation since the 1960s, especially when it comes to the status of women.

The #MeToo campaign which started after the New York Times and The New Yorker reported last month that more than a dozen women accused Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein of harassing, assaulting and raping them has gained much momentum.

More complaints have since been made against men in politics, the media, the film industry and show business.

And the list has been growing by the day, and includes the current White House occupant as well as two former presidents, Bill Clinton and George H W Bush. So who is next?

It's not surprising that some in Washington are joking that if President Donald Trump is impeached or if the US drop a nuclear bomb on North Korea, the news cycle would probably still be dominated by a new revelation about the sexual misdeeds of this or that comedian.

Some observers have alleged that feminist groups with the enthusiastic support of the media have been engaged in a political-cultural witch-hunt rife with personal assaults and forced confessions.

Other critics contend that there is no public interest in exposing the private lives of politicians or actors; and that in most of these cases, we are supposedly dealing with sexual relations between consenting adults.

And then there is the argument that it is, indeed, difficult to make a clear distinction between "innocent flirting" and what we now place under the rubric of "sexual harassment".

What is wrong, after all, about saying some nice things about your female co-worker's appearance?

COMPLICATED

The major obstacle to dealing with allegations of sexual harassment, not to mention prosecuting them, is that they usually involve a complex set of relations between individuals who sometimes see differently what had occurred during an encounter between a man or a woman, resulting in the she-said-he-said cases, when what one side saw as consensual sex, as part of a date, the other side regarded as forced sex - date rape.

Even when it comes to a clear-cut case of one person taking the life of another person or unlawful homicide, both our social mores and the legal system on which they are based do make distinctions between, say, intentional murder and an accidental killing or an act of self-defence.

Similarly, while it may be difficult, it is certainly not impossible to assess and conclude when sexual intercourse with another person was carried out with or without the consent of the other person, usually through the use of physical force or other forms of coercion.

It is the definition of "sexual harassment" and how and when to distinguish it from sexual assault and abuse that has become the most contentious issue in the ongoing debate sparked by the accusations against Mr Weinstein.

Did the dirty jokes that former president Bush told young women or Senator Al Franken's lewd mannerisms or an unwanted leg touching amount to sexual harassment or to displays of boorishness on the part of some men?

Although most public and private institutions have adopted codes of behaviour to ensure safe workplaces for women, and US federal and state laws outlaw unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, the legal definition of sexual harassment varies by jurisdiction, and in most cases, they don't cover simple teasing, offhand comments and minor isolated incidents.

But at a time when the behaviour of public figures that operate in a 24/7 media environment is being monitored almost minute by minute, politicians, entertainers and journalists need to recognise that in their case, what was once regarded as private is now bound to become public.

That when they invite us into their homes to celebrate their wonderful marriages and their commitment to family values, they shouldn't be surprised that it does become news when we discover through the media the ugly truth about them.

As they say, when you live by the media, you die by the media.

The writer is a contributing writer to The Business Times. This article was published in BT on Nov 24.

COURT & CRIME