Do not turn a blind eye to sexual harassment

Dr Derrick Aarons

Sunday, January 07, 2018

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WE started a new year this past week, but for most of us the ingrained habits of yesteryear will follow us throughout this year.

We are creatures of habit, and habits never die unless there is a strong and sustained effort to eliminate them from our normal day-to-day existence.

One deplorable habit that many men have in Jamaica, and which has been in the news recently in the USA, is that of forcing their sexual desires and intentions on women in society. Sometimes the methods used are subtle, but most times they are so strong that they can be classified as sexual harassment.

Historically, women (and to a lesser extent men) have had to quietly bear the brunt of unwanted sexual advances and without any viable means of escape as they are seen as mere objects to satisfy the sexual desires of men in general.

A new dawn

However, in societies that have been developing strong values of personal autonomy and respect for individuals and their right to determine what happens to their bodies, there has been a creeping yet continuous progression towards increasing respect for the worth of women beyond their sexual image and sexuality.

This issue imploded recently in the USA with the public exposure of sexual harassment and unreported rape of women by men in positions of power, and the development of a movement across the society using the hashtag #MeToo, that has revealed the pervasive nature of sexual harassment in that society.

We can all testify that numerous similar cases of sexual harassment of women exist in our Jamaican society almost daily, but will we ever get to a similar stage of 'outing' those individuals who indulge in such practices?

Such harassment exists on our streets, in our workplaces, and in virtually every sphere where men and women interact. Even the vaunted and supposedly noble professions of medicine and law have had their catalogue of sexual harassment, but those cases are often swept under the carpet when people have been bold enough to report them, presumably out of concern for the shame or disgrace it might bring to those accused who invariably are in positions of power, as well as the possible loss of respect for the wider profession in general.

Sexual harassment of the vulnerable

Individuals who are unable to fully protect their own interests because of insufficient power are classified as 'vulnerable', and an article on the matter was published in the December 2017 edition of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. The article was headlined '#MeToo Stories: Sexual harassment pervasive in Medicine'.

The article vividly described the dilemmas of young doctors subjected to repeated sexual advances by their medical superiors — knowing that if they refuse — their future in their chosen specialty may be in jeopardy; yet if they succumb, their self-esteem may be forever lost. The women lamented the lack of respect for their intellect and scholarship, and their being debased to objectification for sexual gratification.

The research on the subject revealed that, despite the injustice, most women remained silent and did not expose their harassment due to concerns about their advancement in their chosen professions. The article informed that women who report sexual harassment often experience marginalisation, retaliation, stigmatisation, and sometimes worse.

The need for zero-tolerance

Another article published in the journal Academic Medicine argued for the need for medical institutions to establish zero-tolerance policies against sexual harassment, along with the required protocols and safeguards that support and enforce such policies. The article emphasised the need for a safe culture for work within the workplace, and outlined six steps that companies and institutions should undertake to address the issue.

The first three steps include safe mechanisms for informal and retaliation-free reporting that allows institutions to track perpetrators' behaviour, mandatory training (with bystander training included), and disciplining and monitoring transgressors, including terminating their employment when appropriate.

The last three steps include reducing 'locker room talk' and similar discussions in the workplace that can lead to sexual harassment; zero-tolerance policies within medical societies, organisations, and their events; and promoting more research in the nature, prevalence, severity, and outcomes of sexual harassment and subsequent investigations, along with research into evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies.

The need for protecting other women

The findings of the research included harassment experiences ranging from the groping of breasts and buttocks, the unzipping of the front zipper of a woman's dress at the social activity of a conference, to a woman being raped by her superior during training. The fear of harming their careers and reputations often led to the non-reporting of such incidents, especially since human resources departments exist to protect the institution itself and not necessarily its employees.

Yet, there needs to be a balance between protecting and advancing a woman's career against the desire to protect other women from the perpetrator. Silence can lead to internal conflict and sometimes anguish and subsequent regret on the matter. Research within one department revealed that 30 per cent of the women working there had been harassed.

Many well-intentioned men in positions of power and influence were advised not to dismiss, downplay or excuse any such behaviour by their male colleagues when it is brought to their attention. Turning a blind eye to sexual offences by anyone should never be permitted, if respect for the dignity of a fellow human being is to occur.

Derrick Aarons MD, PhD is a consultant bioethicist/family physician, a specialist in ethical issues in medicine, the life sciences and research, and is the Ethicist at the Caribbean Public Health Agency – CARPHA. (The views expressed here are not written on behalf of CARPHA).

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