Is Jamaica ready for a Sexual Harassment Act?Friday, July 23, 2021
As if the social/physical distancing rule/protocol brought about by the novel coronavirus pandemic was not enough, the Sexual Harassment Act, when fully enacted, will put under 'heavy manners' the practice of many Jamaicans, especially men, of making sexual advances towards or sexually harassing an individual against that person's wishes.
Gone are the days when such acts were for the most part trivialised or taken for granted. Indeed, it has been observed that it is part and parcel of our 'kulcha' (culture). This is reminiscent of that sexually suggestive song Don't Touch Me Tomato sung by a number of renowned female artistes such as the internationally acclaimed Josephine Baker and more specifically in our case by the late Phyllis Dillon.
“Please mister, don't touch me tomato/No, don't touch me tomato/Touch me on me pumpkin, potato/For goodness sake, don't touch me tomato/…All you do is feel up, feel up/Ain't you tired of feel up, feel up/All you do is squeeze up, squeeze up/Ain't you tired of squeeze up...”
Well, gentlemen — as well as those of you who are rough around the edges — be forewarned, Miss Babsy's Act is coming to get you! Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport Olivia “Babsy” Grange recently piloted this new and long-awaited piece of legislation in the Lower House and it will then go to the Upper House where it will be further debated, gazetted, and become law.
In the memorandum of objects and reasons, the minister stated, “At present, sexual harassment is not specifically recognised in any existing legislation in Jamaica. However, there is consensus that legislation is necessary to address concerns about sexual harassment which is employment-related, occurring in institutions or arising in the landlord and tenant relationship.
“This Bill outlines the types of conduct which constitute sexual harassment and prohibits certain related conduct.
“The Bill makes further provisions for the making of complaints by persons who are aggrieved by sexual harassment. The complaints are to be heard by the newly created Sexual Harassment Tribunal.”
Yes siree! The late Trinidadian calypsonian Singing Sandra must be smiling in her grave. Remember her popular song Die with My Dignity, which became the anthem for many self-respecting women looking a job?
“…You looking out to find something to do
You meet a boss man who promise to help you
But when the man lay down the conditions
Nothing else but humiliation
They want to see your whole anatomy
They want to see whe' your doctor never see
They want you to do whe' your husband never do
Still you ain't know if the scamps will hire you
Well if is all this humiliation
To get a job these days as a woman
They could keep they money
I go keep my honey
And die with my dignity…”
Justice is now at hand, and not just for beleaguered women, but for men, too, as there is no gender bias in the Act. And, according to the Act, “Sexual advance includes any one or more of the followings acts, forms of conduct or behaviour, namely—
(a) physical contact of a sexual nature; (b) a demand or request for sex or for favours of a sexual nature; (c) the making of sexual suggestions, remarks or innuendos; (d) the showing of pornography or the display of images or objects of a sexual nature; and (e) any other physical, gestural, verbal, non-verbal or visual conduct of a sexual nature.
Sexual harassment means the making of any unwelcome sexual advance towards a person, by another person, which —
(a) is reasonably regarded as offensive or humiliating by the person towards whom the sexual advance is made; or (b) has the effect of — (i) interfering unreasonably with the work performance of the person to whom the sexual advance is made; or (ii) creating an intimidating, offensive or a hostile work environment, and references to the term “sexually harass” shall be construed accordingly.”
Of course, there are many concerns being expressed in the public as to how this Act and its stipulations will play out in a society that is highly sexually charged. Take the dancehall scene, for example. At any such session, there is usually a free-for-all approach to dancing, petting, making sexual advances, and doing various acts which may qualify as sexual harassment. Then there are the lyrics of the songs which demean women or portray them in explicitly vulgar ways. What if a female patron objects to this? Is her complaint actionable?
Even in certain churches and other religious settings there is much gyration and other physically suggestive acts that are said to be in keeping with our African traditions. I recall going to a nine night and this buxom woman, who had been eyeing me for some time, joined the line of people dancing, of which I was a participant, and began to “get on bad pon me”. Needless to say I did not object, given the circumstances, but what if that should happen in today's context to someone else who may be a prude?
Frankly, the relevant ministry and other agencies of the State must, post-haste, embark on an extensive as well as intensive public education campaign because there is going to be a great deal of confusion and pushback against this legislation. After all, Jamaican men are known for the crass ways in which they approach women in order to assert their manhood and machismo. Especially the unlettered men among us who may not be familiar with sophisticated words and therefore resort to what may be deemed as vulgar and rude expressions, albeit endearingly expressed.
Women, too, oftentimes use the most outrageous words to endear men to them. Just listen to some of our dancehall divas as they spit out lyrics that are raw and overly explicit. Then there are the “cougars”, female bosses or elderly women who go after male, as well as female, youngsters at the workplace and elsewhere. Not to mention our children who, in many instances, have adopted the utterances and actions of the adults around them. How many are saying, “Don't touch me tomato” and are prepared to “die with their dignity”? It is into this cultural conundrum that a well-intentioned legislature is seeking to inculcate decency, respect, and restraint in a society that is already too undisciplined and crime-ridden.
No doubt, the Sexual Harassment Act is a most revolutionary step in the right direction but lest we forget, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Lloyd B Smith has been involved full-time in Jamaican media for the past 45 years. He has also served as a Member of Parliament and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives. He hails from western Jamaica where he is popularly known as the Governor. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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