In a speech presented at The Hollywood Reporter’s 2018 Women in Entertainment gala this week, Australian comedian, Hannah Gadsby, argued that, when it comes to sexual harassment, men – even self-defined ‘good men’ – should not get to define the position of the line that separates harmless human interaction between the sexes and sexual harassment.
The speech resonated widely with women, but I have seen numerous men criticising the speech for being ‘man-hating’ and for advocating a line that will proscribe even the most trivial flirtatious interactions between men and women.
Entertainment reporter, Peter Ford, for example, tweeted that Gadsby’s speech was ‘just sexist mumbo jumbo’.
“I’m going right off her,” he said.
In an article titled, “Hannah Gadsby, I draw the line at women like you”, Jack Delaney sneers that Gadsby is trying to create a “radical feminist utopia”.
My take on Gadsby’s speech is that she was simply pointing out that men, lacking the lifetime experience of being female, struggle to understand how behaviour they consider to be ‘acceptable’ can be considered, by many or most women, to be ‘crossing the line’.
They don’t understand how a man who truly believes he is a ‘good bloke’ because he has ‘never crossed the line’ may be viewed completely differently by the women he interacts with. Actions he deems to be ‘well within the line’ may seem, to women (within the context of their lifetimes’ experiences), to be creepy, intimidating, invasive, scary, manipulative, disrespectful and psychologically harmful.
As I see it, men tend to look at their interactions with women in isolation, while women experience these interactions in the context of decades of micro-aggressions which often begin in childhood; think of ‘death by a thousand paper cuts’.
Women quickly learn that minor aggressions are often the pre-cursors to even worse verbal and/or physical assaults. If you’re an abused child, your father doesn’t need to actually hit you with his belt to have you cowering in the corner as he slowly removes it from his pants. If your husband is physically violent, it’s hardly comforting that he’s put his fist through the wall and not into your face. You know what’s likely to come next.
Perhaps it’s easier to understand if we imagine an alternative universe, in which a man experiences a minor, affectionate gesture in the context of his lifetime’s experience of interactions with women.
Geoff is a talented and reliable salesman, accustomed to drawing a modest income. Until recently, Geoff’s income serviced a sizeable mortgage and monthly car repayments and helped support his wife (whose home-based business is not yet in profit), two school-age children, an elderly mother who lives with them, and a family pet. But Geoff has been out of work for some months now, their savings are dwindling, and he is in desperate need of a job.
This morning, his wife, Sue, sees him to the door on his way to a promising interview.
Before he leaves, Sue pinches Geoff’s cheek affectionately.
“Go get ‘em tiger”, she says. It’s a loving and intimate gesture that Geoff enjoys.
Geoff boards a crowded bus to the city but, as he walks towards the rear of the vehicle, a random hand reaches out and lightly pinches his cheek.
This isn’t the same as being pinched by your wife. While it’s not painful, it hits him like a physical assault, and makes him feel unsafe and uncomfortable.
This is not an isolated incident. In fact, Geoff’s cheeks are regularly pinched by women as he walks through crowded places. Geoff stopped going to nightclubs years ago because of the constant pinching – hands coming at him out of the dark like stinging mosquitoes. It made him feel like prey.
His female friends and co-workers don’t understand why it bothers him.
“It’s just harmless fun!” they say soothingly, “You should be flattered. I wish someone would pinch my cheeks!”
Even when Geoff is just walking along the street, minding his own business, women hang out of approaching cars and scream, “Great cheeks! Let us have a squeeze, love, eh?” then zoom past in a hale of cackles. They don’t think they’ve crossed a line. They’re just being nice, showing appreciation for a great set of cheeks. They assume Geoff will bask in the warm glow of their uninvited attention all day. He doesn’t. He finds it confronting and dehumanising. It makes him feel vulnerable because there’s nothing he can do to stop it – it’s a hit and run attack.
As Geoff disembarks from the bus, a disembodied female voice behind him cat-calls, “Nice set of cheeks, babe.”
He feels embarrassed but he tries to pull himself together. He has to be calm for his interview.
“Well, Geoff,” says the female recruiter, “You seem well qualified but, what sets you apart from the other candidates, is that we’re looking for someone who’ll get on well with our mainly female clientele. With cheeks like yours, they won’t be able to say “no” to you!”
Geoff blushes deeply and shuffles uncomfortably in his chair. But, he really needs this job, so he laughs nervously and accepts the offer to start work the next day.
About a week into the job, (during which several female clients have leaned forward to pinch his cheeks as he closed the deal), Geoff delivers his first sales report to his female manager.
“Great job, Geoff!” she says, rising from her desk to pinch his cheek playfully, “If you go on like this you’ll be looking at a pay rise and a promotion”, she says, jiggling his cheek between her fingers.
Following such glowing praise, Geoff thinks it might be a safe time to nip this ‘cheek pinching’ thing in the bud. It’s only mildly annoying at this point, but he worries that if he doesn’t ask to be treated professionally, management won’t view him that way.
“Thanks, Jan, I really appreciate it and I love the job. But,” he says hesitantly, “look … I don’t want to make a big thing of this, and … well … perhaps I’m being silly, but I’m a married man and I’m really not comfortable with you – or anyone but my wife – pinching my cheeks. Can we just keep it professional?”
Jan is shocked and then angry.
“Really? Seriously? Isn’t that a bit precious? Geez, you’d think I’d raped you. I haven’t done anything wrong. It was a pinch on the cheek, for Chrissake. Look, you’ve made a good start in the job, but if you’re going to have a melt-down every time someone brushes past you, you’re not going to go far or last long in this company. If you want that promotion you’re going to have to be a lot more friendly. Do you get my meaning?”
Geoff is rattled. He blames himself. Maybe he did over-react. Maybe he’s over-sensitive because of things that happened in the past. He remembers when he was at primary school – pre-teen. His step-mother started pinching his cheeks, and then his bum, and then … well, much, much more. When he complained to his father, his step-mother accused him of making things up, “You lying little shit! All I did was pinch your cheeks. I was just being affectionate! What’s wrong with that?”
His father believed his new wife and berated Geoff for ‘causing trouble’.
At high school and at university, Geoff was repeatedly the target of women wanting to pinch his cheeks – and more. They never seemed to think his permission was necessary – in fact, they almost universally assumed he should enjoy the attention. When he rejected their advances they either became angry or mocked him for being ‘sexless’ or ‘gay’.
But, Geoff reasons, that was all a long time ago. He gives himself a pep-talk. “You’re grown-up now. You can say ‘no’. You DID say ‘no’.”
He feels quite proud of himself, but he also feels nervous and insecure – unsafe, disrespected and objectified. But, then again, he can’t just quit. Jobs are hard to get and he really needs this job.
From then on, anytime the boss passes Geoff in the hallway or runs into him in the printing room she pinches his cheek lightly and says, “There, that’s not too bad, is it? Go on! You like it! You’re just playing hard-to-get!”
Geoff doesn’t like it. Not at all. In fact, the stress is making him physically ill and he is suffering panic attacks. But he needs this job and he needs the promotion.
One day, in the printing room, Geoff’s boss backs him into a corner, puts one hand on the wall over his shoulder, pinches his cheek, then cups his balls in her hand and shoves her tongue down his throat. He is so shocked, he freezes. He feels himself morph into that vulnerable little boy whose step-mother abused him.
But summoning all his strength, he steps away and says in a hushed but determined voice, “Don’t you EVER do that again! Don’t you EVER touch me!”
His boss arches an eyebrow and says calmly, “If you don’t want your cheeks pinched you shouldn’t flaunt them like that. I’m only human. I just can’t help myself. You should be flattered!”
Still, Geoff takes a stand. He reports the incident to Human Resources and they take it up with his boss.
At mediation she says, “This is ridiculous. All I’ve ever done is pinch his cheek occasionally. He’s over-sensitive. It’s just harmless fun. It’s an affectionate gesture for God’s sake. I haven’t crossed any line.”
When Geoff insists she did more than pinch his cheek – that she assaulted him – the mediator shrugs and says, “Look, mate it’s your word against hers, and she’s worth a lot more to the company than you are. If she assaulted you, why didn’t you call out? My office is close by, I would have heard you. She couldn’t have pinched you very hard – you don’t have any bruises. It just sounds like an office romance gone bad, to me. I suggest you just chill out a bit and try not to antagonise her.”
Geoff can’t afford to quit. His family depends on his income. He thinks if he just tries to do his job and stay out of the boss’s way, everything will be OK.
He is passed over for the promotion when it comes up, and his sales territory is gradually whittled away until it becomes impossible for him to meet his targets. Soon, he is told he just isn’t performing well enough and is given notice.
Without the income from his job, Geoff loses his house. The stress causes his marriage to break down. His mother has to go into residential care. He loses custody of his children. He suffers depression and PTSD and he isn’t able to work again.
Trying to do something productive with his time, Geoff starts volunteering at a community radio station. But, one day, a female announcer who’s been increasingly friendly towards him, approaches him in the tea room and pinches his cheek, playfully.
Incensed, Geoff angrily slams her hand away from his face and shouts in her face, “Keep your fucking hands OFF me!”
“What????” she says, genuinely taken aback. “I didn’t do anything wrong! Hey, I’m a nice person. I was just being nice – friendly. I didn’t hurt you, I haven’t sexually abused you. I barely touched you! I haven’t crossed a line. Hey! I’m the good guy here! Wow! Talk about an over-reaction!”
“You DID cross a line,” says Geoff, shaking. “You crossed MY line. You don’t get to draw my line. I do.”
“Well,” she retorts as she sashays out the door, “Now, you’re just being hysterical.”