Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 17, No. 3, 2018
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nick Catalano
Lynda Renée
Gary Olson
Howard Richler
Oslavi Linares
Jordan Adler
Andrew Hlavacek
Daniel Charchuk
  Music Editors Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque Denis Beaumont
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somerville
Mona Eltahawy
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Navi Pillay
Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

a semantic perspective.



Howard Richler is a Montreal-area word nerd and author of these seven books on a variety of language themes: Dead Sea Scroll Palindromes, Take My Words, A Bawdy Language, Global Mother Tongue, Can I Have a Word With You?, Strange Bedfellows and his most recent book Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit ( May 2016, Ronsdale Press, Vancouver).

Alas, the year 2017 was marked by words that denote the ill-treatment of women by men. Following the revelations of the behaviour of Harvey Weinstein and his predatory ilk, the adjective ‘inappropriate’ saw a large spike in usage. People soon realized that this word, often applied to the misbehaviour of a child, wasn’t quite suitable to describe the level of misdeeds. Before long stronger terms such as ‘abuse’ and ‘harassment’ became the most common used descriptions. And if one considers it as a word, the hashtag #MeToo became a rallying cry from many women to describe their own similar experiences of sexual harassment.

Underscoring this lexical recognition of the plight of women, Merriam-Webster named the word ‘feminism’ as its word of the year for 2017 and stated that it was the most searched-for-word in its online dictionary, showing a 70% increase from 2016. Also, the word ‘persisterhood,’ defined as women who join forces to persist against sexism and gender bias, was nominated as one of the words of the year of 2017 by the American Dialect Society. (The winner was ‘fake news.’) Also, highlighting how the issue of sexual harassment marked 2017, Time magazine declared that its ‘person of the year’ were the Silence Breakers: The Voices that Launched a Movement. The magazine’s cover featured Ashley Judd, Susan Fowler, Adama Iwu, Taylor Swift, and Isabel Pascual who were among the many women who went public in describing their painful encounters with sexual predation.

Writing in 1991, Rosalie Maggio in the Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage remarked that “sexual harassment was not a term anyone used 20 years ago; today we have laws against it.” Actually, it was exactly twenty years earlier that we find the first citation of sexual harassment in the OED, and it comes from the Yale Daily News of April 19, 1971: “We insist . . . that sexual harassment is an integral component of discrimination. Men perceive women in sexual categories and not in professional categories.”

The OED defines the term as “harassment (typically of a woman by a man) in a work place or other professional or social situations involving the making of unwanted sexual advances obscene remarks, etc.” Maggio’s point was that while sexual harassment obviously occurred prior to 1971, its lexical recognition gave it greater force to be countered by laws or social norms. Before long sexual harassment was recognized as a phenomenon in the legal arena. In 1986, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that employers could not permit an employee to create a hostile work environment for someone else or base advancement on a quid pro quo for sex. In 1989, the Supreme Court in Canada ordained that sexual harassment represented sexual discrimination and thus could not be tolerated.

Most academic institutions have definitions of sexual harassment and invariably they contain hard to define adjectives such as ‘unwanted,’ ‘unwelcome,’ ‘vexatious’ and ‘obscene.’ Adjectives by definition are descriptive and depend largely on a consensus of a shared reality which unfortunately does not exist in analyzing sexual harassment. For what is deemed unwanted or unwelcome by one person may be wanted or welcome to another. Also, what qualifies as an obscene comment or joke can be highly subjective. One definition of sexual harassment includes the phrase “verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that tends to create a hostile or offensive work environment.” Again, we’re dealing with thorny adjectives such as ‘hostile’ and ‘offensive.’ Almost everyone, male or female, accepts that sexual favours can’t be a condition for a job or promotion. Large majorities consider unwelcome touching as improper but often women and men disagree on what constitutes sexual harassment, such as what counts as sexualized remarks or what qualifies ogling.’ And although younger men’s attitudes approximate those of women to a much larger extent than older males, the gap in the positions of the sexes endures.

It is also important to register that there is a hierarchy of offenses related to the term sexual harassment. When actor Matt Damon in an interview with Peter Travers of ABC Television, stated “there’s a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviours need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?” Those comments were met with anger and frustration online, where many women, including the actress Alyssa Milano, rejected attempts to categorize various forms of sexual misconduct. After Damon’s interview, Milano wrote on Twitter: “They are all connected to a patriarchy intertwined with normalized, accepted -- even welcomed -- misogyny.” In a panel discussion of seven feminists in the New York Times on sexual harassment, broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien came down squarely on Damon’s side in this dispute referencing the various meanings of the term: “I think we conflate the many different definitions of sexual harassment -- the legal definition, someone’s personal interpretation. Some things are legally a crime. Other actions would clearly violate a company’s standards, inappropriate language, physically grabbing a woman, pressuring an underling for sex. They are all bad and should be stopped, but I think they deserve different levels of punishment.”

Interestingly, on some university campuses the term ‘affirmative consent’ has gained currency. It postulates that at every stage of a relationship there should be a verbal agreement but, as Daphne Merkin points out in a Jan 5, 2018 article in the New York Times, “asking for oral consent before proceeding with a sexual advance seems both innately clumsy and retrograde.” And so the debate on what constitutes sexual harassment and how to combat it rages on.


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