‘Simulating sex with a toy donkey'
The Toll incident. Lee Miller (front) and Shane O?Neill (back engaging inappropriate behaviour). Pic supplied.
A man ‘simulating sex with a toy donkey while wearing an apron depicting a penis’. A distasteful thing to witnesss under any circumstance. But in a professional setting, it’s not just tasteless, it’s sexual harassment -- as two brave employees of Toll Holdings have pointed out, following an incident in which this soft-toy violation happened during a recent meeting of the company’s senior leaders.
The good news: in response to the complaints, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission has told Toll they’d be ‘happy to work with Toll Holdings to review their current practice and procedures’ surrounding sexual harrassment'. Toll, in turn, claims to be ensuring that it won’t happen again.
The bad news: that it happened at all, and that this rubbish continues to happen in workplaces everywhere, all the time. And as illustrated by the fact that the women who objected to these particular hijinks did so anonymously, raising your voice to remonstrate against this kind of behaviour can seem dangerous in itself -- prompting many women, and indeed men, not to speak up at all. Only when our office culture shifts to value collective objection to hostile work environments will sexual harassment stop being a depressing reality of many of our working lives.
It’s been part of mine since I was 17 and still at school, in the wings of the stage on which we were staging our school play. At the beginning of my big entrance I had to wait in the wings with a fellow teenage thespian -- let’s call him Dick, because, why not? And each time while we waited, Dick would place his hand lightly on my bum and squeeze it. Each time it happened, I jerked around and stared angrily at him (I said nothing because any objection would have been picked up by my body mic), and each time Dick blinked at me as if I was crazy.
Eventually, I plucked up the courage to tell a friend that Dick was groping me. ‘What?’ said my friend. ‘You must be imagining it. Why would he grope you? Dick’s got a really hot girlfriend.’ It was true; Dick’s girlfriend was hot, and my friend’s scepticism made me feel that there was no chance that anyone in any position of authority would believe me. And so I didn’t do anything about Dick, because I didn’t want to lose my part in the play, nor face the humiliation of being accused of lying.
I also took no action a few years later, when I had a job at the uni bar and spent each shift dodging, with mixed success, the unwelcome touching of my six-years-older colleague (‘oh’, said my boyfriend at the time, ‘I can’t blame him for fancying you’ after I reported how the other bartender threw ice cubes in to my cleavage). I also said nothing when I worked in a pub frequented by depressed office workers who liked to paw at my body as I pushed through the crowd with a tray of brimming pints. And when a manager at a restaurant I was working on shoved his hand down my apron and rubbed his palm against my groin during a busy Sunday lunch shift, I quit rather than confront him.
I mantained my silence a few years later, when I secured an internship at the office of my dreams: now I was in my mid-twenties, and I thought that I’d outgrown the age at which I’d be a target of harassment. But the sixty-something head of department disagreed; his campaign of harassment climaxed one day when I walked past his desk and he reached out and hit me across the thigh with a pink riding crop, a sex toy that he had lying around, next to his pens and stapler. Everyone who witnessed it burst into peals of laughter: the perpetrator, yes, but all of our other colleagues. All of whom were women. So I said nothing about that, either; I was but a mere intern, he had about four decades of experience and seniority on me, and I reasoned that even if I did complain, and even if he received some kind of discipline (‘don’t hit the intern with a sex toy’), I would be rendered unemployable in the small industry in which we were working; I’d gain a reputation, I feared, for being humourless, when everyone else behaved as if my harassment was a massive joke.
Like other forms of sexual violence, sexual harassment isn’t just about sex: it’s about power, manipulation, and instilling fear in victims; of making them feel isolated and helpless, as if they must choose between keeping their jobs or enduring harassment. And while this culture is spearheaded by the people humping the toy donkeys (whether literally or figuratively), it’s perpetuated every time the other people in the room, the onlookers, do not object, because they consider it not their problem, or because they too are intimidated by the prospect of being picked on themselves.
With a very few exceptions, every adult who goes to work every day should be aware of the boundaries of what constitutes work-appropriate behaviour and inappropriate behaviour; those who don’t are surely in the minority. And yet somehow we are so afraid of ruining the fun that we let the minority rule. It’s the job of those of us who know what’s appropriate to speak out, as these two women of Toll have done, when we see sexual harassment occurring. All of us: men as well as women, whether we’re actively being harassed or we have witnessed harassment. Yes, that might make us seem humourless. But the more we insist that a workplace is not a teenage boy’s locker room, the more we will discern a real turn in the tide against sexual harassment. It feels banal and tedious, in a way, to still be talking about this, in an era when most people know better. But I expect that the women at Toll Holdings who put their collective foot down would agree: we need to keep talking, and objecting, until it really stops.