Glimpses of how the world should be in the struggle against sexual harassment

Three years ago, when working for Tearfund, I interviewed women who had been raped during the violent conflict in Central African Republic. Their stories were searing, and their trauma clearly visible.

Then I went to Iraq as people were fleeing Mosul and coming down from Mt Sinjar, and heard about the sex slave markets there. And a few months later in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), I met women and children who had been raped during the messy and long-lasting conflict within a conflict that is their complicated civil war.

TearfundTearfund's work in DRC was funded by UK Aid from the UK government, via the What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls Global Programme.

Not long previously, the UK's then Foreign Secretary William Hague had drawn the world's attention to the rape of men as well as women taking place in the Syria Crisis.

There's nothing new about this. It's as old as time itself. The book listed first in the Bible is one of many which tells stories of violence, torture and assault. Dinah (Genesis 34) is raped and then, when her rapist decides he'd like to marry her, used as a pawn in an argument which ends with a brutal massacre. She's just one of many Biblical examples.

When looking around the world at the harsh treatment meted out to many women, and back through history at the horrors of subjugation, it's tempting to dismiss some of today's sexual harassment allegations as trivial or a distraction.

But they're not. They're the latest iteration of an age-old problem: the misuse of sex – and all forms of sexual contact – to exercise power.

Assault isn't about sex. It's about power, and the ability to control someone; to make them fear you so that they'll do what you want, or run away. It's a classic example of the human condition, if you subscribe to a Christian understanding of the world: that God made everything, and everything God makes is good, so every bad thing is a corruption of something which started out as good.

Sex, of course, is good! It's a gift from God which, in consensual adult relationships, expresses love, intimacy, mutual trust, and is literally life-giving. Rape is anything but. It's a violent misuse of the goodness of God, and is the epitome of sin.

With that in mind, let's look at some experiences in Western societies of sexual harassment, which show how power is misused in today's workplaces.

ComRes (my employer now) surveyed 2, 031 adults in Britain six weeks ago and found that a third of them (37 per cent) said they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace or in a place of study. Men (20 per cent) as well as women (53 per cent) said they had experienced it, particularly those aged between 18 and 34 (55 per cent). The data isn't sufficient to determine whether harassment is more common among younger adults or if millennials are more likely to consider some behaviours to be inappropriate than older generations do, but it's clear that this problem is still very much with us.

Unsplash / Eutah Mizushima

Some of the many recent #MeToo conversations on social media have mentioned age as a factor. In such conversations, it's not unusual for women to say they used to be yelled at, groped or harassed when they were in their 20s but that those experiences had lessened as they got older. Looks like it's the next generation's turn now.

And of those who say they have been touched inappropriately in the workplace or a place of study, the majority say this was on the buttocks (59 per cent). Apparently, we still need to tell people IT'S NOT OK TO TOUCH SOMEONE'S BOTTOM.

Over in the US, Barna looked at behaviours which people consider to be harassment. I don't know enough about the design of this research to analyse it in detail, but their reporting of the data indicates that there are distinct differences between men and women in what they consider to be appropriate conduct. Apparently, some people (more men than women) don't think that sexual touching or groping, or being forced to do something sexual, constitutes sexual harassment.

It appears that, even if we were all to agree that sexual harassment is a problem we must solve, the jury is still out as to what it covers. But there's absolutely no doubt that people are being touched against their will, or are feeling uncomfortable about the way someone speaks to them.

I'm old enough to remember the days when we women were told that, if we wanted to join the boys at work, we just had to get on with it: if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Ridiculous. There just shouldn't be any 'heat'.

Such justifications are a patent admission that, with a very few exceptions such as midwifery, almost every profession has been dominated by men for centuries and women were expected to fit in with existing workplace behaviours or give up and get out. But, to go back to our human condition argument, the message of the Gospel is that hope is coming, and that the way things have always been is not the way they must always be. Struggle though it is, we are on a journey to something much better and along the way we will see glimpses of glory: moments where we see how the world could be, should be and one day will be.

If we could see that in the way we behave towards each other in the workplace, would that be part of the kingdom coming, on earth as it is in heaven?

 Follow Katie Harrison on Twitter @harrisonkt_