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'Stop calling it sexual harrassment. Sometimes it's just banter.'

Attention or harassment?

Bettina Arndt has a message for the ‘prudes’: don’t deprive the rest of us the spice of sexual banter.

Arndt, who is an author and sex therapist – and no stranger to controversy – has written an opinion piece in which she suggests that when women are involved in uncomfortable social situations that centre around sex, they tend to overreact and label their experiences as harassment.

Arndt says:

There’s a very real issue at the heart of this silly controversy – namely, the notion that sex is peculiarly dangerous and the rules of normal adult interaction must be adjusted when the subject is sex so no one ever feels uncomfortable.

Bettina Arndt

Look at the constant skirmishes now taking place in workplaces, where the wrong joke, comment or sexual reference risks accusations of sexual harassment. Yet, as even the feminist website ffeusa.org points out, there are women who make and enjoy sexual banter. As this site suggests: ”Overbroad restrictions on sexual material infantilises women and shores up destructive Victorian stereotypes that women are (or should be) so pure that any expression about sexuality offends and demoralises them.”

Sexual banter, the exchange of jokes and flirty comments can be the welcome spice of life for women, as well as men, and it’s foolish to let the prudish in our midst determine what is appropriate behaviour.

Demonising sexuality inevitably distorts a proper perspective on sexual crimes, leading to politically inspired calls for absurdly longer sentences, misinformation about the likelihood of offenders to reoffend and exaggeration of the emotional damage to the victims of minor abuse. Our prurient interest in sex crimes often robs the perpetrator of any chance of redemption – as the sad death of cricket commentator Peter Roebuck bears witness. This is why allegations of child sexual abuse feature so regularly in fierce battles over child custody – the hint of sexual misbehaviour is a weapon like no other, leaving a lifelong taint on character.

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Mamamia spoke to social commenter Nina Funnell, who is a public spokeswoman for survivors of sexual assault. Nina has long been an advocate the rights of physical and sexual assault victims, having been a victim herself in 2007.

We asked Funnell what her response was to Arndt’s piece. Funnell says conversations about what is appropriate flirtation and banter in the workplace, do need to be had so that behaviours which are harassing or abusive are never justified. She argues:

There is absolutely no doubt that we do need a more nuanced discussion about the role of pleasure, intimacy and desire in flirting and that- as with all things connected with human sexuality- these issues are complex and multifaceted (and hey! That’s part of the fun!)

Female commentator Nina Funnell

But – and this is a BIG BUT- conversations about flirtation and banter in the workplace need to be carefully constructed so that behaviors which are harassing or abusive are not, in any way, offered tacit justification.

And this is where Arndt and I depart ways in thinking. Arndt has a long history of dismissing the concern around sexual harassment and even defending those who perpetrate sexual abuse against the most vulnerable members of society.

In the late 90’s Arndt wrote an article titled “When Saying Sorry Is Enough” in the Sydney Morning Herald. In it, she discusses the actions of a Canberra doctor who was accused of repeatedly sexually molesting his female patients. In total 13 women came forward with stories of abuse and molestation. Many described being traumatized. The group included a girl who was 12 at the time of the abuse.

Arndt who acknowledged that the Doctor had admitted guilt and apologized to his victims conceded that he had acted unethically. But she drew the line at him being charged. Here are her words:

“ I applaud the efforts of the complainants to use the Medical Board to ensure the doctor was no longer in a position to harm patients. But charging him with assault? That’s where I baulk.”

Arndt  then went on to discuss him molesting his patient (she was also a former patient of his). When talking about him masturbating his patients she writes the following:

“Whatever his motivations, it was not an act of violence but rather an action that in another context would be loving and pleasurable. It’s not a war crime, an event of such magnitude that it demands retribution decades later.”

Wait. What?

So because mutual masturbation can feel great when done in a consenting relationship between adults, it’s now no big deal for a doctor to molest girls and women under his care? This is no different to saying that because consensual sexual penetration (i.e. a good old fashion roll in the hay) can be a great hoot, that rape is now somehow not so bad after all.

The fact that a so called sex expert does not realize that there is a world of difference between consensual acts and non consensual acts should be massive cause for concern.

I was hoping that over the years her views would have changed. But yesterday’s article was all too telling. Arndt started off by discussing the need for us to have a more relaxed view to flirting in the work place (something many people can get on board with) before attempting to leverage the public support for that argument into support for something all together different:

“Demonising sexuality inevitably distorts a proper perspective on sexual crimes, leading to politically inspired calls for absurdly longer sentences, misinformation about the likelihood of offenders to reoffend and exaggeration of the emotional damage to the victims of minor abuse. Our prurient interest in sex crimes often robs the perpetrator of any chance of redemption – as the sad death of cricket commentator Peter Roebuck bears witness.” (My emphasis added)

Given that Arndt seems to think of doctors masturbating vulnerable patients as “an action which in another context would be loving and pleasurable” I’d be very keen to know how she defines “minor abuse”. Particularly since she thinks that victims “exaggerate” their pain.

The sad thing is that we do need a more constructive conversation about issues like pleasure, intimacy, desire, flirting and how they differentiate from harassment. Sex positive feminists have been pushing for this for some time. But let’s remember, being sex positive has nothing to do with becoming a sexual assault apologist. So let’s find someone other than Arndt to start those conversations.

Where do you stand? 

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