BERLIN - There’s no way Stern magazine would have picked up on the story if it had involved some middle management Lothario; scenes like this are way too routine in Germany to constitute “news.”
What was news, however, was that the protagonist of this case was Rainer Bruderle, a top German politician. Over an after-work drink with journalist Laura Himmelreich, he stared at her neckline and commented: “You can also fill a dirndl.” (A dirndl, for those who haven't been to Oktoberfest, is a low-cut traditional Bavarian dress).
Every woman in Germany will either have herself been, or seen others be, at the receiving end of remarks like these, or provocative stares, unwelcome hugs and arm-stroking not to mention groping. It’s a frequent topic of conversation between women, and the cause of much mocking and laughter. These jerks with their inflated egos! Eyes riveted on necklines and legs, sultry compliments, dirty jokes, wandering hands – will they never learn?
Most often though, the subject is no laughing matter. Many women will remember being so startled when a male supervisor placed his arm around their waist that they stood there paralyzed and didn’t say a thing, or remember being so aghast when the big boss made a remark about their breasts in public that they were literally rendered speechless.
Women also tend to beat themselves up about such incidents, for having just stood still or laughed with the others at the boss’s comment. They feel bad about not wanting to get on the wrong side of a hierarchical superior. They feel angry because it is socially expected of them to be “cool” about things like this.
When the term “sexual harassment” is used, many think it refers to blatant acts such as hand-in-blouse, forced-kiss-on-mouth, even attempted rape. But the German General Act on Equal Treatment (AGG) that went into force in 2006 defines sexual harassment as "unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, including unwanted sexual acts and requests to carry out sexual acts, physical contact of a sexual nature, comments of a sexual nature … [that take] place with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of the person concerned.”
A lot of this is up to interpretation: where does flirting stop? Just where does the fine line to harassment begin? For women the less obvious things are more difficult to deal with than full-on explicit incidents, and men have enough leeway in this grey zone to claim they meant no harm. They will quickly brand any woman who says they did as inhibited, uptight or prudish – and women know this, so it acts as a deterrent to speaking up.
Add that to the fact that tolerance levels differ – remarks about personal appearance that some women might take as a compliment is overstepping the bounds for other women.
But one thing is sure – we have a right to expect men to be sensitive to women’s reactions. Within seconds, a man who puts his arm around a woman’s waist can tell if she likes it – or not. Importantly, he has to want to be sensitive. The Bruderles of this world, so full of themselves, have a lot to learn.
A majority of women are victims
In 2010, a survey by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth stated that 60% of women said they had experienced sexual harassment in public, at the workplace, or socially. Out of those, one out of two women said she had feared for her own safety and one woman in ten reported actual physical violence.
In 22% of cases, the incident took place at work or school. A few were traumatized by what happened, and had panic attacks at the thought of returning to where it took place. "In most cases, there is a big discrepancy in power between the perpetrator and the victim, and the former often abuse the latter’s dependence," the report said.
Men in power are used to getting what they want. They tell others what to do and generally get obedience and agreement back. And the behavior of too many women has confirmed to them that women find power and money a turn-on, to the extent that many powerful men believe they are irresistible. Wouldn’t every woman be honored to even be noticed, much less courted, by them? Who can forget the outrage and incomprehension on the face of Dominique Strauss-Kahn when he was accused of rape by a hotel housekeeper?
Sexual harassment is also a means of establishing or enforcing power dynamics. A man who treats a woman like a Playboy bunny is making sure she stays at the bottom of the totem pole.
Two things need to be said here: many men don’t behave like this. It is also true that wherever adults interact, there is bound to be some erotic tension – and the closer the situation, the more hormones are going to be all over the place, and that can easily lead to misunderstandings. This is particularly true in professional situations to which women are new, for instance the military.
But men in upper management also have to get used to the fact that with women in the group certain word choices or the after-work activities will have to change. Some men resent this, and yet if women go along with the boys’ rude ways it’s often negatively construed. Uncertainty levels are high for both men and women.
Another factor is generational – what a 65-year-old man, used to exchanging dirty jokes with the guys and showering women with “compliments,” thinks of as mild flirtation can come across to a 25-year-old woman as grounds for immediate complaint. Men can no longer be sure today that a woman will go along with it and keep her mouth shut. Women increasingly have more self-confidence, some recount their experiences on the Internet or Twitter, and they have more legal options available.
Germany’s AGG makes it mandatory for employers to protect employees from sexual harassment. There is a procedure to be followed in cases of harassment, and even though judges tend to decide in favor of harassed women, this does not spare the women from being unattractively branded in others’ minds.
There are of course women whom one would like to advise to keep the net stockings or the flimsy spaghetti-strapped top for their leisure time activities, or to go home after that second after work drink instead of hanging around until the end. Some women like using their sexuality as a means of exercising their own power. In fact some of them are so full on it is them – and not their male colleagues – who are guilty of sexual harassment.
Can men and women be relaxed with each other in this context? Do any of us want to live in a world where harmless flirting is subjected to the harsh glare of “Professionalism” and “Political Correctness?” Certainly not, particularly in view of the statistics that tell us 30% of Germans meet their future life partners at work. But we have to remember that flirting takes two – harassment is one-sided.
Men at all professional levels are going to have to get used to being surrounded by more – and very different kinds of – women. They are going to have to learn to understand what women are saying, especially when the woman is a subordinate. Women have to stop putting up with it – they have to set boundaries and find the courage to speak up when certain behaviors are unacceptable to them. And the learning curve doesn’t have to be unpleasant for anyone.