The ugly truth about sexual harassment – just the tip of the iceberg: UBC philosopher Scott Anderson

Scott Anderson
Scott Anderson



THE sexual harassment scandals involving radio personality Jian Ghomeshi and Canada’s House of Commons have sparked plenty of questions about how such abuse could take place. UBC philosopher Scott Anderson says we should be searching closer to home for answers.


Why have the recent sexual harassment scandals had such an impact on public discussion?


Scandals with high-profile persons being accused of salacious and violent behaviour get a lot of attention, just because of who’s doing it and the lurid details of what they’re accused of. I think it’s particularly difficult for many people to accept that somebody like Jian Ghomeshi might be an abuser of women. He has many appealing qualities as a culture commentator and as a personality, so it is a challenge to square his likeableness as a public person with the accusations against him.


Are these types of things happening behind closed doors more regularly than most of us might think?


The answer has to be yes. There is a fair amount of evidence about this, but it’s generally not taken seriously by the public. A plausible estimate is that, at a minimum, about 25 per cent of women in North America will, at some point in their lives, be subjected to a successful or attempted sexual assault. More generally, women walking the street are routinely subjected to street harassment, as a recent online video documented.

Despite the growing list of male celebrities who have been caught abusing their female partners, these cases continue to have the power to shock and surprise, in part because the real frequency of this behaviour has just not sunk in.


Why did those accusing Ghomeshi and MPs wait so long—sometimes years—to make their accusations public?


Feminists sometimes describe a choice situation as involving a “double bind,” when someone is essentially damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. I think the stories of Ghomeshi’s alleged victims suggest women are continually facing that sort of situation.

If an individual makes a report against someone in a position of power and public recognition, the accuser is likely to be doubted, denigrated and scrutinized for making choices that led her into harm’s way. But if she takes a pass on accusing her abuser and changes her mind later, people will wonder why she waited so long. If she never reports it, then she may reproach herself for not doing more to prevent her abuser from subsequently harming her or someone else.

If you happen to be subject to this sort of behaviour by a supervisor or co-worker, then you may reasonably suspect that how you handle it may seriously affect your career and job prospects, and none of your options are likely to be good ones.


What should we be asking ourselves as we follow the stories?


It’s important to keep in mind that what comes to light in the media is almost certainly going to be a very small fraction of the number of incidents that are actually taking place. People are reading up on this because Ghomeshi is a radio personality of international status, and these are members of parliament who have a great deal of authority and a public profile. If it was the local manager of a fast-food restaurant, nobody would be paying much attention, even though such people can also have a big impact on those who work for them.

We should ask: How widespread is this? Why should we think these cases are in any sense isolated? There’s plenty of reason to think that this kind of thing happens fairly commonly.


Can any good come out of this?


Sunshine is a great disinfectant, as they say. In bringing this to light we have a chance to start conversations, change public perceptions, and understand how women are disadvantaged.