MANTALK: What is sexual harassment?

Friday November 17 2017

Wendy gave me a cold look. “What kind of a

Wendy gave me a cold look. “What kind of a kiss?” she asked. I blew a sexy kiss across the table. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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I bought a feminist friend of mine tea. She has a Master’s in gender studies from the London School of Economics, and fiercely passionate about gender to the point of combustion.

She’s always calling me out on things she reads as misogyny, male privilege or chauvinism in my writing. She can get tiring because, although intelligent, she can get too analytic.

I called her one day and told her, “Wendy, come I buy you tea. I want to pick your brain on something.” She came wearing a long dress in severe colours and very high heels, and because she’s taller than most, she towered over all men in the cafe.

(I suspect she gets a kick out of that but she still doesn’t scare me.) How do you compliment a feminist anyway? I wanted to say, “My, you tall tumbler of concentrated womanhood, you look sensational in that dress!” But I’m sure she would frown and admonish me, “Biko, there are better ways to compliment a woman than call her a tall tumbler.

That’s demeaning and limiting my contribution as an equal. A tumbler is a thing, which is not what I am.

Wouldn’t you feel objectified if someone called you a tumbler?” Then I’d say, “If you called me a tumbler of chocolate goodness, I wouldn’t mind one bit!” Anyway, she is still one of the more sensible feminists I know – non-confrontational and sober. 

I didn’t say anything about her dress or height. She ordered masala black tea. Then I asked her, “Wendy, you heard of what’s going on in Hollywood, right? Presidents grabbing p*****ies, Hollywood moguls asking Lupita to massage their backs, women raped and now Kevin Spacey! I want to ask you what constitutes sexual harassment.” She smiled with appetite.


“For a start,” I said. “Let’s say I’m in the bar. I see a lone chick. Hot. Drinking something from a glass with a stem. She keeps looking at me. I keep looking at her. If I blow her a kiss, is that sexual harassment?”

Wendy gave me a cold look.

“What kind of a kiss?” she asked. I blew a sexy kiss across the table. She rolled her eyes and laughed. “Biko, nobody blows a kiss in 2017.” OK, fine, but what if it was 2002? “It’s just uncouth,” she said. Even if the recipient of my kiss giggles and blushes and feels warm inside?

Then we had a long conversation on what sexual harassment is. It’s mostly a thin line. Wendy agreed that sometimes it depended on what the woman felt. Let me condense it for you, gentlemen.

Sending unsolicited pictures of your penis to a woman is sexual harassment (SH). If she asks for them, it’s not SH. Rolling down your window in traffic and winking at the girl in the next car is not SH, but it’s shady (unless the girl winks back, in which case it’s not shady, or you are both shady).

Unsolicited suggestive notes, texts and messages are SH. So are unsolicited jokes and sexual anecdotes, unless she participates. Leering or looking at a woman to suggest that you are undressing her is SH.

So is cat-calling. Unless she cat-calls you first. If you stand too close to a woman in a matatu, your groin rubbing her buttocks, that is 100 per cent SH. If you make sexual comments about appearances, clothing or body parts to a woman you have unclear boundaries of engagement with, that is SH.

This includes getting in an lift and telling a woman going to fifth floor, “And where do those legs stop?”

Touching a woman (even playfully) who you don’t have that kind of relationship with – like Linda from Procurement - is SH. Or brushing her bare arms when she’s in sleeveless top. Basically, if not invited or if not clear, touching a woman in a way is SH. “You can’t also pinch a woman,” Wendy said.


I laughed and asked, “There are men who pinch women? How is that supposed to be sexy?” She ignored me. Also asking a woman you don’t know like that, sexual questions such us her sexual history or sexual orientation is SH. This also applies to all those men who harass those innocent interns to have sex with them. You know yourselves. Using your power – social, economic or physical – to manipulate a woman is SH.

Calling a woman at 2am while drunk and telling her you love her and you want to go over and give her many babies who might be doctors and engineers who build strong bridges in Moyale isn’t SH, it’s just a nuisance on grand scale.

I don’t have to add this because it’s common sense, but slapping a woman’s bottom is SH, unless you have that relationship. Or touching her breasts. But staring, apparently, is uncouth. So those guys in bars who put their hands around waitresses while ordering, that could easily be SH, as long as the waitress doesn’t appreciate it.

“In short, when a woman says no, no matter how weak, you should stop,” Wendy said. “It doesn’t matter if she had said yes only three minutes ago. If she says no now, you stop now.” I nodded and took notes. “What if she says no while smiling and running a finger down my chest, stroking my beard, licking her lips seductively?” She was stern. “That’s still a no, and your beard isn’t all that, by the way.” She added, “Agreed, we are not always victims, but you also have to understand the immense power of men in this game and how society has, over time, favoured them to get what they want.”

So there, gentleman. Don’t say you weren’t warned. Now, who is going to pay for that tea bill?