Sexual harassment is radically bound to power and domination, pleasure and pain, culture and normative vacuums. Lin Farley coined the term in 1975 while teaching a course about women and work at Cornell Law School.
In the past, fear, hypocrisy and retaliation caused sexual harassment to remain mummed, hidden and secret. Today’s social media has opened a Pandora’s box; and the sins of the past are punished in the present.
NASSAR’S DISGUSTING BEHAVIOUR
Larry Nassar, a former USA gymnastics national team osteopathic physician was recently convicted in Ingham County Circuit Court for his serial sexual predation. He pleaded guilty to various counts of criminal sexual conduct charges.
What began as an indictment for the sexual assault of a child in November 2016 later exposed his predilection for child pornography and spurred numerous women to offer up their own stories of sexual assault.
Among the victims were some former USA gymnastics Olympic medallists. They revealed that he had molested them under the pretense of treating them. Considering that they were too young to understand what the doctor was doing, they only later learnt that they had been victims of sexual molestation.
Rachael Denhollander delivered the last victim impact statement. For a great part of it, she focused on the relationship between Nassar and herself. The dynamic involved power.
She was keen to note that Nassar was a powerful individual at Michigan State University (MSU). His elevated status almost completely shielded him from any reproach.
Individually, they were simply just girls, some of them too young to comprehend the magnitude of the wrongs done to them. Individually, they were fatally disempowered against him.
Their only choice was collective action. It also did not help that the systems in place at MSU afforded Nassar protection, despite many being aware of his vile tendencies.
The victims came together and pushed for an institutional investigation into the enabling factors that had sacrificed so many of them at the altar of sexual depredation at MSU.
More than 150 women had made similar statements during Nassar’s weeklong sentencing hearing. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, at the end of the hearing, handed Nasser a prison sentence that will see him die in jail.
Nassar’s ordeal reveals an important synergy between law and power. How do law and power interact? Does the existence of one negate the existence and operation of the other? Does law constrain or enable power?
NASSAR IS NOT ALONE
Nassar’s case went beyond sexual harassment. The doctor’s depraved behaviour degenerated into rape and outright paedophilia. While he had the advantage of power, his victims had innocence and ignorance.
On July 21, 2016, Fox News CEO Roger Ailes resigned. He had been accused by several women of sexual harassment. Fox paid thousands of dollars in settlements that backfired. He had power over the women he abused. They had nowhere and no one to complain to, and many of them got the sack.
The summit of grand harassment was Harvey Weinstein’s story. Accused of sexual harassment and assault by at least 84 and of rape by 13 prominent women, Weinstein was described by his own lawyer as an old dinosaur learning new ways.
Weinstein had the power to determine those women’s professional destiny. He misused this power. Often abuse and power go hand in hand.
THE POWER TO ABUSE
Sexual harassment and abuse of power go together. The aggressor molests the victim, who finds herself or himself disenfranchised. Something strikingly similar happens when political corruption sets in.
Corruption, and particularly grand corruption, amounts to social harassment. People are disenfranchised, left with nowhere to go, nowhere to complain. Just like sexual harassment in the family or workplace, social harassment victims are expected to complain before organs loyal to the executive.
Last week, something shocking happened in Brazil. Ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva lost an appeal against a corruption conviction. An appeals court unanimously upheld a corruption conviction imposed last July on Lula and increased his jail term by three more years, which essentially ruled him out as a potential candidate for October’s presidential election.
Despite the ruling, Lula intends to continue campaigning for a presidential term. His supporters are adamant that the conviction is designed to keep him out of office.
To make his campaigning legitimate, his lawyers have argued that the law does not take effect unless all the appeals are exhausted.
What do Nassar, Ailes, Weinstein and Lula’s cases have in common? They all demonstrate a relationship between law, power and abuse. Untethered power is dangerous and undesirable whether in corporations, sports or in the public sphere.
There is a parallelism between sexual harassment and social corruption. Both situations are the product of the abuse of power; in both cases lives are disenfranchised and destroyed; in both settings, the abuser exploits the other for personal pleasure or benefit, and the victim or victims have no clear avenues for redress.
So far, social media has been the best way to accelerate change and sway opinion. Social media is changing the dynamics of power, and those in power should be aware of this.
Social media has that strange power of disenfranchising the abusers, no matter how powerful… and leaders should keep this in mind.
One disturbing fact still remains unanswered. Why have these women of the #MeToo campaign become heroines in America while in Africa they would be stigmatised as a result of giving voice to their sufferings? Could it be the chauvinist in us?
Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. [email protected]; Twitter: @lgfranceschi