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Combatting sexual harassment: what must be done next

ByLiz MacNab

Apr 29, 2019

Content warning: This article contains mentions of sexual harassment

Recent movements such as #MeToo have encouraged individuals to come forward with experiences of sexual harassment.

The most recent accusation is against former Vice President of the Obama administration, Joe Biden. Seven women have come forward stating they were made uncomfortable by his actions towards them. Said allegations have led to a wider societal questioning of what is considered consensual.

Amidst complaints taking place, Biden has jested about the situation. As quoted by the Guardian, Biden joked, “I just want you to know – I had permission to hug [International Brotherhood of Electric Workers Union President] Lonnie” when entering the stage at a particular event. The male-dominated crowd laughed and cheered Biden, demonstrating the lighthearted approach to consent and sexual harassment existing in society. Comments on allegations are made for laughs, suggesting that conversations surrounding sexual harassment need to be addressed.

Vail Kohnert-Yount, a former intern at the White House, came forward to complain about Biden’s actions yet expressed her impression that they were based upon good intentions. However, as she states, this still made her uncomfortable and so it is apparent that the ‘blurred’ line between what is considered consensual and non-consensual needs to be more clearly defined.

Additionally, with recent allegations of sexual harassment, men have expressed growing concern towards being falsely accused for an action they consider to be harmless.

In a recent video posted to Twitter, Biden highlighted that social expectations surrounding what is considered appropriate and inappropriate have changed and in a later interview quoted by the Guardian stated, “I’m sorry I didn’t understand.”

Perhaps a greater understanding of consent through teaching and training could thus prevent cases of sexual harassment and lessen the fear of false allegations.

One form of prevention could be to introduce an emphasis on consent during sex education at school. This would expose children and teenagers to consent at an early stage and would hopefully be continued into adulthood creating a greater sense of what physical contact is appropriate in public spaces, as well as a heightened understanding of consent in perhaps more private spaces.

This could be furthered in the form of training within workplaces. Integrating training on appropriate physical conduct in the workplace would mean that individuals of a variety of ages and backgrounds would receive formal training and thus would better understand the importance of consent, creating safer and more respectful workplaces.

I was pleasantly surprised when recently, becoming a committee member for a society at the university, I learned that Edinburgh University Students’ Association require at least one member to fulfil the role of ‘Active Bystander.’ This role consists of being trained in how to resolve conflicts surrounding accusations of sexual harassment or uncomfortable situations within university societies, in order to combat sexual harassment.

Although this role requires individuals to volunteer, it is still a positive step forward in educating on consent and creating a safer environment for societies, which hopefully will infiltrate into wider university life.

The media focus on allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour, especially those concerning high profile individuals such as Joe Biden, highlight a greater need for an increased understanding of consent within society.

With emphasis on the importance of consent and support for those who have suffered sexual harassment, hopefully this increased awareness will trickle into schools and workplaces in order to create a safer and more respectful society.


Image: The White House via Wikimedia Commons

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