Panel tackles sexual harassment and toxic masculinity

Written by Sophie M. Lavoie on November 30, 2017

Panel on sexual harassment and toxic masculinity at the University of New Brunswick on Nov. 29, 2017. Photo by Sophie M. Lavoie.

White Ribbon Fredericton put on its annual panel about sexual harassment on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, at the University of New Brunswick (UNB).

“It’s Everywhere: Sexual Harassment, Toxic Masculinity, and #metoo” panelists included Nicola McLeod, a writer, marketer and 2016 victim of street harassment who spoke out against it, Carmen Poulin, a psychology professor from UNB and coordinator of the UNB Gender and Women’s Studies Program, Brenda Comeau, a lawyer from Pink Larkin, Marc-Alain Mallet, Director of the NB Human Rights Commission, and Bill Patrick, an activist for White Ribbon Fredericton.

Barry McKnight, co-chair of White Ribbon Fredericton (with Jenn Richard of the Fredericton Sexual Assault Centre), and Robert McGibbon, the UNB/STU campus representative for White Ribbon Fredericton, were the MCs of the event. McKnight indicated that the “current groundswell of denunciations have inspired tonight’s event” and specified that three engagement sessions were held at UNB. The evening’s panel was structured around the following questions posed to the panel participants. Around 50 people turned out to listen to the panel.

Do we know how pervasive sexual harassment is and why is it so widespread?

For Patrick, it’s closed circuits of power that extend to all fields, “it’s endemic.” He tells people around him that “it’s not about being a perv[ert], it’s about being a perp[etrator], a sexualized form of violence and oppression.” Poulin declared that “patriarchy is the theory and harassment’s the practice” and it stems from the differentiated systems of gendered education. There needs to be zero tolerance around sexual abuse. To enact societal change, Poulin encouraged people to work on systemic changes in groups rather than personal changes because they have a bigger impact.

What is the impact on sexual harassment on the workplace?

All employers have the obligation to provide a healthy work environment, including free of sexual harassment, according to Comeau. “There’s a balancing of rights that happens in this process” of investigation, added Comeau, but if the incident is substantiated, there is a legal need to make the work environment safe. MacLeod added that though it may seem in the media that high profile people are being fired quickly, many firings are the result of lengthier investigations.

Poulin added that when harassment is not dealt with, organizations lose a lot of talented employees; one of her student’s PhD research on women who work in prisons found that these women, through their processes, have a positive impact on their surroundings, but they are often excluded because of structural harassment.

Poulin’s research in women in non-traditional occupations showed a profound effect on women but signaled that most harassment is the norm, “that’s just the way things are,” it’s not talked about and undetected.

Why are the disclosures coming out at this time? Are we at a tipping point?

For MacLeod, this seems to be a “snowball effect” of women becoming aware that they can have power in this seemingly powerless situation. But, this is not the first campaign against sexual harassment, there seems to be one every year. Patrick added that African-American women were at the forefront of many campaigns, including the #metoo campaign. Mallet’s organization has an educational mandate but “a change in culture takes a long time” and says there’s a challenge of how to measure change. For Comeau, in the legal field, ideas that were pervasive in the eighties “would not pass muster today” so there’s a need for using very recent case law because of issues such as power and consent. Patrick wondered if the denunciations would extend out of the private realm and into the public realm.

Toxic masculinity: What is it? Why should we be concerned about it? How is it harmful for men?

Patrick acknowledged that toxic masculinity is the “troubling parts of masculinity.” He added: “masculinity is not necessarily a bad thing but there are elements that are bad for everyone.” It’s “bad for men” because of health issues and suicide rates, for example. Most men are “bull[ied] into the [marketing] messages” that impose things like bigger meals and driving big trucks, for example. Patrick encouraged the public to read more about this subject but cautioned that the “boy crisis” is not generalized in the education system.

How should we deal with people that believe they aren’t part of the problem?

Poulin stated that taking action is difficult, but once it is done, there is usually a reward: “stand up for somebody and you might come home feeling better about yourself.” She recalled a moment during her grad studies where her group of peers made a pact not to put each other down. Mallet said he was hopeful that society would not be too individualistic and sees hope in thinking of society no longer as a binary one. Mallet sees the danger in letting the issue return to being “status quo.”

The panel was followed by a lengthy question period that included a rape survivor denouncing the onus that was put on her for protecting herself, a man asking if all men were not simply being painted as perpetrators and a parent asking for suggestions about how to work with young adults.

Sophie M. Lavoie is an editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op. 

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