I was reading a review of my car from a few years ago over the weekend. Jeremy Clarkson gave it a glowing review, but still said that he wouldn’t get one – something about be liking Ann Summers putting a Y on the front of their lingerie and selling it to men. I’m strangely OK with that.
I relayed the story to a female owner of the same car at work today, and another female colleague who said that Ann Summers is a shop for men anyway. It reminded me of a quizzical look I once got from a sales assistant in Boux Avenue when I declared that I was shopping for a Christmas present for my brother’s then girlfriend. In hindsight I should have said first that I was looking for pyjamas, and that she’d asked for them – I just left it too late for mail order.
I also remembered another time when I was away with work on my own in a hotel room. I got a message from a friend asking me to pick between two colours. I suggested that a better opinion could be formed if I knew the context and she informed me that it was for underwear sets. One colour would look better against her skin tone while the style of the other colour would be comfortable. Quickly realising that my luck was not in that night or ever and that I was never going to see her underwear against her skin and that she was a right pain when she was grumpy, I knew immediately what my choice was.
In all honesty, though, I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation about lingerie with its wearer where they’ve endorsed its comfort and therefore any opinion I have on said lingerie would be how sexy said lingerie wearer would look wearing it. Not that they would or wouldn’t anyway. However, this means that I won’t often try to get involved in those conversations or decisions.
In hindsight, maybe Professor Richard Ned Lebow of King’s College London wishes he did the same when he jokingly told Professor Simona Sharoni of Merrimack College that he would like to go to the “ladies lingerie” floor when asked for his destination when he got in an elevator. I don’t know the joke either, but apparently it goes back to his youth when lift operators in department stores would shout out what was sold on the floor they had arrived at. It was also a joke allegedly used in the Harry Potter books.
Lebow has been asked to apologise after Sharoni complained, but hasn’t. Lebow thinks it would send a damaging message about censorship. Sharoni thinks that she shouldn’t have to confront such sexism. Both are completely confident that they are correct in their actions.
Sharoni told The Atlantic:
“I filed the complaint because a comment about ‘ladies lingerie’ is inappropriate in any public space, especially at an academic conference! … In fact, most workplace sexual harassment policies include jokes with sexual innuendo as examples of behavior that will not be tolerated.”
The academic conference part I can agree with to an extent, but what if Lebow was genuinely looking for that? I realise context is everything but, well, what if? That really is not any of Sharoni’s business. Sharoni herself saw it as an innuendo and, while there is a sexual connotation to lingerie, I would say that’s all there is in this case. There are no records of Lebow wanting to see Sharoni in it.
However, it’s the process of the complaint and remedial action that is interesting. The definition of harassment being used my the International Studies Association (ISA), which organised the conference, is:
Unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of men and women. It may be related to age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, disability, religion, nationality, or any personal characteristic of the individual, and may be persistent or isolated. The key is that the actions or comments are experienced as demeaning and unacceptable by the recipient.
That’s staggeringly wide. It panders to the Snowflakes and essentially makes any comment offensive if someone says they find it so and, if they complain, we can safely assume that they do. And yet, even with such a definition, the ISA still choose (as part of their process) to investigate. The fact that Lebow finds the charges against him “demeaning and unacceptable” means that it’s going to be a fairly vicious cycle.
The remedy put forward by the ISA is for Lebow to apologise for his actions “rather than the perceptions of Prof. Sharoni.” This means that Lebow cannot apologise for a joke that caused offence, but that he has to admit that he harassed Sharoni and / or that what he was said was demeaning. Asking someone to say something that they do not believe doesn’t sound like a good remedy to me and is, again, “demeaning and unacceptable”.
It seems to be a bit of a double standard which actually serves nobody.