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Sunday 23 May 2010

Good intentions lead all too often to bad consequences

Sexual harassment is deplorable but academia is rife with political correctness, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

I'm in Bristol, at CrimeFest, where I've just been on a panel called 'Down in the sewer: violence, language and sex'. Having admitted that there is no explicit sex in my crime novels, I assuaged the audience's disappointment by telling them I was about to write an article about the fruit bat's propensity to fellatio.

This isn't strictly true, as what I'm really writing about is sexual harassment, the allegation made by Dr Rossana Salerno Kennedy -- a distinguished lecturer in medical education -- against Dr Dylan Evans -- an even more distinguished behavioural scientist -- for showing her an article by eight scientists on the evolutionary significance of oral sex in the bat world and for other kinds of behaviour she considered inappropriate, including -- in the presence of her husband -- giving her a goodnight hug and a kiss on both cheeks after they had had dinner.

Lawyers are involved and Evans is being investigated over the disclosure of confidential information to the media, so I must hold my tongue on Fruitbatgate, except to point out to President Michael Murphy of University College Cork that -- as our religious and political masters know to their cost -- you can't keep anything confidential these days. If the conventional media don't get you, the bloggers will.

That Evans was fully cleared of the sexual harassment allegation but sentenced to monitoring and counselling for showing her the article has got a lot of people worked up about academic freedom. (My favourite blog included the lines: 'If you'd like to express with me, strong opposition,/Upholding the freedom that's long been tradition./Cos no one expects the Bat Sex Inquisition!).

But the blogosphere is also exercised about sexual harassment, for there's a general feeling abroad that it's an area where good intentions are leading to bad consequences. Similarly, I get worried when female employers tell me that pregnancy rights are now so onerous that they avoid taking on women of childbearing age.

Sexual harassment in the workplace -- like any harassment -- is deplorable. Even in my most benign moments I have no nostalgia about university days when my supervisor chased me around the table, or my first job where I was pawed and slobbered over by a senior teacher.

The culture assumed that it was natural for chaps to try it on and that it was up to women to say no. And even if they weren't afraid that they would be penalised at work for denying powerful men sexual favours, women had little training in standing up for themselves.

These days, there is rightly no tolerance of the casting couch, whether the metaphorical casting director is male, female, gay or straight. And mostly it's accepted that you really shouldn't make a pass unless you have good reason to think it would be welcome.

Unfortunately, as we improve society we always run the risk of making some aspects of it worse, as traditional victims become harassers in turn.

In the course of researching a crime novel about an American university (Murdering Americans), I found so much evidence about the excesses of political correctness in the academic world as to cause me almost terminal despair as a satirist.

Could I have made up: a) that inspired by the appalling and viciously anti-male Vagina Monologues, Valentine's Day had become V-Day (short for Vagina Day) -- complete with flyers with such slogans as 'My vagina is flirty'; b) that in good-humoured retaliation, in a Rhode Island university, blokes inaugurated P-Day and distributed flyers with assertions like 'My penis is hilarious'; and c) that the blokes were banned and disciplined and the women weren't.

Or that it would take the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education a year to extract from an Indiana university an apology to the janitor disciplined for racial harassment because during his break he was reading a scholarly book about a defeat of the Ku Klux Klan by students of Notre Dame University?

One of our contemporary problems is that the historical oppressors are suffering so much Western white straight male guilt that many are scared of their historical victims and have accepted the notion that -- racially or sexually -- if you feel offended, an offence has been done to you.

To the ordinary person, this is completely absurd, but the blurring of boundaries is wreaking havoc in the workplace. I revel in the many good non-pc jokes I am sent by my friends, and I shudder when I see well-educated women in the City of London sue for millions because they felt degraded by an "inappropriate" joke: I fear the supply might dry up.

Solution? Well, it's expensive, but I think there's an argument for juries to be involved in equality tribunals. The man and woman in the street beats the lawyers and the bureaucrats for commonsense any day of the week.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards