Touching on a sensitive subject : Washington Days
Wednesday 08 February 1995
Never in 15 years of travel have I felt more pressingly the need to heed the gaucho's advice than now, three weeks into my arrival in the United States. One false move, I fear, and I'll end up in court, paying damages for the rest of my life.
I'm talking about sexual harassment, of course.
Having settled into the touchy-feely routines of everyday life in countries like South Africa and Nicaragua, I worry each time I come into contact with people - especially women - I will find myself unable to restrain the conversational habit of reachingout and touching them. I mean as a way of emphasising a point, of acknowledging a bon mot, of highlighting an irony - whatever.
There I was last week, for example, sitting in a deli in Long Island opposite a young woman reporter who worked for a local newspaper. We were covering the same court case and had popped out together for a quick lunch. I had met her the night before. We had been introduced by a good mutual friend - sufficient guarantee, I would have thought, that my worst predatory instincts were reasonably in check.
We had been chatting in soberly professional vein when I reached out across the table top and - applying the lightest, most fleeting of contacts - touched the sleeve of her coat at a point roughly midway between the wrist and the elbow. The gesture had been prompted by the sudden recognition on my part that, regarding whatever it was we were talking about, I had made a mistake and she was right.
She thought - well, I don't know what she thought. But she reacted as if my hand were a burning hot poker. She didn't just start. She jumped. The colour drained from her face. Her eyes registered first alarm, then confusion. I felt confusion, then alarm."What if she screams? Will she call the police?"
She didn't scream. Embarrassed, we briskly resumed our conversation. I think - I want to believe - that she realised she had over-reacted. I felt, without quite understanding why, as if I had committed a terrible violation of local custom, as if I had behaved with the crass inappropriateness so often attributed to Americans abroad.
The one things for sure, I won't be seeing this woman again for a while. I won't even call her. I might make a mess of things again and discover she has accumulated sufficient evidence to bring a suit against me. No one, from President Clinton down, is immune to charges of sexual harassment. The FBI had to pay $300,000 (£194,000) to a female former agent last month. A case is under way involving two employees at the United Nations; the woman is a US citizen, the man - in a further warning to me - is Latin American.
I need help. I need to unlearn what I learnt in my travels and rediscover the British boarding- school child within. I also need insurance.
Inquiries suggest my premium to cover liability in a sexual-harassment suit would be significantly lower if I go on a sexual- harassment training course - of the type obligatory for employees in the State Department and other government agencies.
The other day I had a brush with a female government worker who had been on one of these courses. Again, she was a friend of a friend. The friend, a man, was present. She was standing by a window, facing in. I craned my neck to look out of the window to check my car was where I had illegally parked it. During the act my left shoulder might have made contact with her left shoulder blade. For perhaps one and a half seconds the back of our heads were separated by a space of no more than six inches.
She took a step back, eyes blazing with indignation, and barked: "What are you doing?"
What I'd better do is get hold of a manual of the type supplied to staff by the DeSoto County Commission in Arcadia, Florida. The Commission had decided to draw up a document defining policy on sexual harassment.
The alternative is to avoid women altogether. Which brings to mind another seasonal piece of homespun gaucho wisdom, as contained in a limerick I learnt in Nicaragua: "There was a young gaucho called Bruno, Who said, if there's one thing I do know: Womenare fine, Sheep are divine, But llamas are numero uno."
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