Sex and gender at work, in bed, and on the street

Throwing stuff at women: The new sexual harassment?

September 27, 2010 - 02:30 PM
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When aimed correctly, every object can become a tool of sexual harassment. (Photo: Associated Press)

When members of the New York Jets were accused of harassing Mexican sports reporter Ines Sainz—including reportedly throwing footballs in Sainz’ direction—some smelled sports' enduring boys club. Others, a shameless publicity stunt. Me? I got a whiff of a projectile-based sexual harassment trend story.

Observe: Ines Sainz, football, 2010; Kristin Huckshorn, wad of tape, 1994; Paola Boivin, jock strap, 1987.

That’s three female sports reporters experiencing objects thrown in their direction in just a 23-year period. Rule of three! So: Is throwing things at people the new office menace facing working women? Let’s find out!

After an intrepid investigation conducted exclusively through social media, four women contacted me with reports of flying objects on the job. Stuff thrown included: a paperback novel, a glass ashtray, socks, shoes, pencils, and crayons. OK, so all of these women were teachers. But then again, teachers are predominantly female!

The reports from outside the child-management sector signaled a more gender-equitable spread of throwing-stuff targets: There was a water bottle, thrown at a woman; comic book, at a man; paper football, woman; binder clip, man; contract law book, woman; steak-weight, man.

But then again, there was also that woman who wrote into Dear Prudence recently, complaining of objects thrown her direction at her construction job! An older male coworker, you see, frequently tosses papers her way instead of placing them in her inbox. “And I hate it,” the woman reported.

What to make of this? Some workplace tosses are gender-neutral, and some are not. The man who dodged the flying steak-weight, for example, had recently accused the line cook in possession of said steak-weight of being an "asshat." No gender-based motivation there. The flinging of a jock strap at a woman's head, on the other hand, is an act charged with sexual hostility. But as with Huckshorn’s tape-wad, or construction's pile of papers, even the most gender-neutral of projectiles can signal animus toward women in a male-dominated environment.

And aim matters. I spoke with a woman at a federal law enforcement agency which suffers from a heavily lopsided ratio of men to women. Surely, if a form of sexual harassment exists, she has experienced it. At first, she could recall no history of stuff-throwing at work.

Then, she remembered the co-worker who stood in front of her with a handful of gummi bears. He tossed one gummi bear at her. It bounced. He tossed a second bear. It landed in her cleavage.

Bingo. Sexual-harassment-via-projectile often manifests itself through a more, ahem, targeted approach. Footballs were thrown near Sainz in order to facilitate schoolyard gawking at the reporter; gummi bears were tossed at the law enforcement officer to inspire a sexualized embarrassment in the target. “Sexual harassment cases generally involve, you know, words or touching,” local sexual harassment attorney Alan Lescht told me. But then again, “There may have been a case where a manager would throw his keys down and ask her to pick them up, because he liked to look at her behind.”

In a case filed last month in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Jessica Cooper sued former boss Wendell Cocke for an alleged pattern of sexual harassment, which Cooper says included stuff-thrown. "Numerous times during Cooper's employment, Cocke stood over her and tried to drop paperclips down her shirt when she was bent over using the fax machine," the complaint reads. "A few times the paperclips did go down her shirt."

In an answer to Cooper’s complaint, Cocke denied the sexual harassment charges. Ines Sainz, made the target of sexist antics, denied feeling sexually harassed. And my law enforcement source says she didn't realize the candy-tossing was sexually oriented until a colleague pointed it out to her.

And that is how gender-based-throwing-stuff, perhaps the greatest workplace menace of our time, operates. The harasment  can be dismissed as regular workplace routine ("This is a football field. We throw footballs near a lot of people"). It can be excused as a source of workplace camaraderie ("No one complained about our gummi bear cleavage game before women started working here"). And it can easily be obscured under more gender-neutral office throwing patterns ("I toss jock straps at everyone's face"). So watch your heads, ladies and gentlemen. But please, refrain from watching anyone's chest.

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