An employment tribunal has equated insulting a man’s hairline with commenting on the size of a woman’s breasts. It’s not the same
Last month, when the whole of Twitter was sharing that quartet of Emmanuel Macron photos, a female friend and I were voicing our appreciation of the chest hair aesthetic and cheerfully agreeing that we absolutely would, when a gentleman earnestly interrupted to remind us that it would be considered unacceptable these days for two men to discuss a female politician in such terms.
I didn’t like to distress him with the suggestion that there may yet be dark corners of new and old media where men rate the shaggability of women in public life (ask Angela Rayner), but his reprimand spoke to a broader point: when it comes to objectification, we are currently enjoying a brief window of licence denied to men.
It’s still sort of OK for women to make a joke out of commenting on the desirability or otherwise of men’s bodies, because the balance of power has been so grotesquely out of whack for so long that a few Boddingtons ads in the 1990s and Fleabag getting off to an Obama speech still barely tip the scales. In part, it’s OK precisely because it is framed as a joke; men rarely feel threatened by women commenting on their bodies, even if they don’t enjoy it.
There’s also the unspoken law that men are not supposed to care what people say about their looks, much less show that their feelings have been hurt by a personal remark. But that might be about to change, after last week’s decision by an employment tribunal, which ruled that a male electrician in West Yorkshire who was called a “bald cunt” by his male boss was a victim of sexual harassment.
Leaving aside the fact that “bald cunt” is unavoidably funny, especially when you picture it shouted by one man at another during an argument over a machine cover in the offices of the British Bung Company (which, incidentally, would be a great name for Sunak’s Treasury if he’s considering a rebrand), let’s consider what constitutes sexual harassment. The tribunal judges ruled that the incident was comparable to a previous case of a man remarking on the size of a woman’s breasts in the workplace; in both instances, they said, the insult was specific to the victim’s sex, therefore: sexual harassment.
What they seem to have glossed over in this comparison is the intent of the person doing the insulting. Ask any woman what sexual harassment feels like and she’ll tell you it’s about intimidation. It’s the fear that a comment on your breasts will escalate to a hand; it’s the pointedly belittling reminder that some of your male superiors or co-workers will always see you foremost as tits and arse. Is a man mocking another man’s baldness really in the same league? I’m not persuaded.
Of course, it should go without saying that men can and do experience sexual harassment at work and that it can be much harder for them to come forward. It’s also a positive step if men are willing to acknowledge publicly that they find insults about their appearance damaging; boys are conditioned so early to shrug this stuff off as banter. But let’s not blur the lines by suggesting that calling someone “bald”, however contemptuously, is the same as sexual intimidation. If everything is sexual harassment, then nothing is; that kind of levelling up is just a flattening that doesn’t serve anyone.
• Stephanie Merritt’s latest novel is While You Sleep