To live long enough is occasionally to observe a particular social folly play itself out to its own special reductio ad absurdum. Such is the case with sexual harassment.
For more than two decades I taught at the same Canadian law school as the woman who could be said to have invented sexual harassment, at least in Canada. From what she called "the secret oppression," which meant men hitting on women in the workplace, she and her allies extrapolated until every gesture (like holding open a door) and every comment (one of my colleagues was berated once for saying "Good morning, ladies"), was fraught with tension, at least within the rarefied atmosphere of the law school. By the time I stopped teaching, only the most foolhardy male professor would consider talking to a female student (still less a female colleague) without a witness present.
I confess, then, that it was with wry satisfaction that I read of the recent decision to suspend a five-year-old boy from Lincolnshire Elementary School in the State of Maryland because he had sexually harassed a girl in his class by pinching her bottom. Of course, we cannot know the boy's name (privacy considerations, after all), but we do know the name of the school administrator, the J. Edgar Hoover, as it were, of the Washington County Public School Board: Carol Mowen. She, together with school principal, Darlene Teach (nomen est omen, I suppose) quickly apprehended the criminal, thereby allowing the girls of Lincolnshire Elementary to breathe easy again.
Ms. Mowen defined the offence in question as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours and/or other inappropriate verbal, written, or physical conduct of a sexual nature directed toward others," which no doubt the miscreant five year old would have been required to write out a hundred times, if only he could reach the blackboard and could write.
Ms. Teach was perhaps following a precedent set in November in the state of Texas when a four-year-old pre-kindergarten boy was suspended because he "inappropriately hugged" a female teacher's aide.
Ms. Teach held out little prospect of any age-based clemency, insisting that a student of any age can be charged with sexual harassment. Have grief counsellors, I wonder, taken up residence in Lincolnshire Elementary to cope with post-traumatic stress? Can an official apology and state compensation be far behind?
Perhaps sexual harassment among toddlers has reached epidemic proportions because the Maryland state statistics for the 2005-06 school year indicate that 28 students were suspended for "sexual offences," including 15 for sexual harassment. Of course, if one were to suggest that four- and five-year-old children know nothing of "sexual harassment" one would be accused of being "part of the problem" and no one wants that; we want to be part of the solution, like Ms. Mowen, who, when confronted by the issue of the pinching boy's mens rea or "guilty mind," replied: "A child may not realize that what he or she is doing may be considered sexual harassment, but if it fits under the definition, then it is, under the state's guidelines." The late Joseph Stalin could hardly have put it better.
On the other hand, given the pervasive sexualization of what passes for contemporary "culture," perhaps children are less innocent than we like to think. In any case, it makes a strong case, surely, for starting anti-harassment training in the crib; this might be a propitious moment for the National Organization for Women to launch such a crusade. Then, again, "crusade" might have imperialist connotations, so perhaps it should be styled "a pre-school changing-ways initiative."
Sexual-harassment policies tend to be implemented by what is called "zero-tolerance enforcement." This means that if one was unlikely enough to encounter a sane school principal or administrator, someone with a shred of common sense anxious not to become the butt of jokes or to make an ass of herself over a pinch, she would be precluded from exercising discretion -- say, by overlooking the pinch.
Absurd policies, administered with zero tolerance, by zealous harridans like Ms. Cowen and Ms. Teach -- what an advertisement it all makes for the fastest-growing North American educational movement: home-schooling.
Ian Hunter is professor emeritus in the University of Western Ontario law faculty.