Sexual harassment in the workplace has been unlawful in Australia for nearly 30 years. However, women continue to be disproportionately subjected to harassment at work, with around one in four women reporting being harassed according to the 2012 Human Rights Commission third National Telephone Survey (pdf).
In her Foreword to the Survey report, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick noted, “One of the most concerning findings of the 2012 National Survey is that progress in addressing workplace sexual harassment has stalled in this country. Another concerning finding is that there have been limited advances in improving awareness and rates of reporting”. Broderick’s statement is overly optimistic about the progress made, especially in the awareness of women, which is not surprising given the consistently hostile stance to harassment measures by high-profile women such as Ruth Ostrow and Bettina Arndt.
Ostrow has a long history of writing about harassment that can be charted in her recounting of the story of an incident at the Shellharbour Golf Club’s annual Christmas party in 1994. She first wrote about the incident in 1998, with her most recent retelling being published last week in The Australian.
I first heard about the Shellharbour story when I read an article by Ostrow entitled “Wowser Worries” in the Sunday Telegraph of 21 June 1998. Ostrow voiced her concern there that laws against sexual harassment were ill-conceived and ill-invoked, and that they formed a part of a “growing conservatism over sexuality”. She claimed, “In Australia last year, under the guise of sexual-harassment legislation, a man was fined $15,000 for having an erection while dancing with a woman who was an employee of a golf club he chaired”. And sure, that does sound a little rough, perhaps even punitive.
I wrote to Ostrow on 23 June 1998, asking her for the source of this strange story. She telephoned me in mid-August of that year, and replied that she had gleaned the story from a small undated piece by the Melbourne Herald-Sun workplace reporter, Simon Pristel, which noted that the man claimed that his dancing partner had mistaken the asthma puffer in his pocket as his penis. Ostrow commented to me that she was very taken by the woman’s response that she knew a penis from a puffer. Unable to supply any further details about the case, Ostrow did remember that the incident took place somewhere in New South Wales.
In late 2000, Ostrow returned to the story, filling in a little more detail in a story called “Ah, for the elation of flirtation” (pdf). She wrote:
“A few years ago, I cut this item out of one of the newspapers. “A female clerk has been awarded more than $15,000 after the president of a golf club rubbed his penis against her leg while dancing at a Christmas party. The woman dismissed suggestions she mistook an asthma puffer in the man’s pocket for his penis. ‘Look, I have been married 21 years. I know the difference between a penis and a puffer,’ she told the NSW Equal Opportunities Tribunal.”
“The story went on to say that the tribunal had found both the club and its former president jointly liable for sexual harassment. Which must have put hairs on the chests of all those males who read the story. Because at this time of year, at office parties all over Australia, a lot of women are asking their colleagues: ‘Is that an asthma puffer in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?’ After which she sues him for sexual harassment and he sues her for defamation of puffer, and the lawyers get richer and richer from what used to be commonly known in polite circles as flirting.”
Ostrow then asked us to reflect on the story as about the demise of “one of life’s greatest pleasures” on the pyre of “the tyranny of political correctness”. The “wonderful art form” of flirting for Ostrow includes groping in the stationery cupboard and handing around photocopies of our bottoms in the office. Such fabulous raunchy fun! And all now endangered because of politically correct measures against sex and life and “juices”.
For a few years, I used the Shellharbour party in lectures as an example of sexual harassment at work, and of the ways in which many commentators failed to understand it in those terms. For a few years too, commentators in the media used the party story as a cautionary tale about how not to act at your office Christmas party. In fact, by 2000, the Christmas party period had become a very scary period indeed for errant penises, at least in the media, with the Shellharbour story at the heart of a puffer panic. Some writers even recounted the story as one of unrequited love in the workplace, and of the reaction to it as an illustration of a joyless feminism “gorn too far”.
A big problem was that most versions of this story doing the rounds were incomplete or false, even though the reports of the case at the Equal Opportunity Tribunal and of the appeal to the NSW Supreme Court on the question of the club’s liability were freely available on the internet (eg Shellharbour Golf Club v Wheeler  NSWSC 224).
The man whose actions were in contention was a voluntary president who also acted as the Golf Club director. The woman [LW] was employed by the Club. Even prior to the Christmas party, she had complained to management that the president had made embarrassing remarks to her, such as “I like a woman with long legs right up to their crutch”.
She said that at the Christmas party, the president asked her to dance and pulled her on to the floor. He then pulled her against his body and with his left leg between her legs thrust his hips so as to cause his erect penis to rub against her thigh. She twice said, “Don’t do that”, and tried to push him away. When the dance finished, the president let her go, grinned and said, “I’m a terrible man aren’t I”. She replied, “Yes you are. You make me sick.” LW said she was upset, shocked, humiliated and embarrassed that he had rubbed himself against her “like a dog”. Moreover, because the incident was public and seen by other people, she “wanted to die”.
Some onlookers at the party did see something more than flirtation or an intimate courting rite in the president’s behaviour. One man commented, “Have a look at that… Goughie looks like he is trying to rape her”. Another woman contacted LW’s solicitors to say that at an earlier party the president had pulled her on to the floor and rubbed his body against her, saying, “I can feel your big tits against me,” and “I’d like to root you.” However, most of the club officials saw the man’s behaviour as an unremarkable part of the landscape. When LW complained to other club officials, she was told, “That’s Jim, he’s a rude man”, or “I’ve told you before that’s what Jim’s like”.
LW’s complaints were trivialised, and her person was demeaned by open taunts and innuendo about her sexual probity. Various club members said that she had led the president on, and portrayed her in their evidence as dancing with abandon in a revealing dress (she was in fact wearing a long straight skirt with no split). Remarks made in her hearing included, “Fucking slut. She sleeps around with everyone.” Anonymous telephone calls to LW’s home were traced to the president’s wife. One caller said to LW’s husband, ‘Your wife is a fucking slut.’ LW’s children answered some of the anonymous phone calls and were the brunt of remarks made by schoolmates. When LW took her children to football or the surf club, she felt humiliated by comments made to her like, ‘Is it true Jim Gough has a rubber dick?’.
The story is a fairly typical example of sexual harassment, even if it bears little resemblance to the version told at various points by Ostrow. Ostrow’s titillation by the story of the puffer seems to have stayed with her. Last week in the Australian, she referred to it again in the middle of an opinion piece about an (unnamed) case of harassment in the US, which had incited Ostrow’s “ire” in showing how the “sistas” had gone crazy again. Here’s the latest version of the story, according to Ostrow.
“Political correctness is out of control. A few years ago a university professor was taken to court for sexual harassment for dancing with a colleague during a work party and allegedly getting an erection, which he claimed was his asthma puffer.”
In this new version, which now features a university professor instead of the club president, Ostrow’s cri de coeur plays all the strings:
“At what point do we say ‘No’ to the rampant stupidity of allowing regulators to regulate the human heart? As a woman, feminist and member of a persecuted ethnic minority, I nonetheless declare: We've gone too far. If I’m a professional and want to ask a staff member to leave for personal reasons, I must be allowed that privilege! I must be allowed to dance close to someone and inadvertently get an erection without being called a deviant; to put my marriage before workplace etiquette; to watch porn in the privacy of my own home; and to be a boss with a droll sense of humour without being labelled a workplace bully.”
But one of the major problems with Ostrow’s lesson is that the Shellharbour story is not a love story blighted by law or by the crazed feminists. It is simply a standard tale of sexual harassment at work, the type of conduct repeated in workplaces in 2013 just as it was 20 years ago. It wasn’t politically correct sexual harassment legislation, but rather sexual harassment of a very crude form that took the fun out of the woman’s Christmas and its aftermath. In the light of such misinformation as that spread by Ostrow over the years, it is hardly surprising that awareness of the character and injury of harassment has gone backward.