Putting the words 'sexual harassment' and 'social experiment' in the same sentence is likely to prompt some nervous raised eyebrows. But to try and establish how we understand what actually constitutes sexual harassment, a new BBC Three show puts a group of people in a room and asks them to take a stance.
We’ve watched the public downfall of some of the most high-profile men around the world as they’ve faced allegations of sexual harassment, news of which has become an upsetting but defining staple in the media over the last couple of years. Nevertheless, a general understanding of what constitutes inappropriate behaviour, particularly in the workplace, remains a grey area for many.
The disparities within public opinion are further driven home by the group of 18-26-year-olds who are gathered to discuss the issue for a new one-off programme, Is This Sexual Harassment? In the show, presenter Ben Zand hosts 20 individuals as they watch a fictional drama about Kat and Ryan, a man and woman who work at a bar together. At various stages of the narrative the group vote on whether Ryan’s behaviour towards his colleague qualifies as sexual harassment. For the most part, there’s a dramatic divide in opinion.
Ryan compliments Kat’s perfume while leaning over her to demonstrate something on the computer, which one of the viewers refuses to see as sexual harassment, explaining that "she wears perfume because she wants to smell nice, she wants other people to know she smells nice". There’s a moment when Ryan and Kat are socialising with their colleagues after work, he places his hand on her back and moves it down towards her waist before Kat quickly moves it away. The group debates the appropriateness of his actions and while some think her response is enough to signal that she’s not interested, others say that brushing Ryan’s hand away isn’t technically a "no" and so his pursuit isn’t troubling.
But where would you stand on a kiss? Ryan suggests sharing a taxi home with Kat on the premise that he’ll drop her off en route and continue on himself. He says he forgot to split the fare, gets out of the car with Kat at her house and kisses her on the lips. She backs away, he says sorry and asks if they’re "good", she says that it’s fine and rushes into her house alone.
The issue is eventually taken to a tribunal, the necessity of which also has our audience in disagreement. To offer more context, Zand introduces the group to a man who was falsely accused of sexual harassment and a woman who was on the receiving end of it to tell their stories. Both guests took legal action and their experiences reiterate a difficult point in sexual harassment cases – the law says that someone who claims they were sexually harassed has to prove they were offended by the behaviour.
The lack of understanding about what sexual harassment looks like remains a huge problem, that's for sure. Many will be surprised not only by how blurry the line is but how fiercely observers' perspectives differ on (seemingly) obvious offences. A barrister later explains that it's "any unwanted conduct that's related to sex that has the purpose or effect of violating someone's dignity", but even this definition prompts an interestingly murky divide between the group's opinion of Ryan's behaviour and whether or not they'd have behaved in the same way. But in the end they have to make a verdict: was Kat a victim of sexual harassment or not? At the very least, their decision should give a clearer understanding of what we don't have to put up with.