Squaring the circle of sexual harassment


Actor Jeremy Irons has come under fire following comments he made to the Radio Times lamenting the rise of legal cases involving claims of sexual harassment. He argued that legislation, and the resulting claim culture, has "gone too far" and that most people are "robust" enough to deal with flirtatious forms of mere "communication." Without looking too much at Mr Irons' reputation, and risk being swayed either by his roguish personality or seemingly questionable attitudes towards women, it could, perhaps, be argued that Irons actually has a point.

Sexual harassment legislation has been accused of being both unnecessary and a potential violation of our right to free speech. Instances of sexual harassment, particularly verbal ones, often boil down to individual interpretations of offence, a matter which government cannot legitimately legislate on.

Walter Block in Defending the Undefendable (PDF) sets out the argument that entrepreneurial self interest effectively persuades employers to discourage offensive action of any kind. Employees need to attract both female customers as well as female employees to remain competitive. Providing a safe and comfortable working environment is just good business. Whilst this element of competition does not ensure the absence of sexual harassment, it is a seemingly superior preventative option than blunt governmental intervention.

Further to this, through harassment laws the government suppresses speech and behaviour it deems harmful and potentially offensive opening a Pandora's Box of what is offensive or not. The government cannot assume all women will shrug off the forms of "communication" Irons defends. It therefore assumes that all women could, and potentially should, be offended by any level of suggestive behaviour. By imposing liability upon employers, harassment law incentivises employers to restrict their employees' civil liberties in order to cover their own backs, an infringement that is unlikely to be challenged within hierarchical companies.

Irons' comment that "any woman worth her salt" can deal with a "man putting his hand on (her) bottom" may be a step too far, but his arguments concerning the rise of legal cases involving sexual harassment claims in the workplace can be justified. State involvement in the public interactions of individuals runs a huge risk of infringing upon civil liberties and, at best, can be seen as a poorer method of discouraging offensive behaviour in the workplace. Left to employers' devices, incidents of sexual harassment can be better avoided as they seek to provide the best working conditions to attract the best workers possible.