A problem well defined is half solved

Sexual predation is in the news again (still). Sexual misconduct is always interesting news whether it’s Henry XVIII, Roy Moore or Harvey Weinstein. It is as old as sexual reproduction. Males have a biological urge to sow wild oats. Sometimes aggression is the norm. That does not excuse it in civilization.

Slave-owning was also the norm forever; notoriously, human beings enslaved their own kind. In 1777, Vermont abolished slavery. Later, the Constitution forbade the importation of African slaves. English Parliament vowed to end all slave trade on the high seas IN 1807. The Royal Navy intercepted slave ships. Mexico in 1829, along with most of Latin America, abolished slavery. It wasn’t until 1865 after a bloody Civil War that America got around to it. In less than 100 years an institution as old as humanity virtually vanished.

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Sexual predation is a form of slavery.

We all agree sexual predation is wrong, except some of the perpetrators somehow justify it as a privilege of rank, or an honor bestowed upon the recipient. They dismiss it as irrelevant, unless the perpetrator is of another party. Somehow the victim becomes the instigator. It’s always wrong. We say in engineering a problem well-defined is half-solved. How do we define it?

There is an underlying cultural problem. Men (and occasionally women) in positions of power enjoyed the ability to “have their way” with others freely. People of lower standing had no recourse, but to grin and put up with it. Refusing one’s betters could have dire consequences. We have come far from that, I hope.

Every event is different, every person is different. A well-intended compliment or gesture could be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Use of violence or an intoxicant to commit physical rape is easy to define. At the other end of the scale is innuendo, and between is infinite complication.

Was there a relationship between two parties e.g. husband and wife, dating, crowded subway? Was there coercion or seduction; injury, or hurt feelings? The definitions of statutory rape are awkward at best. Is specific affirmation required at each level of intimacy; oral or written? When does fondling become groping? Where can we agree?

Let’s start at a complex example. It is a common courtesy for a man to place his hand protectively near a woman’s back as she ascends a stair, just in case. How low, how close? A San Diego council member was questioned when his hand was seen close to Queen Elizabeth as she ascended a stair. Did he touch the Queen, a major faux pas, or not? Only they know and neither one spoke. What if she had stumbled and his hand had touched her, an act of chivalry then could be turned into groping with today’s media hysteria. What if his hand saved her from falling? At which vertebra can courtesy become groping?

At the core we have a problem that is difficult — maybe impossible — to define. One start would be for the one offended to feel safe to speak out at the time of the offense, not days, weeks or even years later. The abused need to be treated kindly, taken seriously and timely, but the accused still have rights.

Slavery is relatively easier to define and it still took over 100 years of effort to mostly abolish it. Can we define sexual harassment on a bumper sticker, a postcard? It’s not really one offense, but a variety.

While we agree that certain things are crimes and wrong, we also recognize that consequences have to be proportional. We don’t hang people for parking violations. If penalties for minor offenses are too high, there is no additional risk for more serious crime.

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Likewise, while we agree harassment is wrong, there has to be some proportionality. We can’t equate a sophomoric touch or comment to a compelled sex act or there will be very little to discourage the most heinous behavior because the perpetrator would have nothing to lose.

Ken Obenski is a forensic engineer, now safety and freedom advocate in South Kona. He writes a semi-monthly column for West Hawaii Today. Email obenskik@gmail.com.