Amicus Curiae: On “Ponytailgate”

Jason Kim

In the latest scandal to rock the bizarro world of New Zealand politics, Prime Minister John Key has found himself in hot water after an anonymous blog post on The Daily Blog which alleged that the Prime Minister repeatedly pulled the ponytail of a waitress who worked at an Auckland café (the allegations were since confirmed by the Prime Minister’s office).

Media outlets across the world have jumped on the story, and who could blame them? It’s so perfectly bizarre that one would be forgiven for thinking it was some absurdist satire concocted by The Civilian were it not for a hasty statement from the Prime Minister’s office acknowledging and apologizing for the incident.

Whilst international media attention may well be reporting this story as a kind of quirky oddity, there has been swift condemnation of the Prime Minister’s actions from voices as varied as the National Council of Women of New Zealand, to New Zealand Herald political editor Audrey Young, and Equal Employment Opportunities commissioner (and former National MP) Jackie Blue.

The Prime Minister has attempted to somewhat defuse the matter by describing the incident as just a bit of “horsing around”. A well-intentioned “practical joke” which was just intended to be a bit of “fun”, but in hindsight regrettable and unwise. But by describing the incident in such terms, the Prime Minister has (unwittingly) evoked the kind of words used by others in the past to justify inappropriate or misogynistic behaviour (that pervasive notion that “boys will be boys”), which may explain why many have been so offended by the incident. To others who aren’t inclined to spot such a subtext to those remarks, the whole incident may appear to be a bit strange but relatively innocuous.

Such a difference in how some have perceived this story (with some people incensed and others indifferent, and neither side quite understanding why the other side feels that way) is instructive of how little understanding that we as a society have of alternative viewpoints on complicated issues relating to casual misogyny and its harmful consequences.

Even in cases where the customer is not the Prime Minister of New Zealand, hospitality workers are sometimes forced to endure unpleasant interactions with customers who simply do not understand where the line is drawn between appropriate and inappropriate contact. As explained by employment lawyer Susan Hornsby-Geluk in an article on Stuff.co.nz on Wednesday, repeated instances of uncomfortable behaviour may meet the threshold for sexual harassment to be made out. Any physical contact with another person that is “uninvited and unwanted could constitute harassment or inappropriate conduct” in a workplace. While I’m not suggesting that the Prime Minister’s actions in this case would meet that threshold, this incident does bring to light the fact that what some patrons may consider to be light teasing or “horsing around” could in fact be considered sexual harassment.

While this story may seem a bit bizarre at face value, hopefully this will be an important flashpoint provoking meaningful conversations about the subtle but degrading and harmful treatment of women which may fall “on the other end of the scale” opposite more serious acts of harm towards women such as sexual violence, but is nonetheless unacceptable. Indeed, Stuff published accounts from three women in the hospitality sector who share stories of similar incidents occurring at work, and of course the waitress in question also relayed that she had to retreat to the back of the store as she cried due to an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness. As students, many of us work in retail or hospitality jobs part time to make ends meet, and I’m sure that many of these issues resonate particularly strongly with those who do fall under that category.

This post is not intended to single out the Prime Minister. I do not doubt that the Prime Minister was being truthful when he said he did not intend to make the waitress feel uncomfortable, or that he is legitimately apologetic and surprised by her response. But that’s precisely the problem. There are many well-intentioned men who are unaware of the consequences of their seemingly harmless actions. Our legal system works best when people are aware of what our legal obligations are, and why those rules are in place. If this incident can help bring to light the types of seemingly innocuous behaviour which may be considered to be sexual harassment, and the harmful consequences of such behaviour which the law is seeking to prevent, then perhaps we can all use this scandal as a learning opportunity.

Hopefully, some of these issues can be discussed rationally and empathetically, and that this entire incident is not merely reduced to an amusing meme for people to crack wise about on social media.

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