We were talking about the Ontario Human Rights Commission and how it appears to have betrayed its politically correct roots. We suspected that in warning about female dress in the workplace, the Commission violated a basic precept of feminism.
“Oh, the shame of it!” my friend Dingwall said. “Not of the immodesty, let alone the unchastity, but of the admission that revealing female attire may provoke male sexual harassment, or worse”
The precept at issue holds that sexual harassment is about exerting power and control. To say that women provoke it by how they look, dress or behave is a myth, according to feminist wisdom.
“Nevertheless,” I said, “the Commission frowns on employers who require female workers to dress in sexualized or gender-specific ways.”
“Rights code versus dress code,” Dingwall declared. “It makes an enticing headline.”
“The Commission is more concerned with enticing outlines,” I replied, noting that it specifically mentioned high heels, short skirts, tight clothing and low-cut tops. “Among others, it says waitresses, bartenders and massage therapists may be subjected to unwanted sexual behaviour.”
“Criminal code versus dress code,” Dingwall proclaimed.
“What about moral code versus dress code?”
“The Commission doesn’t promote virtue and discourage vice,” he said. “It promotes equality and discourages discrimination.”
“Like allowing the transgendered equal access to male or female restrooms and residences?”
“Rights code versus genetic code,” he replied.
“And not allowing employers to enforce sex-based differences in dress unless they are linked to job requirements.” I noted that a rights tribunal ruled against an employer who expected female workers to wear skirts, while allowing male staff to work in pants.
“The employer might have avoided the negative ruling,” Dingwall said, “by ordering that all staff wear skirts.”
“Provided the order accommodated conditions like pregnancy,” I suggested.
“There are no conditions like pregnancy,” he replied. “Either you are or you aren’t.”
“You and I know that, Dingwall, but do rights commissioners? Not only new mothers exercise employee rights to parental leave. So do new fathers. What’s more, in Quebec, both sexes are entitled to abortion leave.”
“Rights code versus Canon Law code.”
I wondered aloud whether employer dress codes are allowed to mandate decency. “I suspect they are,” Dingwall said, “if they apply to both sexes, but not in the interests of morality. In the interests of safety and equality.”
“Of course,” I replied, “rights commissions don’t intentionally require modest attire. But religious organizations are allowed to, especially churches through their pastors”
“Really,” Dingwall said, “then maybe they should begin with their congregants. Have you noticed the clothing some of them attend Sunday service in?”
“I try to avoid the occasions of sin,” I replied.
“If rights tribunals prevent restaurants and bars from making staff work in revealing attire,” he said, “disappointed patrons have other options.”
“They can go to church.”
“I suspect you’re exaggerating, Dingwall,” I said. “Nevertheless, it’s an interesting take on the counsel that the Church grows by attraction, not by proselytizing. But I always thought congregants were supposed to focus on Divine, not human, revelation.”
“In complying with the counsel,” Dingwall replied, “some of them may have been misled by a spelling error.”
“A spelling error?”
“Or a grammatical error,” I suggested.
“If you talk about rights,” he said, “sooner or later the conversation is going to include wrongs. The Commission was right to warn that what women wear, or don’t wear, may make them more vulnerable to unwelcome sexual advances. Feminists are wrong to hold that women don’t provoke such behaviour no matter how they look, dress or act.”
“That may make sense to you and me,” I said, “but to feminists it sounds like you’re blaming the victims. You seem to hold them responsible for the unwanted behaviour.”
“They’re not responsible for the perpetrators’ acts,” he said, “although they may, or may not, be guilty of incitement. But they’re surely responsible for their own imprudence. You would be, too, if you flashed a winning lottery ticket in public and were subjected to unwanted commercial or larcenous behaviour.”