Have we gone a bit batty over getting fruity in the workplace?


GIVE ME A BREAK:THANKS TO an international debate on sexual harassment sparked by none other than our own University College Cork, we now know that fruit bats give each other oral sex. Just how they might do this – is hanging upside down part of the appeal? – or why they would do this, or whether they experience pleasure as we know it, is beyond even my vivid imagination.

As for the intrepid scientists willing to wade through bat poo in bat caves to observe bat sex . . . perhaps we shouldn’t go there except to say that before this discovery, it was thought that only humans engaged in sexual activity that was for additional pleasure rather than pure procreation.

Are you feeling sexually harassed yet? Am I harassing you by conveying this information? If I were to print out the article about those horny fruit bats and show it to you in a personal capacity, would you contact the relevant authorities and have me raked over the hottest coals the human resources department could fire up?

The row at UCC began when – according to Dr Dylan Evans, the lecturer at the centre of the case – Evans showed a female colleague a peer-reviewed scientific article about the sex lives of fruit bats, with the result that the university president, Prof Michael Murphy, ordered Evans to attend two years of counselling with attendant monitoring and appraisal. The Huffington Posthas brought the case to international attention and has the confidential documentation in the case linked to its site, which also includes a link to a public petition on Evans’s behalf.

There has been heated online discussion of the UCC case. The president of DCU, Prof Ferdinand von Prondzynski, commented on his own blog that this was the sort of publicity no university wanted and that it would be wrong to comment until UCC gives its side of the story. I agree, because it is impossible to judge the case based only on the evidence put forward by the university lecturer himself.

My father always had an adage about gossiping that has served me well: “Were you there? Did you see it?” If you weren’t there, maybe you should keep your mouth shut and let the people involved deal with the issue with dignity. But the web’s viral nature means you don’t have to have been there to have an opinion that could be read by millions – a village gossip’s dream.

The public response to Evans’s campaign has been of the political-correctness-gone-mad variety: what’s wrong with showing someone an article about the sex lives of fruit bats?

Office etiquette around the issue of male-female communication is a touchy subject not just in universities, but in every workplace. Silly banter can be misinterpreted, and while one woman might appreciate a sexually loaded joke or compliment, another may not. Men, in particular, are second-guessing themselves in work situations wondering only afterwards: “Should I have said that?”, even when it comes to repeating seemingly innocuous jokes.

In the dark days of my youth, people weren’t so sensitive. Suggestions that my career might progress more satisfactorily were I to work topless or that my creativity would be boosted by a “good shag” didn’t exactly wash over me, but they were common. Today, most male colleagues would be far too sensible to suggest such a thing, but has political correctness gone to the other extreme? Even a bland compliment, such as “You look nice today”, has taken on new and potentially negative meaning.

The pendulum has swung so far the other way that we’re all meant to be sexless in the office now, communicating like politically programmed robots.

A friend of mine has come to secretly appreciate her own office Casanova who suggests a quick grope in the lift. “You can’t get away with that around here anymore,” she has told him. “I know. And I don’t care!” He loves life and has a way of spreading a little happiness by making women feel beautiful, she tells me.

That sort of flirtation is, of course, all in the eyes and ears of the beholder. What one woman appreciates, another finds distasteful. How a woman responds to any sexual innuendo – intended or perceived – depends on her own life experience. You’d need to be a mind-reader to know how another person will respond to a subject involving sex – even if it’s about bats. So many other factors come in to play, such as body language, social ease and office competition.

Evans has stated in his written defence – which I read via the Huffington Post website – that he meant no offence and was imparting scientific information. Interviewed by Pat Kenny on RTÉ Radio yesterday, Evans seemed completely mystified.

On the other hand, the colleague must be aware of the viral spread of this personal case. Her side of the story has been given only through the personal letter she wrote to university authorities, a letter that is now out there for all the world to see on the web. It makes me wonder if redress can cause more problems than the original insult.

Maybe everybody in a work situation, not just mystified professors, needs counselling about dealing with the feelings of others. Anyone for a human resources workshop on harassment? No? I thought not.