COLUMN

Here’s looking at you, kid

BARBARA AMIEL April 10 1989
COLUMN

Here’s looking at you, kid

BARBARA AMIEL April 10 1989

What can one say about a 60-year-old professor who insists on swimming in the University of Toronto’s Hart House pool all togged out in goggles and fins? One can’t be sure, of course, but the word eccentric springs to mind. Then there is his accuser—Ms. Beverley Torfason, a part-time student whose fears were aroused by the aquatic professor. The eyes behind those goggles, she concluded, had been concentrating a little too closely on her. The University of Toronto’s Sexual Harassment Review Board, waiting for a year with nary a hearing, had its first complaint.

But then it all turned ugly, as these things must. Last week, at the end of the five-day hearing, the professor was banned for five years from his swimming pool, and Ms. Torfason was seeking $4,000 in damages for lost wages and stress. What on earth, I wondered, is going on?

The story is made murky by the secret nature of the hearings, but each side, one suspects, is leaking its best evidence. Prof. Richard Hummel admits to looking at women while swimming. The judgment of the board is that he was indeed guilty of “prolonged and intense staring.” Various feminists have pronounced themselves pleased by the decision and admonished us that “looks” can be dangerous.

For my own part, since I don’t have access to all the evidence, I decided to believe the worst of the professor. There he was, I thought, splashing around in a free-form crawl described by witnesses as “unorthodox,” his eyes focused relentlessly on any female unwary enough to do a length or two when he was in the pool. How would I feel, I thought?

The answer to that question, as just about all females know, is that it depends on who is wearing the goggles. Most of us have been the object of stares and, in spite of what our parents told us, have stared at the odd person ourselves. I rather like stares from intelligent, humorous and tall men over 50, myself, although it’s difficult to judge the sense of humor when swimming. Wearing goggles in the Hart House pool is not an infallible indication of a comic bent.

One knows very little about Ms. Torfason, and it may be that she is that rare sort of human being who seeks no sign of appreciation from men, women or beached whales. In that case she has my undying admiration, and her energies, it is to be hoped, will be channelled into good works. Such a temperament, though, speaks of a sensitive personality, rather like those unfortunate people who are allergic to everything and must move about in airtight bubbles. In the circumstances, it might have been wiser for her to have plunged her swim-suited body into a pool that was not coed.

Men and women, after all, do tend to stare at one another, particularly when wearing swimsuits. Prolonged staring is probably rarer than moderate staring, but most of us have at one point or another encountered someone whose peculiar tastes seem to encompass our own fair forms, with the result that we have been the object of intensive staring. Unwanted staring can be uncomfortable, of course, but arguably any human being who is not equipped to deal with that kind of discomfort is barely fit for life.

It seems to me, despite the gung-ho regulatory climate in Canada, that changing human nature to suit one’s tolerance for a stare is perhaps the wrong way to solve this problem. Perhaps safe staring will require us all to wear a sign indicating the sort of people who may look at us without fear of sexual harassment charges. “Under 50 and over six feet, two inches, please say hello” might be embroidered on the swimmer’s rump, I suppose.

In fact, what this case illustrates best is the utter debasement of the genuinely serious nature of sexual harassment. There is such a thing as sexual harassment—although this sort of folly may blind us to that fact—and very unpleasant it is, too. Sexual harassment occurs when a man or woman uses a position of power to demand sexual favors in return for grades or job promotion or some needed advantage. It is nothing short of extortion and should be punished as such. But when sexual harassment is defined broadly to include winks, nudges, leers or stares, we diminish the seriousness of real abuse. If an action can be legal when performed by someone we think is cute, and illegal if he looks gross, well, the mote is in thine own eye, isn’t it?

Ms. Torfason complained that Prof. Hummel was “using the women who swim in this pool as surrogates for the expression of his own sexuality.” She said that she had spoken to other female swimmers there and several of them felt “objectified and victimized by his infantile sexual responses that degrade women.” Is this really the way they talk in the Junior Common Room? Surely it is the vocabulary of hard-line feminism, and I don’t think we can be blamed for suspecting that Ms. Torfason is either a committed ideologue herself or extremely suggestible.

What I find most contemptible, however, are the procedures and remarks of the University of Toronto’s sexual harassment industry. Prof. Helen Rosenthal, chairman of the panel that appoints the Sexual Harassment Review Board, said that Hummel had broken the confidentiality of the proceedings, and that doing so was not in his best interest. She said she was upset about the “circus” created by publicity over what is supposed to be a completely secret process.

One can only suppose Prof. Rosenthal would prefer a perfect star chamber. I must say I find it appalling that a Canadian university would actually permit the operation of secret hearings that appear to have wide powers to discipline both staff and students. Surely, if a tenured professor is to have his reputation destroyed, he should be able to make full and proper response to the charges, including cross-examination of his accusers.

In a separate statement filed with the board after Prof. Hummel was found guilty, Ms. Torfason asked for him to be banned for five years from Hart House and for the public posting of his offence. Perhaps the University of Toronto can borrow a set of stocks from its medieval studies department so that its students may express all that they have learned about life in the swimming pools and on the playing fields of academe.