Sarah Leamon: At what point does art constitute sexual harassment?

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      A popular Vancouver nightclub has found itself before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal for sexual harassment of female employees. 

      Sadly, this sounds like a typical, run-of-the-mill headline, but the substance of the complaint is anything but. 

      The allegation is not that any employee was verbally demeaned, assaulted, discriminated against, or even objectified by anyone while at work, but rather that the club's décor is so offensive that it renders the space itself innately discriminatory against women.

      The nightclub, called the Basement, located in the lower level of the popular Hotel Belmont. 

      The Basement is an Instagram-worthy, highly stylized space, which includes art choices that are both interesting and eye-grabbing.  These include neon signs on the male and female bathrooms, which depict line drawings of male and female buttocks, respectively, cartoon drawings of breasts, and a photograph depicting the nude buttocks of a woman. 

      There are also a neon signs that say “be naked when I get home” and “I f----- love to f--- you.”  There is no way to determine the identity of the artist making these statements, or whom they are directed at. 

      These art choices, the union argues, inherently discriminate against women and render the workspace hostile towards female employees. 

      In an official statement, the communications specialist for the Unite Here Local 40 Union—which has lodged the complaint—said that the union feels that "the imagery in the hotel is very sexualized, workers should not be subjected to looking at imagery which degrades women on a day-to-day basis”. 

      This imagery, the union argues, amounts to sexual harassment. It says it should be considered a violation under section 13 of the Human Rights Code, which protects people from discrimination on any term of condition of employment. 

      The unions position sounds dubious at best, but is the writing quite literally on the wall?

      In order to reach a conclusion, one must consider what sexual harassment actually is.

      According to the law, sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination, conveyed through words or actions that are sex or gender-related.  While this is a broad definition, some common examples of sexual harassment include things like unwanted physical contact, offensive jokes or remarks, and explicit or veiled sexual requests or suggestions. 

      Similarly, showing or displaying sexually inappropriate pictures or images can be considered sexual harassment. 

      In the past, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has made findings of discrimination in cases where employers have displayed sexually inappropriate or pornographic images at work. Consider a coworker who hangs pornographic and explicit images in the staff break room, for example, or a manager who does this.

      While these seem like obvious examples, more insidious forms of harassment may also be plausible. 

      But in order to amount to this serious form of sexual discrimination, don’t we need something more than wallpaper depicting cartoon breasts? Or neon signs of male and female derrieres?

      Don’t we need something more than wall art?

      I, for one, would like to think that we do.

      While allegations sexual harassment should never be simply brushed off, there is a difference between art and offensive images that are displayed for the purpose of discriminating or harassing a particular person or group of people. There needs to be a bright neon line drawn firmly between artistic expression and sexual harassment. 

      Failure to do so not only stifles creative pursuits and freedoms but also diminishes the veracity of other sexual harassment complaints, bearing in mind the serious nature of such incidents. 

      The nightclub owner in question, Jasmine Mooney, has expressed shock over the nature and substance of the complaint. 

      She maintains that she does everything she can in order to provide a harassment-free work environment for her employees, and that the art in her establishment is simply that—art. 

      Whether you agree with her décor choices or not, the art pieces that Mooney has selected for the Basement have clearly served their purpose by pushing the boundaries and sparking up a lively debate over the intrinsic value of such work. After all, art is meant to inspire, and it’s meant to be talked about. 

      The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has yet to rule on this issue.

      But if we begin down the slippery slope of censoring public art under the semblance of sexual harassment, I worry how much further we will slide.