Sexual harassment training

Several times over the last few years, I’ve presented lectures and led workshops on sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. I began doing them as a member of a group called Peer Sexuality Outreach when I was a student at Berkeley in 1986, and have continued to offer them to various organizations. Many times I’ve thought about creating a more serious side business out of these trainings, but haven’t gotten around to it yet.

I’ve done trainings in a variety of settings — with Greeks on college campuses and with Presbyterian seminarians at Fuller. I always try and adapt what I’m doing to the specific needs of the organization I’m working with; seminarians get a slightly different message than secular high schoolers. And last Thursday, I did a training at my once and future boxing gym here in Pasadena. (I’m taking a break from boxing to concentrate on marathon training; I’ll go back to lifting and hitting things in August.)

I’d never done a sexual harassment/misconduct training in a gym setting before. I spend a lot of time in gyms, and indeed have flirted with the idea of going through trainer certification at some point in the future. Personal trainers have been a huge part of my life. I’ve worked with running coaches and boxing coaches and weight-lifting coaches; my wife and I are absolutely devoted to Stephanie, our Pilates instructor. I’ve got enormous respect for the folks who have not only made fitness the source of their livelidhood, but who are committed to helping others reach their physical goals.

But gyms, like restaurants, are notoriously hostile work environments for women. While sexual harassment can happen anywhere, I hear an unusually high number of (often appalling) anecdotes from folks who have worked in the fitness world. And even though boxing and kickboxing have become much more popular in the past decade, gyms that focus primarily on these activities have a particularly bad reputation. Folks who have never worked out in a boxing gym make some unfair (and some warranted) assumptions about what might go on there; many women in particular are nervous about walking in the door to sign up for classes or personal training. The fear of being harassd, of being hit on, of being placed in an ugly situation — these fears are real, and they hurt the business potential of those who own and operate these clubs.

My sexual harassment seminar on Thursday was light-hearted. There’s a trick to doing these workshops: on the one hand, you need a certain amount of engaging humor in order to put folks at ease. On the other hand, you want to make it absolutely clear that you take this subject very seriously — too much humor can make it seem as if sexual harassment training is like one of those Comedy Traffic Schools, where the unstated message is that the whole experience is a frustrating waste of time. Getting people to understand what sexual harassment is, and what it isn’t; getting people (especially men) to make a commitment to work to create a safe environment for all employees and clients — this is vital, serious stuff.

The most sensitive area of my whole presentation dealt with “consensual relationships” between trainers and clients. I reminded the various coaches and trainers at the gym that every national certifying body in the American fitness world considers sexual relations between a trainer and a current client to be profoundly unethical. This gym, like most gyms I’ve been around (and I’ve been around a great many) has a certain percentage of trainers who honor this rule more in the breach than in the observance. I noted the rules barring these sorts of relationships between professors and students, between lawyers and clients, between doctors and patients. “If you want to be seen as the professionals you are”, I said, “then you need to be willing to live up to a professional code of behavior. And you’ve got to do more than just follow the rules yourself — you’ve got to be willing to hold your fellow trainers accountable. Their misbehavior reinforces a stereotype that ends up reflecting badly on you and everyone else in the business.”

In an ideal world, people would go through sexual harassment workshops because they want to create a safe space for everyone. Realistically, the fear of litigation is the reason why I get paid to come in and do these trainings (and some larger, corporate entitites get paid huge sums to come in and present slick, packaged, day-long workshops.) But my concern is less with the motive than with the outcome. Whether I’ve been brought in to prevent lawsuits or because there’s a genuine desire to create a safe, fun, healthy atmosphere for everyone doesn’t matter. If people end up doing the right things for the wrong reasons, it’s still a damned sight better than not doing the right things at all.

This was my first workshop that got videotaped; at some point, I’ll see if I can’t get excerpts on to Youtube.

0 thoughts on “Sexual harassment training

  1. Oh no, dreaded thread drift coming!

    Simply put, I’m curious to see the vid on YouTube with you in action—I’m trying NOT be a junkie there because of all of the “hidden gems” cropping up, such as old music videos and live performances I’ve never seen (although I don’t have my own posts just yet). So, inform us if you place it there.

  2. Can other gym members create a hostile work-out environment? The other day these two guys got on cardio machines next to me with the Maxim Hot 100 issue and started loudly critiquing the women’s bodies. Loud enough I could hear them over the Air America podcast I was trying to listen to. I might have said something to one of the staff but I only had five minutes to go and then I had somewhere to be. It made me extremely uncomfortable and totally ruined my post workout buzz.

    But not all gyms are awful. My boyfriend saw a guy at his gym wearing a “This is What a Radical Feminist Looks Like” shirt.

  3. Elizabeth, I think that’s an excellent way to combat the anti-feminist atmosphere in most gyms. Wearing t-shirts that support women, or challenge injustice, is a good, subtle way to let other members know that you won’t tolerate harassment of any kind. It’s also a lot faster and easier than trying to get the gym owners to put up “My Strength Is Not for Hurting” posters.

  4. What can be done by other gym members who watch the manager (related to the gym owners) consistently touch, harrass and intimidate young (16 yrs) staff members and even club members?

    One former staff member has filed a restraining order and numerous gym members have filed complaints with the corporate office, yet no action has been taken. None of the girls seem to have the desire to take this further, but older members of the gym are afraid this guy may do worse one day. Thank you for your thoughts on this!