Fire Thongs

Richmond firefighters must wear boxers? We can do better.

By Shannon Rupp 26 Oct 2006 |

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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Hot controversy

On the heels of mediator Vince Ready's recommendations for preventing further harassment of Richmond's female firefighters -- the report that described those firehall boys as having a "hostile and juvenile attitude toward women" -- the city braintrust has arrived at their own solution: boxer shorts for all.

Even as I write, I can hear Henry Higgins breaking into that wistful song that captures the feelings of misogynists everywhere: "Why can't a woman be more like a man?"

Like many of Richmond's previous attempts to deal with this media-enthralling war of the sexes, the latest brainwave from the lads -- which looks like a sort of reverse panty-raid -- serves to explain why there's a conflict rather than solve it.

Talk about a "hostile and juvenile attitude toward women." Underlying the underwear entente is the message that femininity, by its mere existence, is the real problem. As always, women are expected to change themselves in order to avoid inflaming the wild male libido that leads to men's (apparently) interrelated urges to hassle and mate.

Biological determinists would certainly embrace this, since it resurrects that ancient and much-loved excuse that men, by definition, can't control themselves when confronted with women.

The big cover-up

Now, you can't entirely blame the boys in Richmond for believing this. (Since there's no hint of a manicured hand in Panty-Aid, I'm assuming it's all boys involved.) They've been exposed to two solid centuries of this kind of thinking, courtesy of those desert religions, which have had way too much influence on our culture.

Richmond's skivvies solution echoes the ideas behind traditional Muslim garments like burkas, which cover women head-to-toe -- supposedly for their own safety. Orthodox Jews have laws of modesty that include a dress code so detailed it prohibits red clothes or perfume -- the usual hooker accoutrements. Catholic nuns, of course, crop their hair and wear those neo-medieval habits, which serve as a kind of portable cloister.

The desert religions tell us that women are just a bunch of Jezebels whose whore-like nature forces men to do all sorts of things they ought not to.

Like harass women. Or rape them. Or bully them out of well-paying jobs.

Yeah, sure, the fault is in the fashion. If women could only be de-sexed, men would find better things to do.

Further measures

Far be it from me to get my knickers in a twist over boxergate. I can see that, in some ways, it's unfair to undermine the underwear edict, which comes at a cost of $16,000 a year. In fact, Richmond might consider mining tradition yet again for more budget-minded solutions.

For example, have they considered making mastectomies a requirement of women firefighters? In the long run, it would probably be cheaper than supplying scanties, and there's precedent. The Amazons of Greek legend were known to slice off a breast to improve bow-and-arrow prowess. (It probably occurred to them that the single-boobed warrior would also be that much safer from the swords of her male opponents.)

And what about hysterectomies? Pregnancy is a bloody nuisance in any workplace -- it involves at least a year of sick- and mat-leave followed by years of "childcare emergencies." And speaking of a bloody nuisance, that would end menstruation too. Many a culture has seen fit to banish bleeding women from decent society, or even their husbands. Now that we have the technology to actually banish the bleeding, we should probably take that step and help women blend in.

Nothing distinguishes women like evidence of that life-giving force. In filmmaker Neil LaBute's ode to misogyny, In the Company of Men, one character puts it this way: "I don't trust anything that bleeds for a week every month and doesn't die."

Fair enough. Besides who knows what weird, man-boggling pheromones are emanating from women as they ovulate?

Not about sex

Critics have been quick to condemn the Stanfields response to abusive male employees, perhaps because suggesting that sexual harassment can be prevented by women wearing boxers is a little like saying that rape can be prevented by women wearing trousers. It suggests that the powers that be must have missed that memo from criminologists, psychologists, biologists -- pretty much all the ologists -- pointing out that sexual harassment has little to do with erotic inspiration and everything to do with abuse of power.

In sharp contrast to boxer revolution, Ready's September report pointed out some common-sense fixes such as adding curtains to changing and sleeping quarters to give men and women more privacy. And he has a strategy for supplying women with the same spacious and easily accessed showers and toilets as the men.

But his suggestions raise more than a few questions. The most obvious is why, when women have been working as firefighters in Richmond for 10 years, does city management need high-priced legal help to tell them it's customary to provide segregated sleeping and changing rooms?

Never mind, apparently it's easier to beat a path back to Victorian-era gender notions.

Dress up time

Speaking of which, wouldn't it be preferable to make the men adopt female stereotypes and don thongs? Much has been said (even by the culprits themselves) about the problem being rooted in firefighting's macho culture. Given that, it seems decking everyone out in guy's underwear sends the wrong signals. Why not garb them all in lace-edged tap pants and silk teddies. Apparently, what these guys really need is to put down the hoses and get in touch with their feminine side.

But issuing drawers, even lacy ones, does little more than pay lip-service to solving the real problem.

I'm not sure how this could have escaped Richmond's notice, but there's an obvious solution to employees whose behaviour is less than professional, and it has nothing to do with sprucing up their lingerie.

Have these people never heard of firing?

It's a given in most workplaces that any employee who harasses a co-worker or, worse, endangers her life, will have his ass fired -- not treated to new duds.

Oh sure, handing out boxer shorts may look like the cheapest solution now, but it's going to cost them in the long run. Strife. Lawsuits. Criminal charges. Nation-wide mocking. As the old saying goes, there is no free gonch.

But over in Richmond it seems they prefer another old saying -- clothes make the man.

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