Fire Thongs

Wildest Tyee of 2006 #4: Richmond firefighters must wear boxers? We can do better.

By Shannon Rupp 26 Dec 2006 |

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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Hot controversy

[Editor's note: This week we are reprinting the top five wildest Tyee stories of the year. It was weird enough to learn on Oct. 24 that Richmond’s notoriously sexist fire department had been ordered to begin the healing by requiring men and women to wear the same brand of boxers. But leave it to Shannon Rupp to improve on a bureaucratic stroke of genius.]

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 its 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 the problem rather than solve it.

Underlying the underwear entente is the message that femininity, by its mere existence, is the problem. As the thinking half of the species, women are always expected to change -- their clothing or maybe their demeanour -- in order to avoid inflaming the wild male libido that leads to men's (apparently) interrelated urges to mate and hassle.

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 manicured hand in Panty-Aid, I'm assuming it's all boys). 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 scivvies solution echoes the ideas behind traditional Muslim garments like burkas, which cover women head-to-toe, supposedly for their own safety. (But who doesn't think the real purpose is to erase women from the world?)

Orthodox Jews adhere to similar rules regarding feminine headgear, and their dress codes, the laws of modesty, are so detailed that they prohibit wearing 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.

Tradition tells us that women are just a bunch of Jezebels whose natural whore-like natures force men to do all sorts of things they ought not to.

Like rape women. Or harass them. Or deny them access to well-paying jobs.

But the fault is in the fashion. If women could only be de-sexed, men might get on with more important things like running the world.

Further measures

So 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 decades' worth 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.

We have the technology to actually banish the bleeding and help women fit in with the norm. 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

Although critics have been quick to condemn the Stanfield's response to abusive employees breaking laws right, left and centre, Richmond should be forgiven for assuming that sexual harassment has an erotic component. Despite decades of criminologists, psychologists, biologists -- pretty much all the ologists -- telling them it's about abuse of power, they might have missed that memo. Oh sure, the courts prohibit defence lawyers from raising a rape victim's wardrobe as reasonable grounds for a man attacking her, but how could anyone be expected to make a connection between such disparate facts?

Really, what are facts when compared to centuries of man-made myth? As any astrologer, face-reader, or New Age wingnut can confirm, superstitions die hard.

Ready's September report has pointed to other solutions, and gives Richmond 90 days to implement such common sense changes as curtains to provide more privacy in changing and sleeping quarters and giving women the same spacious and easily accessed showers and toilets as men.

Now, women have been working as firefighters in Richmond for some years and in this society it's customary for men and women to have separate change rooms and toilets. Why does Richmond need high-priced legal help to tell 'em that?

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

Dress up time

Speaking of which, wouldn't it be preferable to make the men adopt female stereotypes, and don lingerie? Firehall denizens themselves say the problem is in firefighting's macho culture. Why not make them all wear thongs? Then demand male firefighters hide all hint of their sex and keep their shirts on -- no more calendars for them. Even the surgery solution, in reverse, would be easier. Bobbitting men, as it were, is much easier than cutting down women to man-size.

But what am I thinking? This is all much too complicated.

I'm not sure how this could have escaped Richmond's notice, but in most workplaces it's a given that any employee who harasses a co-worker or, worse, endangers her life, needs to have his ass kicked, not clad.

That's why most companies have harassment policies to deal with the doofuses likely to earn them lawsuits, or maybe criminal charges.

And for the extreme cases, nothing says it's time to improve your on-the-job social skills like a firing.

But in Richmond, management seems be doing the civic equivalent of royal commissions -- pretending to do something while, in fact, ignoring the issue. First there was the Paish Report, in April, in which lawyer Susan Paish reviewed the workplace and created an "action plan" for writing new policies and changing hiring practices -- the long-term approach. Then came Ready's report. Now it's the boxer revolution.

What is Richmond's resistance to actually dealing with employees in desperate need of discipline?

Oh sure, handing out boxer shorts may look like the cheapest solution now, but in the long run it's going to cost them in all sorts of unquantifiable ways, from human misery to morale problems. And there are a few quantifiable ones, like legal costs.

Ultimately, what's most astounding about Richmond's attempt to establish an intimate dress code is that they seem to be ignorant of what everyone else knows: there is no free gonch.

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