I just completed two plus hours of training in the prevention of sexual harassment. Thanks to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's flirtatious ways in his he-man days, California has a law (AB 1825) that "requires employers with more than 50 people to provide 2 hours of training and education to all supervisory employees." (Learning to spell 'harassment' correctly is a challenge itself - one 'r', not two, and two 's's; pronunciation is another issue.)
So I'm able to meet this requirement by taking an online course that teaches about "protected characteristics" and other terms. "Real-world" legal cases are presented throughout. At times, I thought I was reading Aesop's Fables, but with the "moral" of the story presented as multiple choice. Most of the lessons have the tone of a humorless teacher: "Employees should never use email or any business communication system to send or receive rumors or gossip, or to make disparaging or defamatory remarks about anyone." I felt like a student in the back of class wanting to say: "yeah, that never happens."
So I was surprised to read that the subject of one of these fables was Koko the Gorilla.
Case Study: Gorilla Suit
Kendra was a research associate for The Gorilla Foundation. As part of her duties, Kendra helped care for Koko, the sign-language talking gorilla.
Using sign language, Koko is able to communicate with humans. Over the years, Koko has repeatedly requested that female human visitors display their breasts to her. In fact, certain of Koko's hand movements were interpreted as a "demand" by Koko to see exposed human nipples.
Accordingly, when Koko made the signs about Kendra, Koko's primary caregiver instructed Kendra to expose her breasts to Koko as a way to bond with the great ape.
Although Kendra used to regularly dress in front of the pet parrot that lived in the Foundation's women's locker room, Kendra is uncomfortable with Koko's "demand."
This scenario is based on a 2005 case called Keller v. The Gorilla Foundation. Could Kendra complain that she was sexually harassed?
* No, because Kendra exposed herself to the Foundation's parrot and Koko wanted Kendra do the same thing.
* Probably not, because Koko is not a human.
* Only if she first "signs" to Koko that she will not indulge Koko's request.
* Yes, and the Foundation was required to take effective action to stop the harassment from continuing.
You can't make this stuff up, especially the detail about the pet parrot. David Pescovitz wrote about "Koko's Nipple Fetish" in 2005 on BoingBoing, citing the story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Now it has made itself into state-mandated training materials.
Note: I don't mean to make light of sexual harassment but, honestly, I don't work with gorillas.
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.