From the Bible to the Football Field: Harassment in the Workplace

Black and white photo of young man covering his face with his hands.
Photo by Santiago Sauceda González.

This week my article comes with a little delay because I spent the weekend in London attending the Fawcett Conference 2023 with the theme Women win elections! and celebrating my birthday.

And now, back to the post.

As I mentioned last week, this is the second of a series of three articles based on my summer holiday. Each marks an important milestone in my evolution as an activist for women’s rights and also as a person. The first one was about the invisibility of women in public spaces (Monumental Inequity: The Missing Women). The focus of this one is on the visibility of harassment.


On August 20th I was on holiday in Malta with my family. I’m not a football fan but it was impossible to visit the webpage of a Spanish or English journal and ignore that the Women’s World Cup final was scheduled for that day between the two countries.

I didn’t watch the match but I kept checking the results as I was walking through the streets of La Valetta, Malta’s capital. And I was happy when I learned they had won. (To be honest, I would only have been mildly disappointed if England had won instead, after all, I’ve been living in the UK for 19 years).

Then, I read about the president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) kissing one of the female Spanish football players during the medal presentation.

I couldn’t believe it. A kiss on the lips in front of everybody? The cameras broadcasting the event? It couldn’t be…

So I searched the image. And it was there. 

What happened next was textbook sexual harassment in the workplace. 

The abuser

Once his victim dared to express that she didn’t like the kiss, the president of the RFEF followed the typical pattern that a perpetrator of wrongdoing may display when confronted with their behaviour: Deny, Attack, and Reverse the Victim with the Offender, which is referred to by the acronym DARVO.

  • He denied that it was harassment.
  • He accused others of seeing harassment where there wasn’t.
  • He consistently refused it was his fault.
  • He claimed he was the victim of a witch hunt.

The cherry on the cake? The defense tactic that never dies: “I have daughters”.

How many times have we heard abusers claim that having daughters automatically rules out that they can be harassers, rapists, or murderers? 

What about the others?

  • The RFEP stood by their boss, even releasing a note that analysed the positions of the body of the female football player to imply she was the one kissing him.
  • On 25th August, the president addressed the RFEF in an in-person event. Instead of resigning, he complained of being the object of a manhunt and confirmed he’d continue in his role. The attendees applauded, including other top bosses of the RFEF and the coach of the female football team.
  • Hardly any male football teams denounced the issue and only a few male players supported the female footballer.
  • The UEFA, the FIFA, and many other federations closed their eyes as much as they could.
  • Even after the RFEF president resigned, the female players had to continue to exert pressure to get the reforms that they’d been asking for years.

Harassment has a long tradition

Is sexual harassment in the workplace new? And is it really hidden?

Before #MeToo, there was the American attorney and educator Anita Hill. In 1991, she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about Clarence Thomas’s sexual harassment when he was appointed to the US Supreme Court. Her testimony has been credited with raising awareness of workplace sexual harassment.

But almost a century ago, actresses Shirley Temple and Judy Garland had already endured sexual harassment in the workplace at the ages of 12 and 16, respectively. 

Before the 20th century, women were seen as “property” so rather than complaining about sexual harassment, their “owners” (fathers, husbands) asked compensation for “damaging goods”. Historian Ed Ayers shares an example in this interview: “There’s an 1858 case … the father sues his daughter’s employer — she’s 14 — for getting her pregnant, and thus losing her income when she has to quit and have the baby.”

In her book Ain’t I a Woman, bell hooks opens our eyes to the sexual assault Black women underwent during slavery. It was either comply or be punished. 

Would you be surprised if I told you that we have records of sexual harassment in the workplace happening 3,000 years ago? The Book of Ruth in the Bible is dated around 1160 and 1100 BC. One of the pivotal moments in the Book is when Ruth becomes a gleaner in Boaz’s field. He instructs his workers not to molest her (Ruth 2: 7–9, 15–16). And whilst the Catholic Bible in English may leave doubts about what “molesting” means, the text was originally written in Hebrew and many Bible scholars have found sexual overtones in it

Basically, Boaz knew his workers were predators and he decided to spare Ruth by explicitly telling them not to molest her. How kind of him! What about other women? What about instead firing them?

Boys will be boys…

Willful blindness

Back to the football drama. 

This was not the first time the now ex-president of the RFEP was involved in a story of sex at work. In 2020, there was money expensed towards an off-site work event run in a cottage that he later referred to as a “ paella with girlfriends” and his uncle and ex-cabinet manager as an orgy.

Years ago, the Spanish female footballers had already reported that their coach forced them to keep the doors of their rooms open until midnight so he could check by himself that they were there. He also would check their bags when they were back from shopping and, if they went out, they should inform him where they were going and with whom.

Sounds familiar. When we look at #MeToo or the sexual harassment lawsuits at “tech bro” companies (Tesla, Uber, Google) they want us to believe that those things were happening behind doors, that only a few knew, that there was no evidence.

The reality is that in all cases

  • Evidence was there for everybody to see it all along but nobody cared.
  • That having visual evidence didn’t result in automatic sanctions to the perpetrators and restitution for the victim. Abusers were still given the benefit of the doubt and victims were badmouthed.

We have in Spanish the saying “No hay peor ciego que el que no quiere ver.” There is a similar saying in English, “There’s none so blind as he who will not see.” There is a legal term for this

In law, willful blindness is when a person seeks to avoid civil or criminal liability for a wrongful act by intentionally keeping themselves unaware of facts that would render them liable or implicated.


Stopping willful blindness towards sexual harassment in the workplace

I was in Malta when the story started. I went to Spain with my family where the drama was played on TV 24–7. I came back to the UK from holidays and it’s still ongoing.

Although the RFEF president finally resigned, the story is far from finished for the female player who endured the harassment. There are several lawsuits underway.

Once again we have proof that whilst women continue to be seen as second-class humans, no evidence would be enough to finish sexual harassment and gender violence. We’ll continue to excuse perpetrators and find a rationale to blame victims.

Whilst I like to believe that indeed #SeAcabo (the hashtag they used to protest and means “It’s finished”), the reality is that it isn’t. It’s not a matter of “visibility” or “awareness”. 

So, what’s the cure for wilful blindness to sexual harassment in the workplace? Forceful accountability.

How does that look in practice?

  • First and foremost, let’s look at the evidence.
  • Let’s stop finding comfort in justifying a 3,000-year status quo where sexual predators take advantage of the asymmetry of power in hierarchical work relationships.
  • Let’s stop finding exculpating rationales for the perpetrators.
  • Let’s stop placing the onus on the victims to shatter our biases about who’s credible and who isn’t. 

It’s a lie that eradicating sexual harassment at work is about the perpetrators and the victims. It’s about the workplace’s culture we all contribute to — what we decide to see, what we choose to ignore, and who we believe.

Which workplace culture are you supporting right now? Is it one of difficult conversations and zero-tolerance? Or is it one of being forgiving and forgetful?

I know which one I’m supporting. I won’t be a bystander. Will you?


Thanks for accompanying me on this journey. The final installment of this trilogy will focus on caregiving.

Work with me:  My special offer

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2 thoughts on “From the Bible to the Football Field: Harassment in the Workplace

  1. Pingback: How to upend your life: Become an accidental caregiver - Patricia Gestoso

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