Growing up in Honolulu, I have become accustomed to being hugged and kissed on the cheek. It’s part of Hawaii’s hugging culture: a big sweep of the arms followed by a hello or goodbye peck on the cheek.
I receive such hugs and kisses from friends and professional colleagues without rebuke. Even though I don’t always enjoy the practice I tell myself “that’s the way it is.” I remember only once trying to get away from an “aloha kisser” whose intentions seemed lecherous. I walked backwards so fast to escape that I fell onto the ground — to the kisser’s astonishment.
I have also noticed that the hugs and cheek kisses seem to be directed most often at women, not men. I rarely see male reporters getting hugged and kissed when we are on news stories together.
The question is when do so-called aloha kisses and hugs become sexual harassment?
That’s expected to be addressed in a sexual harassment complaint filed by former Hawaii Department of Human Services Director Rachael Wong against former state House Speaker and still Maui Rep. Joe Souki. The complaint is being investigated by the Hawaii State Ethics Commission.
According to Souki’s lawyer, Michael Green, Wong’s complaint alleges that Souki sexually harassed her when he kissed her on the cheek in his office instead of accepting her hand offered as a goodbye shake. The complaint also mentions that Souki adjusted his pants and made a comment to Wong about being perky.
“Whatever that means,” says Green.
To be clear, there is undoubtedly more to Rachael Wong’s complaint than opposing attorney Green is revealing. But it’s difficult to know because Wong isn’t saying much about what happened to her in Souki’s office.
In a phone conversation Saturday, Wong repeated what she has said before. “I honor the process the Ethics Commission is leading and that process will reveal all the facts.”
But, says Meda Chesney-Lind, the director of the University of Hawaii Women’s Studies Department: “Details matter. Was it cheek-to-cheek kissing or a kiss on the lips?”
“I can’t imagine a one-time event would have had that impact on her,” she says, “but we don’t know enough about what happened.”
Attorney Green calls the basis of Wong’s complaint “crazy.”
“The whole thing has run amok,” he says. “Maybe we should have the Legislature enact a new law that unless you are a mother, a father, a brother, an uncle or an auntie it will be a full misdemeanor to hug someone or kiss them on the cheek.
“The aloha spirit is gone in 2018. It is something we can talk about but only in the past.”
Green added that “I have no doubt (Wong) is a fine person. But I think if what he did bothered her, why not send Souki a note or an email saying ‘I am uncomfortable with what you did. Please do not do it again.’
“Give him a chance to apologize. He would have apologized in a heartbeat. Give him a chance to respond before going forward to file a complaint with the State Ethics Commission three years later.”
Professionals who teach anti-sexual harassment workshops say it is not a hugger’s intention but how a recipient perceives it that matters.
“Aloha hugging and kissing might be culturally acceptable but that doesn’t mean that everybody should be forced to participate,” says Nadezna Ortega. “It all depends on what you feel comfortable with. Culture is not static. What was once socially acceptable can change.“
Ortega, an attorney, is the coordinator of the feminist group AF3IRM, (also known as Affirm), which conducts workshops on gender and sexual harassment prevention.
Former state Rep. Annelle Amaral, who is Native Hawaiian, says hugging and cheek kissing is a long accepted practice in Hawaii. She says the practice stems from “honi,” the Hawaiian greeting of coming nose to nose and inhaling each other’s “ha,” the so-called breath of life.
With the arrival of foreigners, the “honi” breath-sharing greeting gradually evolved to hugs and kisses on the cheeks.
My Punahou School classmate Vicky Hollinger says, “OMG, we live in Hawaii where we honi not only our family and friends but even our waiter or waitress in Zippy’s if they’ve been special to us! All he did was kiss her on the cheek and she was then ‘unable to do her job!’ ʻAuwe …”
When Amaral was a Honolulu police officer, she taught rape prevention and sexual harassment prevention workshops.
She says that Wong’s story as we know it now “does not make sense. It does not rise to the level of sexual harassment but there is probably more to what happened than meets the eye.”
State House Chief Clerk Brian Takeshita says three House members have been the subject of complaints of sexual misconduct or sexual harassment since 2008. It is not clear if Souki was one of the three because state law prohibits the release of the names of alleged violators unless they have been suspended or expelled from the House. None was suspended or expelled.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said it is the Legislature’s practice not to release the names. In fact, according to Takeshita, state law prohibits the disclosure.
The state Senate received complaints about one senator during the same period. Senate Chief Clerk Carol Taniguchi says the senator was required to undergo counseling and attend one-on-one anti-sexual harassment training.
Wong filed the complaint with the State Ethics Commission last fall. At the time, Souki was no longer the House speaker and Wong had already resigned from her position in Gov. David Ige’s cabinet as director of the state human services department.
Attorney Green says, “Joe Souki does not remember what happened three years ago. He is an 84-year-old man. Since then he has probably kissed a thousand people.”
Green says the complaint points to the incident with Souki as a one-time occurrence.
Wong first spoke to Civil Beat by phone on Thursday but she declined to elaborate on the specifics of her allegations:
“I am going through the process with the Ethics Commission. I don’t want to impact the process or turn it political,” Wong said.
I said: “Defense attorney Michael Green is making you sound hypersensitive. Please tell me your side of the story.”
She said: “He can say what he wants. That’s his prerogative and his job. It’s not appropriate for me to comment now.”
I said: “You need to get your point of view on the record. Hugging and kissing in Hawaii is cultural.”
Wong said: “I respect the community and the local culture.”
Wong’s family has lived in Hawaii for five generations. She is a graduate of Punahou School and Princeton University. Her master’s degree in public health is from the University of Hawaii Manoa and her doctorate in public health is from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
After I spoke with Wong on the phone Thursday, she texted me a prepared message saying that the incident in Souki’s office had affected her ability to do her job.
The text read: “In the moment and during my tenure with the state, I felt powerless to do anything due to the risk of retaliation against me, the department and the executive branch. It is an abuse of power and representative of where we are broken.”
In her job, Wong was required to meet regularly with state lawmakers to encourage them to vote for proposals and funding beneficial to her department.
“I finally reached a point where I could no longer not say or do anything and this was motivated by two things: deep love for Hawaii and our shared community and great sadness that this is our reality,” Wong wrote in her text.
Green says he expects the door to open with other people coming forward to accuse Souki and others of sexual harassment. He says its an unfair situation.
“If you win these kinds of cases people think it is because you had a good lawyer not because your client is innocent,” Green says.
It will be a valuable exercise as Wong’s case goes forward to define when Hawaii’s hugging and kissing practice is pono and when it is auwe — flat out wrong.
Rachael Wong is the founder of the One Shared Future initiative which has received support through the Omidyar Ohana Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation. Pierre Omidyar is the publisher of Honolulu Civil Beat.