A man whistles and makes a lewd joke when his co-worker enters the room. A woman looks a man up and down and winks as he walks toward her. A boss comes close behind an employee, leaning over her shoulder and rubbing her neck. A group of boys flick girls’ bra straps or grab their butts as they walk down the hall. A supervisor offers a promotion for sexual favors. Sexual graffiti is scrawled on the walls of the bathroom stall referring to a particular student.
These are all examples of sexual harassment. Although sexual harassment was once talked about primarily in relation to the workplace, increasingly, sexual harassment in our schools is becoming a problem. Sexual harassment essentially is bullying of a sexual nature.
In some situations, the same outward actions could be either flirtation or harassment. What is the difference? Flirting is welcomed and boosts a person’s confidence and makes them feel good. Sexual harassment is not welcomed and makes the person feel uncomfortable, violated, or threatened.
RAINN defines sexual harassment as
unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature in which submission to or rejection of such conduct explicitly or implicitly affects and individual’s work or school performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work or school environment.
Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of situations:
The perpetrator can be a man or a woman.
The harasser and victim do not need to be different genders. A woman can harass a woman or a man can harass a man.
The harasser can be a supervisor, an agent of the employer, a co-worker, a non-employee such as a customer, a teacher/professor, a student, a relative, or even a stranger.
The perpetrator may not be aware that his/her behavior is offensive or unlawful.
The harassment may be a one time occurrence. More often it is repetitive.
The harassment may occur publically (flagrant behavior/attitudes) or privately (keeping up a front until alone with the victim).
But in all cases the actions, comments, or looks must be unwelcomed. These harassing actions can take many forms, too many to list here. Some examples include:
Pressure for sexual favors or dates.
Deliberate touching, leaning over, cornering, pinching, brushing up against, massaging.
Sexual looks, gestures (with hands or body movements), comments, sounds, teasing, jokes, questions.
Whistling or cat calling.
Sexual comments about a person’s clothing, anatomy, looks, social life.
Graffiti in the bathroom, emails, notes, stories of a sexual nature.
Facial expressions, winking, throwing kisses, licking or smacking lips.
Actual or attempted rape or sexual assault.
When a person experiences sexual harassment or any kind in the workplace or at school, it is essential that he or she communicate clearly to the harasser that his/her actions are unwelcomed and need to stop.
Sexual harassment can have a wide range of effects on the victim. Some harassment situations would be described as simply annoying. Others can lead to stress and anxiety, depression, isolation, poor concentration, reduced work levels, and other similar reactions. According to some psychologists and social workers, severe or prolonged sexual harassment can have the same psychological effects as rape or sexual assault.
Sadly, in many cases, the victims of sexual harassment suffer further from reporting the situation. Much like the situation with rape or sexual assault, the victim often becomes the accused. Those who speak out may be labeled troublemakers or attention seekers. Their appearance, dress, private life, and character may become the subject of scrutiny, attack, or mockery. They may risk employment, promotion, work/social relationships, scholarships, or recommendations. Much work must be done to secure justice for victims of sexual crimes and to ensure work and school environments of safety and mutual respect.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Have you ever experienced sexual harassment or observed it at your school or workplace? Have you ever harassed someone yourself? How did you feel about the situation?
Can you think of examples from movies, TV shows, books, or other popular media that portray sexual harassment? Is it portrayed as a comic situation or a serious one? How does the victim react? What message does that situation communicate to the viewer/reader?
How do you think our culture contributes to the presence of sexual harassment?
What preventative steps should be taken (both individually and communally) in your school/workplace to curb sexual harassment?
Why do you think it’s easier to blame the victim of harassment for the crimes instead of seeking to expose and punish the perpetrator? Do you have any ideas for how to fix this problem?
Sexual harassment, like many other sexually-related crimes, is actively present in our society. The wide variety of forms and situations are all connected by their unwelcomed nature. Those experiencing sexual harassment must tell the perpetrator to stop and communicate clearly how those actions are unwanted.
We must seek to provide justice for those who have been victims of sexual harassment—and not continue the trend which makes victims the “bad guy.”
An essential part of this problem is the objectification (typically) of women, the depersonalization of sex, and the sense of entitlement that pervades our culture. If we want to get at the root of the issue, we must address these problems.
Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN). “Sexual Harassment.” Retrieved online Aug. 5, 2014.