What is Sexual Harassment?
During the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, it was argued that various types of sexual behaviors, such as sexual harassment, resulted in the exclusion of or discrimination against women. Sexual harassment was deemed punishable by law because it violated Title VII of the US Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the late 1970s, judges and juries began to rule in agreement with this position. This position became sanctioned in 1980, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) declared that sexual harassment was illegal because it discriminated against women.
The EEOC defined sexual harassment as any unwelcome sexual contact that occurs in the workplace or school. There are two basic types of sexual harassment: harassment that creates a hostile and intimidating environment, and 'quid pro quo' harassment. The first type includes sexist jokes, repetitive requests for sex, inappropriate touching, continued staring, the displaying of pornographic materials, and/or anything else that can be proved to create a hostile work environment. Quid pro quo refers to the practice of offering employment or advancement in exchange for sex or sexual favors.
Sexual harassment suits target the complainant's employer, which can lead to concerns that the accuser will face retaliation by the employer for accusing his/her superior. To prevent this from occurring, laws were enacted to protect the rights of the complainant. Employers cannot fire or demote an employee because of a sexual harassment lawsuit.
Sexual harassment is extremely common. It commonly occurs in the school setting and workplace, but it also happens in very public areas, like on the street. About 50-80% of women and 10-20% of men experience sexual harassment in their careers. Sexual harassment is extremely underreported, with only 10% of survivors filing sexual harassment reports.
Examples of Sexual Harassment
Verbal Comments: A perpetrator may remark about a person’s body, tell jokes of a sexual nature, make inappropriate comments that they defend as compliments, ask questions about a person’s sex life, or use terms of endearment, such as “babe” in a professional setting, where the comments are not warranted or wanted.
Nonverbal Gestures: A perpetrator may look someone up and down (elevator eyes), mimic sexual acts, or expose his/her genitalia.
Physical Acts: A perpetrator may touch, hug, fondle, massage, or restrict a survivor’s movement (not letting a person pass by without brushing up against them).
Using Visual Objects: A perpetrator may show sexually explicit pictures, calendars, or posters to survivors.
Requiring Submission to Sexual Advances: A perpetrator who is a teacher or boss may require a student or employee to partake in some form of sexual behavior in order to receive a good grade, continue being employed, or further advance in one’s career.
Actual or Threatened Retaliation: A perpetrator may threaten a person who complains or intends to complain about being sexually harassed.
Sexual Harassment is NOT Flirting
Flirting is a wanted compliment that makes people feel good and attractive, and raises their self-esteem. Flirting is legal, open, non-threatening, and feels equal to both parties.
Sexual harassment is one sided and unwanted, makes people feel bad or dirty, is degrading, and lowers their self-esteem. Sexual harassment is illegal, invasive, threatening, and builds the ego of the giver while tearing down the self-esteem of the perceiver.
What to do if you are Being Sexually Harassed (Informal Action)
- Assertively tell the harasser you do not like what he/she is doing to you. Tell them to immediately stop and say it is not appropriate and not acceptable. Do this in a safe place where other people may witness the confrontation.
- Ignore or avoid the harasser. This may work in some instances, but the harassment may escalate. Make sure you are not taking on the responsibility for the harasser. You have not done anything wrong.
- Document the harassment. Record the date, time place, and other relative information. Save messages from the harasser. Documentation can be used in court trials or for getting restraining orders. It also serves to help normalize and validate your feelings. These “little incidents” really do add up.
- Find out if people know or have witnessed you being harassed. Document their knowledge. Ask the witness if they would be willing to testify on your behalf.
- Talk to other survivors of harassment. There is strength in numbers. If you find other survivors who share the same harasser, you may get a better response if complaints come from multiple people.
- Write a letter to the harasser. This may be easier than talking with the perpetrator in person. The letter should explain: the problem, how you feel, what you would like to happen, and what further action you will take if your requests are not met. Save a copy for yourself.