With sexual harassment being back in the news spotlight due to high-profile cases going to trial and being dramatized by Netflix, I wanted to take the time to help give you a better grasp of the seriousness of sexual harassment and how to navigate it.
Though sexual harassment is not the same as sexual assault, it should be treated just as seriously. While sexual harassment and sexual assault have similar characteristics, one significant difference separates them. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines sexual harassment as “uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature, especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate (such as an employee or student)” and sexual assault as “illegal sexual contact that usually involves force upon a person without consent or is inflicted upon a person who is incapable of giving consent (as because of age or physical or mental incapacity) or who places the assailant (such as a doctor) in a position of trust or authority.” These definitions show that sexual harassment and sexual assault can involve coercion, consent violation, and unwanted physical touch, but criminality divides them. Sexual harassment generally violates civil laws and, in most cases, is not a criminal act, while sexual assault mainly relates to criminal acts.
Sexual harassment frequently includes using power, and power dynamics are often utilized and pushed to the forefront.
Because sexual assault is a form of harassment, all cases of sexual assault are also examples of harassment. Yet, not all instances of harassment are severe enough to treat as sexual assault. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), sexual assault is characterized by intimate communication of any sort without the permission of the person. This would include rape or attempted assault, unwanted sexual touch, or pressuring another person to do sexual acts against their will. Sexual harassment frequently includes using power, and power dynamics are often utilized and pushed to the forefront. A form of using your role, advancement, or other things you may be seeking or needing against you. Basically, the difference between sexual harassment and sexual assault is sexual harassment’s relation to the workplace/a person’s job, which is why harassment is a civil rights issue. The cases in which sexual harassment becomes a crime are under the Uniform Code of Military Justice administration. In dealing with both of these issues, our emphasis should not be to accentuate one above the other. Instead, we need to realize their relationship and how sexual harassment fosters unsafe working conditions and can impact a person’s emotional state and livelihood.
The level of harassment... prevents others from interfering... especially when folks may be undocumented, underage, or the only ones supporting their family.
Who Experiences Sexual Harassment?
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment can occur in various ways. Sexual harassment is not gender-specific. A harasser may identify as a man, woman, or neither, and the victim does not have to be the opposite sex from the harasser. An employee may be harassed by their supervisor, an agent of their employer, a co-worker, or a customer. A victim of harassment can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct, not just the person who was harassed. In many cases, the level of harassment and how deeply it impacts a person’s job performance prevents others from interfering, further encouraging predatory behavior, especially when folks may be undocumented, underage, or the only ones supporting their family.
The Impact of Sexual Harassment
Often folks experiencing sexual harassment don’t recognize the impact the harassment has on them beyond the stressfulness of the situation. For someone experiencing sexual harassment, there are three different areas where you and those around you may notice a change.
You may experience heightened anger, fear, humiliation, shame, guilt, betrayal, violation, powerlessness, and loss of control.
Mental Health Changes:
You may begin to experience/exacerbate anxiety, depression, panic attacks, PTSD symptoms, difficulty concentrating, loss of motivation, substance abuse, or suicidal ideation.
This can look like headaches, fatigue, sleep, or appetite disturbances.
Examples of Sexual Harassment
The following are some of the most common examples of sexual harassment, but individual experiences aren’t limited to the things I have listed.
- Sharing sexually inappropriate images or videos.
- Sending suggestive letters, notes, texts, or emails.
- Making inappropriate sexual gestures or staring intensely.
- Inappropriate touching, such as patting, rubbing, or grabbing anywhere on the body.
- Someone is making sexual comments about your appearance (body, clothing) or in general.
- Someone is using derogatory words or nicknames to refer to you, such as baby, hunk, sexy, etc.
- Someone is asking sexual questions, enquiring about your sex life or sexual history.
- Someone is making lewd jokes or offering information about their sex life or someone else’s.
- Someone is offering and giving inappropriately personal gifts.
Just as there is no way to prevent sexual assault, there is no way to avoid sexual harassment.
Just as there is no way to prevent sexual assault, there is no way to avoid sexual harassment. I would never give you a list of how not to be harmed because, as unfortunate as it is, it’s out of any of our control. I can arm you with ways to recognize the harm early on and offer tips on how to deal with it. I hope that with this information, you will better care for yourself and support others who have the misfortune of going through such a situation.
How do you prove sexual harassment?
- Document immediately after things happen, whether in a private google doc or an email to HR.
- Be sure to document the date and time of the incident(s).
- If there are witnesses to the behavior or events, ask them to verify what they witnessed in a personal email. Don’t use your work email.
- Remember that you must be able to prove that the harassment has been severe or persistent enough to affect work conditions. So document any incidences no matter their level of severity.
- Save evidence of communication (for example, text messages, emails, voicemails, gifts) from the harasser.
What is Bystander Intervention?
Bystander Intervention is when someone outside of an incident recognizes a potentially harmful situation or interaction and chooses to respond in a way that could positively influence the outcome. Three points make an effective bystander intervention: Distract, Direct, and Delegate.
- Distract the harasser or the target by starting a conversation unrelated to the harassment.
- Create a way for the person being harassed to exit the situation. Example: tell them they have a call, or you need to speak to them
The goal is to derail and de-escalate the situation to get the person being harassed out of a bad situation and to safety.
- Check-in with the person that was harmed.
- Ask them how they would like to be supported.
- Directly respond to the person calming harm. Physically intervene if necessary.
The goal here is to let the harmed person know that you are there for them and that someone else is aware of the harassment.
Active bystanders are most helpful when accepting that they are the only individual taking charge; giving way to others to help is critically important.
- Bring in someone with more “authority” to assist, such as a manager if the harasser is a peer or the HR department if they hold a higher position.
The goal is to seek help outside of yourself to assess and assist in the situation. When made by bystanders, this move is often the only reason aggression and other offenses stop. Active bystanders are most helpful when accepting that they are the only individual taking charge; giving way to others to help is critically important. The social and behavioral dysfunction identified by the bystander effect is often reduced with knowledge and education.
When you are actively dealing with sexual harassment, it may feel overwhelming, isolating, and as if you are the only person harmed. I hope this information will give you a place to start when dealing with sexual harassment, whether you are the target or a bystander. To learn more about sexual harassment laws and workplace rights, visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).