What is Sexual Harassment?

Dear Neil:  Could you help us settle an office argument about what constitutes sexual harassment?  We have a large difference of opinion amongst us as to where the line is drawn between flirting and actual harassment.

Curious In New York City


Dear Curious:  Sexual harassment is not really about sex.  It is about power gained through control and intimidation—the power experienced by forcing someone to date or have sex with you, the feeling of superiority felt when embarrassing or humiliating another person, the power gained by unnerving someone to the point that they can’t do their job—or compete successfully.

According to the National Council for Research on Women, 50 to 80 percent of women encounter some kind of sexual harassment during their school or working life.

Sexual harassment attempts to make the victim feel intellectually, emotionally and professionally inferior.  The overwhelming majority of sexual harassment cases are women, although men can also be victims.

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome words or actions of a sexual nature that create an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.  Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature is considered sexual harassment when:

  • It is made a term or condition of employment or academic advancement.  Your job depends on your response, such as when it is used as the basis for employment, raises, promotions, assignments, grades, etc.
  • If it unreasonably interferes with the individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.

Other forms of sexual harassment include:

  • Verbal (sexual jokes or teasing; innuendos and off-color remarks; comments about how someone looks, especially about parts of the body; catcalls, whistles and sexual forms of address (such as honey, babe, etc); pressure for dates)
  • Visual (presence of sexually visual material such as pinups, cartoons, graffiti, computer programs, catalogs of a sexual nature; written material that is sexual in nature, such as notes or e-mail containing sexual comments; starring or leering; suggestive gestures or looks; smacking of lips or hand gestures)
  • Physical contact (unwelcome hugging, sexual touching or kissing; pinching, grabbing or patting; standing too close to or brushing against another person; cornering, trapping or blocking a person’s pathway; sexual assault or forced fondling)

It is important to point out that men often have a very different perception of sexual harassment.  For example, one study from the University of Arizona found that 67% of men would feel complemented if propositioned by a woman at work, as opposed to 17% of women.  Harvard Business Review found a similar difference:  75% of men said they would be flattered by sexual advances at work, as opposed to only 15% of women who said the same.

Some people don’t recognize that behaviors such as flirting, sexual teasing, sexual remarks and innuendos—is considered sexual harassment.

I will offer suggestions on what to do if you feel sexually harassed in next week’s column.

Source:  Confronting Sexual Harassment by Louise Eberhardt (Whole Person Associates)

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