What Is Sexual Harassment?


In the last few years, there has been a steady increase in the public's interest in sexual harassment and its impact and role in society. However, recent events have prompted that interest to skyrocket and push it squarely into the spot light. This has prompted many to begin to rethink what they know about sexual harassment, raising a lot of questions from those who might not be very familiar with harassment in general. For many, a large-scale public discussion on this topic is a necessity that is long overdue since there are many who do not even understand what sexual harassment is or the impact it can have on a person.

Unfortunately, sexual harassment is prevalent enough in society--on a domestic and global scale--that not encountering instances of sexual harassment in general is becoming increasingly rare. A recent 2017 poll has shown that a whopping 68% of women have experienced unwanted sexual advances in the workplace, the very environment that this course focuses on.  To translate that into a quantifiable number, that comes out to around 33 million women being sexually harassed at work and that's only what has been found in one poll that focuses only on adult women in the workforce being harassed by their adult male peers. It does not include male victims, female aggressors, victims and/or aggressors who are minors (under 18 years of age), non-workplace-related harassment, and instances that were unreported or unrecognized as harassment by the victims. Just imagine what the data would show if the poll's demographics were even slightly expanded.

This article will introduce you to the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace, providing you with some of the basic information needed for you to navigate through this course. An explanation of what is involved in sexual harassment, the forms it takes, and some common myths and misconceptions you may have will be discussed. Keep in mind that sexual harassment in and out of the workplace can be a very complex and multi-dimensional issue. This is just the tip of the iceberg that you're standing on now.

Sexual Harassment Defined

There are many people who are unaware of what sexual harassment is and what it actually involves. This is often why victims, bystanders, and instigators may not realize that an instance of sexual harassment has taken place, regardless of their role in the event. Per its legal definition, sexual harassment is a type of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that covers a multitude of behaviors and actions that are sexual in nature or tone. It's also going to involve behaviors and actions that are largely unwelcome, inappropriate, or hostile. This can include touching, sexual advances, statements, requests, and messages that are considered sexual. Cat-calling--loud, unwanted, and suggestive comments that are usually directed at women in public spaces--are a rather common example of sexual harassment that occurs.

The old "it's a compliment" excuse for verbal sexual harassment is an example of cat-calling. It may have brought several things to mind, including the "compliment" justification that cat-callers usually give for their actions. Anyone who has been cat-called knows that it's not actually complimentary in any case, and cat-callers rarely remain polite, if they even began as such. Many instances of verbal harassment, including cat-calling, involve or escalate to unwanted touch, aggression like cursing and swearing, screaming, invasion of privacy, stalking and/or following, and in extreme cases, assault or murder. The instigators of these instances are consciously or unconsciously behaving this way in order to exert some iota of power over their targets and degrade them to something less than human, such as a sexual object for their pleasure. There's a lot of ego involved and that can often produce a potentially deadly outcome of verbal harassment should the intended target reject the harasser's "compliment."
Still not convinced? In 2013, a 14-year-old Florida girl was kidnapped, choked, repeatedly run over by a car, and left for dead after she refused to have sex with a man who approached her on the street.  She survived, but others who've rejected, ignored, or otherwise did not respond as their harassers hoped they would--including a 17-year-old Florida girl who was shot by her harasser, a 15-year-old Chicago girl trying to escape a group of harassers who was struck by a car, and a 29-year-old Manhattan woman who was run over by a harasser while walking on the sidewalk--were not as fortunate. It's not a compliment, period.


The Different Forms It Takes

As mentioned, sexual harassment can occur in more ways than one. Being able to properly address instances in the workplace, and possibly in your personal life, means understanding and recognizing some of the more common forms. Keep in mind that there is no guarantee that sexual harassment will happen in one of the formats listed here or even in a single form in any given instance. These forms can also occur in varying degrees of intensity, for example, subtle or vague to outright explicit, and may present themselves without any kind of previous warning or suggestion, randomly, out of the blue, etc. Some of the more common forms of sexual harassment include the following.

unwanted physical contact -- Simply touching a person doesn't seem like it would be harassment until you see it in action. Physical contact, especially in a professional environment, is usually limited to certain actions deemed appropriate like handshaking and is usually initiated by both parties involved. Caressing or massaging someone's arm, shoulders, back, etc., "accidental" or intentional groping, and affectionate touching like hugging or kissing a person without their consent are all examples of physical sexual harassment.

commentary of a sexual nature -- Verbal statements or comments that are sexually charged--for example, cat-calling--are another form of sexual harassment. These do not have to be said directly to a person, per se, for it is deemed to be harassment. It can also apply if the comments are in reference to a specific person or a group of people--for example, women--and are considered derogatory or offensive in nature. Whether or not the person knows what the comments are in reference to, being present in the space in which they are stated or even within earshot is not always a requirement. Comments made in writing--paper or digital--also apply.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Workplace Sexual Harassment in the #MeToo Era course?

sexual imagery -- Sexually explicit or suggestive photos, drawings, and video can also be considered sexual harassment. This can include pornography or other such imagery, as well as sexual gestures. For example, being sent a link to a porn site or online sex shop via text or email by a co-worker would be an example of workplace sexual harassment in this form. Again, this can apply to digital and hardcopy formats and are not always required to be shown to a specific victim to be classified as sexual harassment.

sexual requests, threats, and demands -- Probably one of the more easily recognizable forms of sexual harassment, any kind of sexual request, threat, or demand in the workplace is never acceptable. These are usually noticeably more explicit than other forms mentioned thus far, but can also occur in tandem with any of those forms, for example, leaving notes and sending messages to someone with requests for different sexual acts along with sexual imagery--"sexts," porn, nude photos, etc.

quid pro quo harassment -- Quid pro quo harassment is sometimes presented as an example of a request, threat, or demand, but it can also occur on its own. Literally Latin for "something for something," quid pro quo harassment usually involves someone requesting favors from someone they have authority over in exchange for doing something for them. Depending on the circumstances, some may view it as akin to bribery or blackmail but it often involves an abuse of power. It's often included as sexual harassment as many instances involve the victim accepting a sexual favor in exchange for something they need or want, for example, a supervisor requesting sex or sexual favors in exchange for not firing an employee for an error.

sexual assault and/or rape -- Sexual assault or rape is a possibility in some instances of sexual harassment, including in the workplace. In some cases, the harassment can escalate over time to this point. In others, it can start and end with rape and physical assault. Due to under-reporting, under-researching, and the general public attitude toward sexual assault, including what it is, there is a significant lack of data on the commonality and frequency of workplace sexual assault. One study in 2011 claimed that only 2.3% of non-fatal workplace violence involved rape during a five year period (2005-2009) while others noted that certain fields and industries like the military had disproportionately higher sexual assault rates that skewed the data. However, sexual assault in the workplace does happen, regardless of its determined or undetermined frequency.


Sexual Harassment Myths and Misconceptions

While this lesson may have clarified some things about sexual harassment for you, it's likely that you still have some misconceptions. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation regarding sexual harassment with much of the public's understanding being shaped by other misconceptions and social expectations. The different labels that are placed on people in society at large and in the workplace, meaning the roles they play, often influence what myths are accepted as fact. That influence also makes it harder to convince people to accept or even acknowledge the truth of the matter.

Several of the more common and harmful myths surrounding sexual harassment include the following.

MYTH: Only women experience sexual harassment. The social labels mentioned previously play a major role in how women are viewed and treated in the workplace--submissive, weak, subordinate, sexualized, etc. This causes people to automatically identify a victim of sexual harassment or assault as female, even when no identifying information is given. While the majority of harassment victims and targets are female, about 10-20% of reported cases involve those who are male. Likewise, the perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault are not always men nor is the victim-aggressor relationship always one of the opposite sex.

MYTH: Sexual harassment is only about sex or only involves sexual behaviors. One of the more common myths involving sexual harassment is that it's only about sexual desire. As mentioned previously in this lesson, that's typically not the case or even the sole motivation behind an act of harassment. Sex or sexual pleasure might just be a bonus for the aggressor but there's usually a healthy dose of power, ego, and control that guides their actions. The harassment does not have to be explicitly sexual either since it could focus on the person's biological sex and/or sexual orientation. Derogatory slurs, images, and comments directed at a co-worker who's gay can legally be considered sexual harassment, even if their harassers are not gay themselves or have any desire to engage in any kind of sexual acts with them.

MYTH: A person's behavior or dress encourages sexual harassment. The use of a person's appearance, actions, or behavior to justify sexual harassment is an old and frequently used excuse by attackers in an effort to remove any blame from themselves. It's also another way to continue attacking the victim and shift the responsibility of what happened directly to them. However, not all victims' behavior, dress, or otherwise appearance is considered to be provocative in any way. Add in the aspects of power and control discussed above and any kind of suggestion that a victim intentionally encourages harassment is a weak excuse.

MYTH: Most sexual harassment claims are fake, exaggerated, he-said-she-said, etc. When sexual harassment is discussed, especially in a public forum like the media, the suggestion of false allegations is brought up without fail. Many of those who are accused of sexual harassment and their supporters often immediately claim this myth as fact and use it in their defense. With how often a sexual harassment accusation is countered with a claim of false allegation of seeking attention and/or money, one would think that the rates for false reporting must be astronomical! Well, they are astronomical...astronomically small, anywhere from 2-6% depending on the study. The number may be smaller once you consider that cases where there is no conclusion from insufficient evidence, dropped cases, etc. are officially and publicly labeled as false even when the claim is legitimate.

MYTH: Without a witness or solid evidence, you can't prove it was sexual harassment. While a lack of evidence or witnesses can make a claim investigation harder to do, it doesn't mean that it's completely impossible. The bulk of workplace sexual harassment incidents happen in private or away from public and/or communal areas specifically so a harasser can make it harder for their victims to be believed. However, they are not always successful in this effort and can still be investigated and possibly charged.