Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when either:
- The conduct is made as a term or condition of an individual’s employment, education, living environment or participation in a University community.
- The acceptance or refusal of such conduct is used as the basis or a factor in decisions affecting an individual’s employment, education, living environment, or participation in a University community.
- The conduct unreasonably impacts an individual’s employment or academic performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment for that individual’s employment, education, living environment, or participation in a University community.
Harassment can occur in many different social settings such as the workplace, the home, school, churches, etc. Harassers or victims may be of any gender. Sexual harassment includes a range of actions from mild transgressions to sexual abuse or sexual assault.
In most modern legal contexts, sexual harassment is illegal. Laws surrounding sexual harassment generally do not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or minor isolated incidents. That is due to the fact that they do not impose a “general civility code”. In the workplace, harassment may be considered illegal when it is frequent or severe thereby creating a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision. (such as the victim’s demotion, firing or quitting). The legal and social understanding of sexual harassment, however, varies by culture. Sexual harassment by an employer is a form of illegal employment discrimination. For many businesses or organizations, preventing sexual harassment and defending employees from sexual harassment charges have become key goals of legal decision-making.
Sexual harassment may occur in a variety of circumstances and in places as varied as factories, schools, colleges, the theater, and the music business. Often, the perpetrator has or is about to have power or authority over the victim (owing to differences in social, political, educational or employment relationships as well as in age). Harassment relationships are specified in many ways:
- The perpetrator can be anyone, such as a client, a co-worker, a parent or legal guardian, a relative, a teacher, a student, a friend, or a stranger.
- Harassment can occur in varying locations, in schools, colleges, workplaces, in public, and in other places.
- Harassment can occur whether or not there are witnesses to it.
- The perpetrator may be completely unaware that his or her behavior is offensive or constitutes sexual harassment.
- Incidents of harassment can take place in situations in which the targeted person may not be aware of or understand what is happening.
- An incident may be a one-time occurrence.
- The victim and perpetrator can be any gender.
- The perpetrator does not have to be of the opposite sex.
- The incident may arise from a misunderstanding by the perpetrator and/or the victim. These misunderstandings can be reasonable or unreasonable.
With the advent of the internet, social interactions, including sexual harassment, increasingly occur online, for example in video games or in chat rooms.
Prevention – Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment and assault may be prevented by secondary school, college, and workplace education programs. At least one program for fraternity men produced “sustained behavioral change”.
Many sororities and fraternities take preventative measures against hazing and hazing activities during the participants’ pledging processes. Many Greek organizations and universities nationwide have anti-hazing policies that explicitly recognize various acts.
Anti-sexual harassment training programs have little evidence of effectiveness and “Some studies suggest that training may in fact backfire, reinforcing gendered stereotypes that place women at a disadvantage”
Impact – Sexual Harassment
The impact of sexual harassment can vary. In research carried out 17,335 female victims of sexual assault were asked to name the feelings that resulted from the most serious incident of sexual assault since the age of 15. ‘Anger, annoyance, and embarrassment was the most common emotional responses, with 45% of women feeling anger, 41% annoyance, and 36% embarrassment. Furthermore, close to one in three women (29%) who has experienced sexual harassment have said that they felt fearful as a result of the most serious incident. While one in five (20%) victims say that the most serious incident made themselves feel ashamed of what had taken place. In other situations, harassment may lead to temporary or prolonged stress or depression depending on the recipient’s psychological abilities to cope.
Psychologists and social workers report that severe or chronic sexual harassment can have the same psychological effects as rape or sexual assault. Victims who do not submit to harassment may also experience various forms of retaliation, including isolation and bullying.
As an overall social and economic effect every year, sexual harassment deprives women of active social and economic participation. It costs hundreds of millions of dollars in lost educational and professional opportunities for mostly girls and women. However, the quantity of men implied in these conflicts is significant.
Common effects on the victims
- Becoming publicly sexualized (i.e. groups of people “evaluate” the victim to establish if he or she is “worth” the sexual attention or the risk to the harasser’s career)
- Being objectified and humiliated by scrutiny and gossip
- Decreased work or school performance as a result of stress conditions; increased absenteeism in fear of harassment repetition
- Defamation of character and reputation
- Effects on sexual life and relationships: can put extreme stress upon relationships with significant others, sometimes resulting in divorce
- Firing and refusal for a job opportunity can lead to loss of job or career, loss of income
- Having one’s personal life offered up for public scrutiny—the victim becomes the “accused”, and his or her dress, lifestyle, and private life will often come under attack.
- Having to drop courses, change academic plans, or leave school (loss of tuition) in fear of harassment repetition or as a result of stress
- Loss of trust in environments similar to where the harassment occurred
- Loss of trust in the types of people that occupy similar positions as the harasser or his or her colleagues, especially in case they are not supportive, difficulties or stress on peer relationships, or relationships with colleagues
- Psychological stress and health impairment
- Weakening of support network, or being ostracized from professional or academic circles (friends, colleagues, or family may distance themselves from the victim, or shun him or her altogether).
Post-complaint retaliation and backlash
Backlash stress is stress resulting from uncertainty regarding changing norms for interacting with women in the workplace. Backlash stress now deters many male workers from befriending female colleagues or providing them with any assistance, such as holding doors open. As a result, women are being handicapped by a lack of the necessary networking and mentorship.
Retaliation and backlash against a victim are very common, particularly a complainant. Victims who speak out against sexual harassment are often labeled troublemakers who are on their own “power trips”, or who are looking for attention. Similar to cases of rape or sexual assault, the victim often becomes the accused, with their appearance, private life, and character likely to fall under intrusive scrutiny and attack. They risk hostility and isolation from colleagues, supervisors, teachers, fellow students, and even friends. They may become the targets of mobbing or relational aggression.