Sexual harassment is the unwelcome attention of a sexual nature. It includes a range of behavior from mild transgressions and annoyances to serious abuses, which can even involve forced sexual activity. Sexual harassment is considered a form of illegal discrimination in many countries, and is a form of abuse (sexual and psychological) and bullying.
Sexual harassment involves a wide range of behaviors, from a preponderance of sexually explicit materials and obscenities in the workplace, to flagrant sexual advances, or the tying of job benefits to sexual favors. As such, it has been difficult to define, and harasser or victim may be unaware that their actions or experience may be grounds for legal action. Unfortunately, such behaviors occur with significant frequency in both the workplace and educational settings, with large numbers of young people experiencing such behavior.
Sexual behavior is related to the very purpose of human existence: Love, the production of new life, and the continuation of lineage. With such significant social ramifications, most societies set limits, through social norms and taboos, moral and religious guidelines, and legal constraints, on what is permissible. Sexual harassment violates these limits, threatening the core of the victim's being. It has no place in healthy society.
Sexual harassment takes the form of a wide range of behaviors and in a number of different circumstances.
One of the difficulties in understanding sexual harassment is that it involves a range of behavior, and is often difficult for the recipient to describe to themselves, and to others, exactly what they are experiencing. Moreover, behavior and motives vary among harassers:
Most harassers don't try to justify their behavior; they don't think about it. If asked, they may say they are just having fun and don't cause any harm. A few, though, consciously seek to humiliate their victims.
"The Winner" is a common profile that confuses harassment victims and others in the community because they do not seem like the type who would "need" to abuse anyone. An adult male harasser is often middle aged, married with children, a churchgoer, and someone who is highly respected in the community. A teacher who sexually harasses students may have been named "Teacher of the Year" or be Chair of their department. A young harasser may be captain of the football team, an honor student sure to attend an Ivy League school, or some other young person who thinks they have everything going for him or her (and so does everyone else). Sexual harassment and abuse:
are acts of violence and domination, not sensuality and flirtation. These acts are calculated to dominate and control, not enhance the enjoyment and safety of the targeted person … The violator may be very high functioning in all other areas of his or her life, but is driven within this realm to act out needs inappropriately.
Sexual harassers may be divided into two broad classes: Public and private. "Public harassers" are flagrant in their seductive or sexist attitudes towards colleagues, subordinates, students, and others. "Private" harassers carefully cultivate a restrained and respectable image on the surface, but when alone with their target, their demeanor changes completely.
Harassers may have several motivations. First there is the "predatory harasser" who gets sexual thrills from humiliating others. This harasser may become involved in sexual extortion, and may frequently harass just to see how targets respond—those who show no resistance may even become targets for rape. Next, there is the "dominance harasser," the most common type, who engages in harassing behavior as an ego boost. Third are "strategic" or "territorial harassers," who seek to maintain privilege in jobs or physical locations, for example a man's harassment of female employees in a predominantly male occupation.
Sexualized environments are environments where obscenities, sexual joking, sexually explicit graffiti, viewing Internet pornography, sexually degrading posters and objects, and so forth are common. None of these behaviors or objects may necessarily be directed at anyone in particular. However, they can create an offensive environment, and one that is consistent with “hostile environment sexual harassment." For example, in the case of Morse v. Future Reality Ltd in the United Kingdom (1996), the female complainant was awarded compensation after her superiors ignored her complaint that her office mates spent much time studying sexually explicit images downloaded from the Internet, and creating a “general atmosphere of obscenity” in the office.
Sexualized environments have also been shown to create atmospheres that encourage more serious and direct sexual harassment. For example, when obscenities are common in the workplace, women are three times more likely to be treated as sex objects, and to be directly sexually harassed than in environments where profanity is not tolerated. When sexual joking is common, sexual harassment is three to seven times more likely.
Sexual harassment can also occur in group settings as part of rituals or ceremonies, such as when members engage newcomers in abusive or sexually explicit rites as part of hazing or initiation. While such "traditions" have historically remained in arenas of male-bonding, such as team sports and fraternities, it has become increasingly common for girls and women's groups to engage in similar ceremonies. For example, as women’s sports become more widespread, some have begun to mimic the hazing and other practices characteristic of men’s sports in order to try to be accepted by men in sport. While some suggest such activities are just “a joke,” others consider it degrading, insulting, and even threatening—especially for many young people who have experienced sexual harassment, sexual abuse, stalking, or rape. Young people who lack confidence, or who are confused about their identity, may fall victim to such practices more easily than those who are self-assured.
Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances. The harasser can be anyone, such as a supervisor, a client, a co-worker, a teacher or professor, a student, a friend, or a stranger. The victim does not have to be the person directly harassed but can be anyone who finds the behavior offensive and is affected by it. While adverse effects on the victim are common, this does not have to be the case for the behavior to be unlawful. The victim can be male or female. The harasser can be male or female. The harasser does not have to be of the opposite gender. The harasser may be completely unaware that his or her behavior is offensive or constitutes sexual harassment, or may be completely unaware that his or her actions could be unlawful.
In the workplace, "Quid pro quo" sexual harassment occurs when a job benefit is directly tied to an employee submitting to unwelcome sexual advances. For example, a supervisor promises an employee a raise if she will go out on a date with him, or tells an employee she will be fired if she does not sleep with him. Quid pro quo harassment also occurs when an employee makes an evaluative decision, or provides or withholds professional opportunities based on another employee's submission to verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Quid pro quo harassment is equally unlawful whether the victim resists and suffers the threatened harm or submits and thus avoids the threatened harm.
"Hostile environment" sexual harassment occurs when an employee is subjected to comments of a sexual nature, unwelcome physical contact, or offensive sexual materials as a regular part of the work environment. For the most part, a single isolated incident will not be enough to prove hostile environment harassment unless it involves extremely outrageous and egregious conduct. The courts will try to decide whether the conduct is both "serious" and "frequent." Supervisors, managers, co-workers, and even customers can be responsible for creating a hostile environment. A famous hostile environment sexual harassment case was Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co., which inspired the film, North Country.
The line between "quid pro quo" and "hostile environment" harassment is not always clear and the two forms of harassment often occur together. For example, an employee's job conditions are affected when a sexually hostile work environment results in a constructive discharge. At the same time, a supervisor who makes sexual advances toward a subordinate employee may communicate an implicit threat to retaliate against her if she does not comply:
"Hostile environment" harassment may acquire characteristics of "quid pro quo" harassment if the offending supervisor abuses his authority over employment decisions to force the victim to endure or participate in the sexual conduct. Sexual harassment may culminate in a retaliatory discharge if a victim tells the harasser or her employer she will no longer submit to the harassment, and is then fired in retaliation for this protest. Under these circumstances it would be appropriate to conclude that both harassment and retaliation in violation of section 704(a) of Title VII have occurred.
Retaliation occurs when an employee suffers a "negative action" after they make a report of sexual harassment, file a grievance, assist someone else with a complaint, or participate in discrimination prevention activities. Negative actions can include being fired, demotion, suspension, denial of promotion, poor evaluation, unfavorable job re-assignment—any adverse employment decision or treatment that would be likely to dissuade a "reasonable worker" from making or supporting a charge of discrimination. Retaliation is as illegal as the sexual harassment itself, but also as difficult to prove. Also, retaliation is illegal even if the original charge of sexual harassment was not proven.
The effects of sexual harassment are felt both by the individual victim, and by the surrounding work or educational environment of the organization.
Common professional, academic, financial, and social effects of sexual harassment include:
Psychological and health effects that can occur in someone who has been sexually harassed include depression, anxiety and/or panic attacks, sleeplessness and/or nightmares, shame and guilt, difficulty concentrating, headaches, fatigue or loss of motivation, stomach problems, eating disorders (weight loss or gain), feeling betrayed and/or violated, feeling angry or violent towards the perpetrator, feeling powerless or out of control, increased blood pressure, loss of confidence and self esteem, withdrawal and isolation, overall loss of trust in people, traumatic stress, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal thoughts or attempts.
The organization where the victim works or studies also suffers as a result of sexual harassment incidence. Some common problems include:
In the United States, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, gender, color, national origin, or religion. The prohibition of gender discrimination covers both females and males, but the origin of the law was to protect women in the workplace. Such discrimination occurs when the gender of the worker is made a condition of employment (such as all male waiters or carpenters) or where this is a job requirement that does not mention gender but in fact bars many more persons of one gender than the other from the job (such as height and weight limits).
Barnes v. Train (1974) is commonly viewed as the first sexual harassment case in America, even though the term "sexual harassment" was not used. In 1976, Williams v. Saxbe established sexual harassment as a form of gender discrimination when sexual advances by a male supervisor towards a female employee, if proven, would be deemed an artificial barrier to employment placed before one gender and not another. In 1980, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued regulations defining sexual harassment, stating it was a form of discrimination prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the 1986 case of Michelle Vinson v. Merit One Savings Bank, the United States Supreme Court first recognized “sexual harassment” as a violation of Title VII, established the standards for analyzing whether the conduct was welcome and levels of employer liability, and that speech or conduct in itself can create a "hostile environment." The Civil Rights Act of 1991 added provisions to Title VII protections including expanding the rights of women to sue and collect compensatory (punitive) damages for sexual discrimination or harassment, and the case of Ellison v. Brady resulted in rejecting the "reasonable person" standard in favor of the "reasonable woman standard" which allowed for cases to be analyzed taking into account that "women who are victims of mild forms of sexual harassment may understandably worry whether a harasser’s conduct is merely a prelude to violent sexual assault." Also in 1991, Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. became the first sexual harassment case to be given class action status, paving the way for others. Seven years later, in 1998, this case would establish new precedents for setting limits on the "discovery" process in sexual harassment cases, and allowing psychological injuries from the litigation process to be included in assessing damages awards. In the same year, the courts concluded in Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, Florida and Burlington v. Ellerth that employers are liable for harassment by their employees. Moreover, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services set the precedent for same-sex harassment, and sexual harassment without motivation of "sexual desire," stating that any discrimination based on sex is actionable so long at it places the victim in an objectively disadvantageous working condition, regardless of the gender of either the victim, or the harasser.
In the 2006 case of Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White, the standard for retaliation against a sexual harassment complainant was revised to include any adverse employment decision or treatment that would be likely to dissuade a "reasonable worker" from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (United States) states:
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
In Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools (1992), the U.S. Supreme Court held that private citizens could collect damage awards when teachers sexually harassed their students. In Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986) the courts ruled that schools have the power to discipline students if they use "obscene, profane language or gestures" which could be viewed as substantially interfering with the educational process, and inconsistent with the "fundamental values of public school education." Under regulations issued in 1997, by the U.S. Department of Education, which administers Title IX, school districts should be held responsible for harassment by educators if the harasser "was aided in carrying out the sexual harassment of students by his or her position of authority with the institution." In 1999, Davis v. Monroe County Board of Educationand Murrell v. School Dist. No. 1 assigned liability to schools for peer-to-peer sexual harassment if the plaintiff sufficiently demonstrated that the administration's response showed "deliberate indifference" to "actual knowledge" of discrimination.
Many jurisdictions outside the United States have adopted their own definitions of sexual harassment, intended to cover essentially the same forms of undesirable conduct. However, if a country has officially outlawed sexual harassment, most define the behavior similarly to that of the U.S. Most definitions include something along the lines of unwelcome, unsuitable, or insulting conduct. Such countries include the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, India, Israel, and the United Kingdom. Some include provisions that victims are responsible for confronting their persecutor. Some countries, such as Poland, do not have specific provisions referring to workplace sexual harassment even if there are generally laws against it.
A variety of reports and surveys indicate that sexual harassment is a rather common occurrence, both in the workplace and educational settings. Moreover, it is important to acknowledge that statistics do not give a complete picture of the pervasiveness of the problem as most sexual harassment situations go unreported.
Approximately 15,000 sexual harassment cases are brought to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) each year. The European Women's Lobby reports that between 40 and 50 percent of female employees have experienced some form of sexual harassment or unwanted sexual behavior in the workplace.
While the majority of sexual harassment complaints come from women, the number of complaints filed by men is rapidly increasing. In 2004, over 15 percent of EEOC complaints were filed by men with 11 percent of claims involving men filing against female supervisors. A 2007 study in Hong Kong reported that one third of sexual harassment victims were males being targeted by female supervisors. "It affects both women and men, causing stress, health problems and financial penalties when they leave their jobs to avoid it," said Jenny Watson, chair of the EOC.
A 2002 national survey of American public school students in 8th through 11th grades by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) revealed that 83 percent of girls and 78 percent of boys had been sexually harassed. In their 2006 study on sexual harassment at colleges and universities, the AAUW reported that 62 percent of female college students and 61 percent of male college students reported having been sexually harassed at their university, with 80 percent of the reported harassment being peer-to-peer. 51 percent of male college students admitted to sexually harassing someone in college, with 22 percent admitting to harassing someone often or occasionally. 31 percent of female college students admitted to harassing someone in college. In a 2000 national survey conducted for the AAUW, it was reported that roughly 290,000 students experienced some sort of physical sexual abuse or harassment by a public school employee, such as a teacher or coach, between 1991 and 2000. In a major 2004 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 10 percent of U.S. public school students were shown to have been targeted with unwanted sexual attention by school employees. In their 2002 study, the AAUW reported that 38 percent of the students were sexually harassed by teachers or school employees.
Though the phrase "sexual harassment" is generally acknowledged to include clearly damaging and morally deplorable behavior, its boundaries can be broad and controversial. Moreover, sexual harassment law has been criticized for imposing on the right to free speech. There is also concern over "abuses" of sexual harassment policy, and employers and administrators using accusations as a way of expelling employees they want to eliminate for other reasons.
Some feminist groups have criticized sexual harassment policy as helping maintain archaic stereotypes of women as "delicate, asexual creatures" who require special protection. Camille Paglia has even gone as far as to blame young girls if they are sexually harassed, saying their own "niceness" provokes it. Paglia commented in an interview with Playboy:
Realize the degree to which your niceness may invoke people to say lewd and pornographic things to you—sometimes to violate your niceness. The more you blush, the more people want to do it.
Sexual harassment policy and legislation have been criticized as attempts to "regulate romance" which goes against "human urges." Other critics assert that sexual harassment is a very serious problem, but current views focus too heavily on sexuality rather than on the type of conduct that undermines the ability of women or men to work together effectively:
Many of the most prevalent forms of harassment are designed to maintain work—particularly the more highly rewarded lines of work—as bastions of male competence and authority.
Feminist Jane Gallop sees this evolution of the definition of sexual harassment as coming from a "split" between what she calls "power feminists" who are pro-sex (like herself) and what she calls "victim feminists," who are not. She argues that the split has helped lead to a "perversion" of the definition of sexual harassment, which used to be about sexism but has come to be about anything sexual.
All links retrieved November 2, 2019.
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