Sexual Harassment as an Act of Aggression: It's More Than Just Words.

Sexual harassment is pervasive. According to the EEOC, 85% of women are sexual harassed at work and in fact, 45% of EEOC harassment claims are sex-based. Yet, even these high numbers only represent a fraction of existing sexual harassment. According to the EEOC, 75% of workplace sexual harassment goes unreported. There are a number of reasons for this. One of them, undoubtedly is the high rate of retaliation—75%--which makes it dangerous for women to come forward. Further, accountability and rectification of the situation remain elusive. A victim may come forward, risk everything, and lose everything while the abuser continues to enjoy success and accolades. Certainly, examples like Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein perfectly exemplify this. But why are employers still so bad at preventing and addressing sexual harassment? Because sexual harassment is still viewed as an issue of “politeness,” “political correctness,” and “inappropriate behavior.” Sexual harassment is none of those things, it is far more primal. 

Sexual harassment is about power. And its perpetrators are engaging in a act of knowing boundary violation. Until and unless we understand it for what it is, we won’t be able to properly address perpetrators or defend victims. The Arizona Coalition to End Sexual & Domestic Violence publishes the following chart which is an excellent starting point to understanding the dynamics of sexual harassment:

While the chart is not perfect, it is excellent at two things. First, it describes sexual harassment as belonging within a continuum of sexual violence. That is where it belongs and that is how it is best understood for effective training and remediation. Second, it identifies “Social Norms of Entitlement” as a building block of sexual violence. Right above it, reinforcing that building block, is “Individual Belief System that Justifies Aggression.” What society and, more to the point, employers can and should address is that initial building block. “Social Norms” are shaped by corporate culture, personal interactions, values, media depiction, political discourse, public policy, and politics. We all have the power to reject certain social norms. And if we understand them as creating environments conducive to sexual aggression and understand sexual harassment to be within that type of conduct, we would be that much closer to really addressing this endemic problem.

Sexual harassment is about power. It seeks to reduce the receiver to the object of the perpetrator’s desire, to reduce them to a utilitarian function, and to strip them of agency. It seeks to put victims—who are overwhelmingly women—into boxes so they feel weak, unseen, and powerless. Perpetrators know exactly what they are doing; victims unequivocally feel what is going on; it is up to so-called allies and people in positions of authority to catch up to this. Further, sexual harassment is not limited to lewd or sexual comments. It includes overt propositions, unwanted contact, coercive conduct, and quid pro quo.

In a 1998 study, republished in 2006, 17% of undergraduates who were sexual harassed also reported being sexually assaulted. (Cortina, Swan, Fitzgerald & Waldo 1998). Another study, from 1992, 40% of women who reported being sexually assaulted also reported being sexual harassed. (Barak, Fisher & Houston 1992). And this conduct doesn’t start in college. In fact, 96% of middle students in a 2012 study reported witnessing sexual harassment at school. (Lichty & Campbell 2012). We live in a world where sexual harassment is used as a proxy for or a precursor, to sexual violence. Yet, we continue to treat it as “boys will be boys.” Part of the issue is that women’s experience of sexual aggression and violence is under reported and underappreciated.

According to RAINN 1 out of 6 women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. That number is 1 out of 5 according to the CDC. College campuses see an increase in the rate of rape (1 out of 5). And, still according to the CDC, 44% of women have experienced sexual violence. We cannot continue to dissociate sexual harassment from sexual violence. Given that sexual violence is not an exception but rather the rule, sexual harassment is also not “an exception” or “a few bad apples” but part of a societal endemic violation of women’s autonomy.

Until and unless we treat sexual harassment as part and parcel of women’s experience, which is overwhelmingly one of sexual victimization, we will continue to let predators go free and punish women as though they are exceptions when, in fact, they are the rule.


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