Sexual Harassment as an Act of Aggression.
Sexual harassment is often misunderstood as separate and apart from sexual assault, rape, and domestic violence. But it is not separate. In fact, it shares fundamental attributes with those mechanisms of oppression: 1) an exertion of power & dominion over the victim; 2) gaslighting and 3) common progression to outright physical violence. Understanding that sexual harassment is not "flirting gone wrong" or the result of "misunderstandings" and "overly sensitive" women is critical to understanding its roots and how to address it.
Sexual harassment is common across all professions although it occurs at higher rates in some professions rather than others. According to the EEOC 85% of women are sexually harassed at work. Still according to the EEOC, 45% of harassment claims are sex-based. And a whopping 75% of harassment victims experience retaliation after reporting. (And we wonder why women don't come forward quickly and vocally). While some have raised, and continue to raise, the specter of false reporting, reputable sources consistently find that false reporting of sex-based acts of aggression continues to hover under 7%. The Department of Justice reports that only 2% of rapes reported to the police are false reports. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center states that only 2 to 7% of reported rapes are falsely reported. And a study performed by a European Commission found that between 4% and 6% of reports of violence by women were false reports. This is to say that the overwhelming rate of sex-based violations reported are genuine. Those reports, even if genuine, still represent a minority of actual incidents. For example, according to RAINN 67% of victims of sexual crimes do not report the crime to the police while according to the EEOC 75% of workplace sexual harassment goes unreported. This is a real problem, which is poorly addressed, both before and after it happens.
Most sexual harassment training misses the mark and it does so because it fails to take into consideration female experiences, generally, and the nature of sexual harassment, specifically. The Arizona Coalition to End Sexual & Domestic Violence publishes a wonderful visual which identifies the way sexual harassment fits in a "sexual violence continuum." In summary (although I encourage you to check out their diagram) sexual harassment exists above unwanted sexual touch and below sexual assault/abuse. And buttressing all of these behaviors (which culminate in rape and death) are "Social Norms of Entitlement." Unfortunately, sexual harassment trainings fail to take into account these social norms of entitlement and, in some cases, reinforce them.
For this piece, I am going to address four myths that pervade discussions of sexual harassment prevention and hinder efforts to prevent it and address it.
Myth # 1: Sexual Harassment Reports are the Resolution of "Sensitive Women" and "Political Correctness."
In 2016, JAMA published a study where they sent questionnaires to 1719 female grant recipients. Of those, 1066 recipients responded and 39% of those reported having experienced sexual harassment compared to 4% of men. Very importantly, the women reported the severity of their harassment. Of those responding, there were 138 instances of sexist remarks or behavior, 62 instances of unwanted sexual advances, 9 instances of subtle bribery to engage in sexual behavior, 2 instances of threats to engage in sexual behavior, and 14 instances of coercive advances. Out of 150 identified instances of sexual harassment, over 10% involved threats or coercion. This is more than "sensitive" women and "political correctness." In fact, generally speaking, 12% of victims of sexual violence were raped at work. In other words, over 1 in 10 of rape victims were raped at work.
The myth of sensitive women and political correctness ignores the pervasive state of sexual violence that women undergo throughout their lives. It tries to take sexual harassment out of the context of women's life experiences. In fact, it tries to place it in the life experience of men, who overwhelmingly do not have to undergo these types of interactions. Just to throw out a few numbers, 1 out of 6 US women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. (RAINN). 1 out of 5 US women will be raped at some point in their life. (CDC). 1 out of 4 female US college students experiences sexual assault. (RAINN). Worldwide, the numbers are worse. 1 out of 3 women worldwide will be physically or sexually assaulted in her lifetime. And a whopping 44% of US women have experienced sexual violence. (CDC).
Women experience sexual violence of varying degrees throughout their life. When they allege sexual harassment, they know what they are talking about. And given what women encounter on a near-daily basis, "sensitivity" is not part of the equation. If women were so sensitive, they would stop leaving the house altogether. And yet, they don't.
Myth # 2: Innocent Flirtation Can be Misunderstood as Sexual Harassment.
Flirting and sexual harassment are fundamentally different. They are not behavior somewhere on the same spectrum. Flirtation has the following features: it seeks consent, it seeks genuine reciprocation, there is no power differential (whether real or imposed), there are no negative consequences to the recipient for rejection, there is no sense of entitlement, and once there is declination, it is limited to that one instance. Sexual harassment is entirely different.
Sexual harassment is marked by the fact it seeks compliance, rather than consent. Reciprocation is not necessary or, sometimes, even sought. There is a power differential through either an implicit or explicit quid pro quo. Sexual harassment operates with a punishment & reward system. There is usually an entitlement to the victim's body, time, and/or attention. And finally, importantly, the behavior is usually repeated, serial, and predatory.
Understanding this, and teaching this, would create healthier and more accurate standards of behavior.
Myth #3: Sexual Harassment is a "Woman's Problem."
Sexual harassment is not a woman's problem. Sexual harassment is a toxic masculinity problem. Understanding and explaining toxic masculinity in sexual harassment training would go a long way to dispel harmful myths and give men healthier expectations. (Teaching the pitfalls of toxic masculinity to teenagers would also go a long way in preventing gender-based violence, but that is a whole other topic). Toxic masculinity glorifies ownership of things: money, power, and women. Ryan Douglas, an activist and writer, similarly states that toxic masculinity "is built on two fundamental pillars: sexual conquest and violence. . . ." Toxic masculinity and masculinity are different. Some get defensive, thinking that sexual harassment prevention "attacks masculinity." It does not.
Masculinity, as defined by each of us individually, has wonderful attributes. Generally speaking, physical strength, bravery, loyalty, resilience, and a protection instinct are all "masculine" attributes and healthy ones at that. Toxic masculinity takes those attributes and perverts them. It encourages men to define themselves based on how much they can control others rather than based on how much they can protect, defend, uplift, help, and cooperate with others, especially women.
Sexual harassment is about how men define themselves. It is most definitely not a "woman's" problem.
Myth #4: Sexual Harassment is Harmless
Sexual harassment exists on a spectrum of violence. It always carries an implicit threat, whether that threat is financial, professional, or--in more extreme cases--physical. It is a method of terrorizing victims and, as a result, has all the repercussions of threatening behavior.
Northern Michigan University published a study identify a whole litany of sexual harassment consequences for victims:
- Psychological: depression, denial, anxiety, shock, anger, frustration, fear, irritability, insecurity, embarrassment, shame, guilt, self-blame, isolation.
- Physiological: headaches, lethargy, weight fluctuations, nightmares, panic reactions, sexual problems.
- Career: decreased satisfaction, absenteeism, withdrawal from school or work, drop in academic or work performance due to stress.
Obviously, these effects are real and have a longlasting impact on victims.
Sexual harassment is not "just words," and it is not "boys being boys." It exists on a continuum of violence and, as such, needs to be addressed as a creature of coercion. Doing so will make the conversation around sexual harassment far more effective.