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Sexual Harassment: Myths and Realities

 


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Understanding the Myths

MYTH: Sexual harassment is rare.
FACT:Sexual harassment is extremely widespread. It touches the lives of 40 to 60 percent of working women, and similar proportions of female students in colleges and universities.

MYTH: The seriousness of sexual harassment has been exaggerated; most so-called harassment is really trivial and harmless flirtation.
FACT: Sexual harassment can be devastating. Studies indicate that most harassment has nothing to do with "flirtation" or sincere sexual or social interest. Rather, it is offensive, and often frightening and insulting to women. Research shows that women are often forced to leave school or jobs to avoid harassment, and that some women experience serious psychological and health-related problems.

MYTH: Many women make up and report stories of sexual harassment to get back at their employers or others who have angered them.
FACT: Research shows that less than one percent of complaints are false. Women rarely file complaints that are false. Women rarely file complaints even when they're are justified in doing so.

MYTH: Women who are sexually harassed generally provoke harassment by the way they look, dress and behave.
FACT: Harassment does not occur because women dress provocatively or initiate sexual activity in the hope of getting promoted and advancing their careers. Studies have found that victims of sexual harassment vary in physical appearance, type of dress, age, and behavior. The only thing they have in common is that over 99% of them are female.

MYTH: If you ignore harassment, it will go away.
FACT: It will not. Research has shown that simply ignoring the behavior is ineffective; harassers generally will not stop on their own. Ignoring such behavior may even be seen as agreement or encouragement.

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Legal definition of Sexual Harassment According to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Harassment on the basis of sex is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Title IX of the Education Amendment. Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when:

  • Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment;
  • submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual; or
  • such conduct has the purpose or effect of substantial interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.

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Types of Sexual Harassment

  1. Gender Harassment: Generalized sexist statements and behavior that convey insulting or degrading attitudes about women. Examples include insulting remarks, offensive graffiti, obscene jokes or humor about sex or women in general.
  2. Seductive Behavior: Unwanted, inappropriate and offensive sexual advances. Examples include repeated unwanted sexual invitations, insistent requests for dinner, drinks or dates, persistent letters, phone calls and other invitations.
  3. Sexual Bribery: Solicitation of sexual activity or other sex-linked behavior by promise of reward; the proposition may be either overt or subtle.
  4. Sexual Coercion: Coercion of sexual activity or other sex-linked behavior by threat of punishment; examples include negative performance evaluations, withholding of promotions, threat of termination.
  5. Sexual Imposition: Gross sexual imposition (such as forceful touching, feeling, grabbing) or sexual assault.

Of these five types of behavior, gender harassment is by far the most common, followed by seductive behavior. The "classic" forms of sexual harassment (bribery and coercion) are in fact relatively uncommon, while other forms of sexual imposition happen more frequently than most people think. Recent court decisions have also found that certain types of offensive visual displays in the workplace, such as pornography, can be considered sexual harassment.

The defining characteristic of sexual harassment is that it is unwanted. It's important to clearly let an offender know that certain actions are unwelcome.

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 Effects of Sexual Harassment

Being sexually harassed can devastate your psychological health, physical well-being and vocational development. Women who have been harassed often change their jobs, career goals, job assignments, educational programs or academic majors. In addition, women have reported psychological and physical reaction to being harassed that are similar to reactions to other forms of stress. They include:

Psychological Reactions

  • Depression, anxiety, shock, denial
  • Anger, fear, frustration, irritability
  • Insecurity, embarrassment, feelings of betrayal
  • Confusion, feelings of being powerless
  • Shame, self-consciousness, low self-esteem
  • Guilt, self-blame, isolation

Physiological Reactions

  • Headaches
  • Lethargy
  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Dermatological reactions
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Sleep Disturbances, nightmares
  • Phobias, panic reactions
  • Sexual problems

Career-Related Effects

  • Decreased job satisfaction
  • Unfavorable performance evaluations
  • Loss of job or promotion
  • Drop in academic or work performance due to stress
  • Absenteeism
  • Withdrawal from work or school
  • Change in career goals

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What Can You Do If You Are Harassed?

There is no one way to respond to harassment. Every situation is different and only you can evaluate the problem and decide on the best response.

Friends, affirmative action officers, human resource professionals and women's groups can offer information, advice and support, but only you can decide what is right for you. The only thing you can be absolutely certain of is that ignoring the situation will not cause it to go away. Above all, DO NOT BLAME YOURSELF FOR THE HARASSMENT. It is not your fault. Place the blame where it belongs--on the harasser. Self-blame can cause depression and will not help you or the situation.

Many Women Have Found These Strategies Effective:

  • Say NO to the harasser! Be direct.
  • Write a letter to the harasser. Describe the incident and how it made you feel. State that you would like the harassment to stop. Send the letter by certified mail. Keep a copy.
  • Keep a record of what happened and when. Include dates, times, places, names of persons involved and witnesses, and who said what to whom.
  • Tell someone; don't keep it to yourself. By being quiet about the harassment, you don't help stop it. Chances are extremely good that you aren't the only victim of your harasser. Speaking up can be helpful in finding support and in protecting others from being victims.
  • Finding out who is responsible for dealing with harassment on your organization and whether you can talk in confidence to that person. Almost all organizations have sexual harassment policies, procedures and individuals or counselors who administer them.
  • Find out what the procedure is at your workplace or school; it is the organization's responsibility to provide you with advice, help and support, but such meetings at the workplace can provide an important record if legal action is ever advisable.
  • If you are a union member, speak to your union representative. Unions are generally very committed to eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace.
  • If you are experiencing severe psychological distress, you may want to consult a psychologist or other mental health professional who understands the problems caused by sexual harassment.

Reprinted from the Journal of the American Psychological Association